National Empty Homes conference 2012

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

Speech by Don Foster to the annual National Empty Homes conference.

In 1990, Rachel Whiteread won international recognition for her cast of an empty room.

It was a striking piece. Conveying the sadness, the sheer tragedy of an unoccupied place - a place with no one to call it home.

Significantly, the artist’s name for that work was ‘Ghost’ and that really is the point. Homes are not pieces of sculpture. They are made to be occupied. An empty home is a phantom. A hole in the heart of a community.

Now we know homes fall empty for all sorts of reasons. Some are renovated, some in probate, some are even second homes. But, wherever you find these haunted houses you’ll find blighted communities and lost neighbourhoods. Ambition abandoned.

We’ve all seen how it happens. The empty edifice becomes an eyesore. The eyesore becomes a magnet for rats, vandals, drug dealing, squatters and prostitution. Neighbours are inconvenienced. Communities are damaged. Council and local emergency services stretched to breaking point.

The statistics prove the point. Research by The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors suggests properties adjoining poorly maintained empty properties can drop by almost 20% in price.

Now, in part we were reaping the whirlwind of the failed policies of the past. The destructive Pathfinder programme undermined once vibrant communities. Marooning people in appalling homes surrounded by a sea of derelict streets.

That is the legacy we’ve inherited.

A legacy of almost three quarters of a million empty homes abandoned to the winds.

And we’re determined to say never again.

It’s time to inhabit the absences.

Plug the gaps.

Bring ghost homes back from the brink to the land of the living.

How can we afford not to do it? It’s a moral and financial imperative.

There are 1.7 million families on housing waiting lists. Of those some are homeless forced to live in overcrowded B&Bs. And the country’s population is growing.

Of course, house building is really important, vital, as the Deputy Prime Minister’s recent housing announcement made clear. But, as George Clarke would say, it would be “a crying shame” if we couldn’t occupy these wastes of space. Make use of what we’ve already got.

So the government’s approach has been threefold. First, we’re making more funds available for bringing homes back into use. And we’ve committed £160 million to bring over 11,000 empty houses back into use.

This isn’t about throwing money at a problem but making sure the money goes to the right places. Everyone who understands this area, knows there is no one-size fits all solution. Behind every empty home lies a myriad of social, historic and economic issues.

So our approach must be to create local answers to local issues. Giving local communities the right incentives to take the lead. So they will no longer turn a blind eye.

Rather than talk you through which fund comes from which pot, let me focus on the difference the money can make.

  • Habitat for Humanity in Dagenham, received financial aid to bring 35 houses back into use
  • Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council used its cash to renovate 20 homes and help unemployed residents to learn new skills for employment
  • Developing Health Independence, out in my constituency in Bath, is bringing 18 properties back from the brink
  • Kingston upon Hull City Council has written to 500 owners of empty homes offering to resuscitate their property - more than three quarters have already said yes

These organisations deserve all the praise they get. What can be better than giving someone a home?

But our approach is not all about money. It’s about keeping empty homes on the agenda. That’s the second point I’d like to make today.

It used to be a case of out of sight out of mind. Often there are people who care passionately about the areas they live in but they haven’t a clue about what to do next.

But thanks to George - the fastidious work of the Charity Empty Homes, the grass roots activities of local authorities and registered providers, the passion of community groups - ghost homes now have nowhere to hide. We’re stopping the rot.

Thirdly, we’re taking the carrot and stick approach. There are now powerful incentives for all local authorities to tackle empty homes such as the New Homes Bonus.

This means local authorities can earn the same financial reward for bringing an empty home back into use as building a new one. And it has provided an income of £26 million to local authorities for bringing empty homes back into use over the past year.

But what happens when advice and support isn’t enough?

In those circumstances we’ll get tough.

We have to take action against individuals who just can’t be bothered, who refuse to see the problem, who feel it’s ok to abandon their homes to the elements.

So we’ve given local authorities the power to reduce or remove Council Tax relief for empty and unfurnished homes.

And we’ve allowed them local discretion to introduce a Council Tax premium on homes empty and unfurnished for more than 2 years.

From next April, billing authorities will be able to charge up to 150% of Council Tax on such property.

Then there are the Empty Dwelling Management Orders. These force owners to bring their properties back into use. And, last but not least, as a last resort, there is the compulsory purchase order.

The point about these things is not how many times they are used but the fact they are there at all. They are a deterrent against those who refuse to take responsibility.

Under our efforts these silent shells are vanishing before our eyes.

Since we came to power the number of long term empty homes has fallen by 50,000.

This downward trend is continuing. The latest figures show a further decrease 20,000 in long term empty homes to 259,000 in 2012. And every house back in circulation, means a roof over the head of a working family.

I know there is still a very long way to go. Yet what we’ve demonstrated emphatically is the power of collaborations. That it’s coalitions of organisations - registered social landlords and community groups, house builders and local authorities - that together will make the difference.

These collaborations ensured the house in Oldham that stood empty for 14 years will soon be occupied. Oldham Borough Council and Aksa Homes brushed aside the cobwebs, hovered up the tumbleweed, rebuilt the pathways and put in new gates and fitted a new kitchen. A new home awakened.

It’s absolutely vital we harness the wealth of skill, experience, knowledge and application that these partnerships bring. So today I am inviting councils, housing associations, community and voluntary groups, and high street regeneration groups, prioritising our 27 Portas pilots to step forward.

In exchange for a share of £300 million I want them to tell me their plans to scatter the shadow of empty homes and bring thousands more back into the light. You’re the experts and it’s your innovative ideas I’m after.

One final thing. I’m keen to take our empty homes policy in a new direction. This shouldn’t just be about turning disused residential properties, those ageing apparitions, into inviting homes.

Why not turn empty offices into homes? Why not use the spaces above shops for housing? People who need a place to live don’t mind where it comes from. We’re making this easier to do. We’ve already introduced a whole host of policies to get rid of the red tape that gets in the way.

Now I know this type of project can be more challenging than a residential refurbishment. Typically, there are obstacles such as access and security to overcome. But they mustn’t stand in our way.

The minute you occupy an empty home, you start of an amazing chain reaction of events. You don’t just bring homes back to life, but neighbourhoods and communities. And businesses and jobs follow in their wake.

So we’re determined to exorcise ghost homes from the collective psyche. We’re straining every sinew to make them a myth not the reality.

Up and down the country, there are people who dream of one day seeing neighbourhoods revive and redundant homes come back to life.

I have little doubt, that working together, we will grant them their wish.