Empty prospects

For every two families needing a home in this country, there is one property standing empty. It has been a determination of mine for a long…

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Andrew Stunell OBE

For every two families needing a home in this country, there is one property standing empty.

It has been a determination of mine for a long time that we end the scandalous situation where we have families across the country on waiting lists, looking for a home of their own, yet there are at least 300,000 long-term empty properties.

So, this week, I got around the table with some of the key people who know about the problem, and who have first-hand experience of tackling it, to find out exactly what more needs to be done to breathe life back into these houses.

There are more than 300,000 empty properties which could provide good-quality family homes, and help breath life back into neighbourhoods.

What quickly became obvious was that there are some great examples across the country of work taking place to bring a significant number of properties back into use, and which demonstrate the practical benefits of working in partnership.

When homes are brought back into use, not only does another family get their own home and the council and community benefit financially, wider savings are made. An occupied home doesn’t attract vandals and squatters, and generates fewer calls to the police and fire service.

Bringing a home back into use can even be used as a practical base for construction and training courses.

So, in Bolton, for example, the council proactively makes contact with the owners of properties which have been derelict for a significant period of time, and discusses with them the background to the property, the reasons for it being empty, and how they can be supported to renovate, sell the property, or rent it out.

This approach has resulted in more than 200 properties being brought back into use, ridding popular residential areas of the crime and anti-social behaviour that blighted them.

The Canopy project in Leeds is a community housing scheme which renovates derelict and empty houses to create decent homes for homeless people - and by them working on the project themselves, they learn fresh skills and develop a new confidence, community barriers are broken down, and big improvements to local neighbourhoods are made.

I want to see more of these projects - ones that deliver both new homes and opportunities.

The powerful financial incentives we have introduced, the new voice we have given to communities so that they have a greater say on the properties which need action in their area, and the practical online resources we have made available should allow this to happen.

The £100m ‘empty homes fund’ is available to local authorities, house-builders and developers, affordable housing providers and local community groups, which can all bid for a share of the funding to bring long-term empty properties - which would not come back into use without intervention - to become homes once again.

Under the new homes bonus, we are matching council tax collected from a property that previously stood empty. For every property renovated, the extra council tax will be matched for six years - so, if 10 typical houses are brought back into use, the community will receive almost £100,000 of extra funding from the Government - with the extra funding spent to benefit the local community, whether on council tax discounts, boosting local services, renovating more empty properties or improving local facilities. But, where legal action needs to be taken, councils can use ‘empty dwelling management’ orders on properties which have been unoccupied for more than two years and which cause a nuisance to neighbours - giving communities their say on the need to take action. These orders allow councils to take over an empty property, make whatever repairs are necessary, and rent it out to a family in need. Owners of empty properties will now be given a minimum of three months’ notice that an order will be requested, giving them a last-chance warning to make changes and bring their homes back into use before the council can apply for an empty dwelling management order.

To make it easier for communities and councils to identify and tackle the empty homes in their area, we have brought forward two new toolkits. An online mapping toolkit plots the location of long-term empty homes in each area, alongside information on local housing need - such as those in temporary accommodation and on waiting lists, and levels of crime and anti-social behaviour. It is a valuable tool which allows councils to pinpoint and prioritise the ‘hot spots’ in their area.

And a new ‘one-stop shop’ knowledge toolkit brings together information on the relevant legislative framework and investment mechanisms, and know-how on partnership building, and gives empty property owners, landlords and the wider community access to everything they need to know about bringing properties back into use.

We are playing our part, and many areas continue to play theirs, but more must step up work to tackle the empty homes which shame us all, at the same time making use of the help and support available from the Government.

Published 31 May 2011