Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380 - 359)

WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001

RICHARD PETERS, VICKI DUBURY, NICK MURPHY AND KEITH GUNNER

  340. Is part of the problem planning policy outside Southampton or outside the areas where the empty properties are? Are too many new properties being built elsewhere?
  (Mr Murphy) Your original question was on why the properties were empty and when you look into it each case appears different. There is not one reason why property is empty. It depends very much often on where the owner is coming from. I jotted down a list of reasons we have come across. I smiled earlier when a couple of members of the Committee said they had found themselves accidental landlords, because that is certainly one route in. People end up acquiring properties through inheritance or whatever and are ignorant of how best to deal with that. Sometimes properties just get left over a significant period of time. We also have some owners falling into incapacity, getting taken into care homes, who realistically are never going to be coming back to those properties. We also quite bizarrely have some owners with complete disinterest in those properties, who are wasting the asset which just sits there. Even though they could sell it, rent it, lease it and realise an income or a capital value they are just not bothered about it. They just leave it there. You have this wide variety of reasons which are peculiar to the owner of each property which means that the empty property strategy has to track down the owners and then work with them from wherever they are to try to overcome the particular barriers in that case in order to bring the property back into use. You asked about planning. It does not seem to be the case that market forces are driving these properties back into use. They do stay stubbornly empty even though the market should dictate that people could realise an income from selling them or letting them.

Chairman

  341. Do you get all the information you need from the council tax returns or are you one of the authorities which has trouble getting council tax information to identify empty properties?
  (Mr Gunner) We are fortunate that from very early on we managed to establish a good working relationship in-house to access non-personal data. We are unable to access personal data about owners and their whereabouts, for example, which is a major issue in trying to track people in order to have a meaningful dialogue with them, but we are fortunate and it is a great benefit in that we do have access to non-personal council tax statistical information, that is where the addresses are, what sort of properties they are and that sort of thing.
  (Mr Murphy) Undoubtedly it would be helpful across the board if there were much greater clarity on how we could use council tax information to trace the owners of empty properties.

Mrs Ellman

  342. I should like to go back to the point I raised before. In your case, is there any connection between the empty homes and planning policies which permit the building of new homes in other areas? Are those two things connected?
  (Mr Gunner) It is probably fair to say that Southampton does have a sub-regional operation in terms of housing need and demand. It is very much an urban conurbation and a growing one. It is difficult for us to comment in detail on related local authority planning policies. All I would say is that if we were able to devise more effective mechanisms of engaging empty properties in urban conurbations such as Southampton, then that may well deflate the need to build on greenfield sites elsewhere in neighbouring boroughs in the Hampshire area.

  343. If builders were not permitted to build on the greenfield sites, would that solve your empty homes problem? Is there a direct connection there?
  (Mr Gunner) There is a connection. I am not sure whether it would be a wholesale solution but it will certainly make a contribution.

Christine Russell

  344. I am very interested in what you are saying so my question is to both of you or either of you. In other parts of the country where we have either taken evidence or visited and seen at first hand the problem of empty properties, we are told usually the reason is the poor condition of the stock or the unpopularity of the area. You seem to be telling us that your problems, although you both have quite high homelessness figures, you both have quite high waiting lists, the problem seems to be that you have owners of empty properties who are not interested in filling them. Is that right?
  (Mr Gunner) That is a very good summary of the problem we face. Most of the empty properties we have, unlike some of the authorities you may have visited, are in the private sector, in predominantly individual ownerships. People have inherited properties by default, there maybe disputed probate, or relatives who inherit a property are unable to agree on the way forward. Most of our properties are pepper-potted throughout the city. It is really the need to have a range of measures to tackle those individual agendas which is going to be the only way we can engage more empty properties in those sorts of ownerships.
  (Mr Peters) From the Hastings perspective, things are slightly different from the Southampton situation.

  345. Somewhere in your evidence you mention the fact that some of your private landlords are advertising to attract tenants from other parts of the country.
  (Mr Peters) Absolutely. The problem we have in Hastings is that we have an over-supply of small one-bedroomed flats in the main, when our real demand is for family accommodation. The over-supply of small flats is largely a response to the size of property in Hastings, generally older Victorian property which has been subdivided when the market was at its peak into as many units as possible. That is now giving us a problem ten years down the line. We have the wrong type of empty properties in Hastings.

  346. And the wrong type of tenant.
  (Mr Peters) To an extent we have an issue about the number of people who are being attracted to the town who are on benefit. That is not to say everyone who is on housing benefit is the wrong type of tenant, but it does bring with it a greater proportion of people who have other problems. That clearly is not helping the situation and it is not the major problem in Hastings.

Chairman

  347. If you are a pensioner in London is it not still attractive to move down to Hastings?
  (Mr Peters) Did you say if you are a pensioner?

  348. If you are a pensioner in London, is it not attractive still to move down to Hastings? I can understand why it is difficult to persuade a pensioner in London to move up to Burnley where they may be able to reduce their living costs very considerably but it does appear to be a long way. I should have thought that for a lot of people in London it was still quite attractive to move down to Hastings.
  (Mr Peters) That is correct. I was not sure whether you had said "pensioner". Yes, there are some older people who are coming to Hastings to retire. The problem is the sort of property which is available there tends to be flats which are in blocks of four or five stories or Victorian terraced houses which have been converted, without lifts and so on. It is quite difficult for them to access the accommodation.

Christine Russell

  349. May I ask you both about the Government's policy on asylum seekers? Has that policy had any impact on your empty homes problem?
  (Mr Gunner) It has not had much of an impact on Southampton as far as I can gather. There may be one or two properties which may have been brought back into use for asylum seeker purposes but there seems to be no general trend of encouragement to bring back into use empty properties purely by that route. They tend to be maybe normal landlords, routine re-letting to a different sort of customer rather than the normal students or whatever they may have been beforehand. In itself it does not seem to have a particularly big impact, as a re-occupation catalyst.
  (Mr Peters) We have quite a number of asylum seekers who have been placed in Hastings. It has helped an empty hotels problem in that we have a number of hotels which have been used and are now being used by NASS[1] to disperse asylum seekers. What we are finding is that many of the asylum seekers are single people and not people with families and children. We are finding that when they get a positive decision to remain in the country, they are moving into the private sector and occupying some of these small flats. We are talking about a very small number of cases.

Mr Betts

  350. You have both given evidence about the issue of CPOs. You both argued for improved procedures. Could you indicate how you think it can be improved?
  (Mr Gunner) It is the principle really. To be absolutely frank, it is a very long time since we have done any straightforward housing CPOs in Southampton. Part of the issue is that a lot of the expertise is no longer current within local authorities. There is a need for a re-training exercise at the very least. My main concern is that properties which have been empty for ten years or longer are no longer a home in the accepted sense. It therefore seems to us that there is maybe a case to make more of a streamlined faster procedure so with these long-term empty properties, if there is no other agenda, no other re-occupation solution, as a last resort the local authorities can move in quite quickly to bring those into occupation for people in housing need.

  351. Are you arguing for a change in the law to allow that to happen?
  (Mr Gunner) I do not profess to be an expert in the law on CPOs, but in principle and from conversation with other colleagues in the field, there does seem to be a need to do this.
  (Mr Peters) May I echo that from the Hastings perspective? We have not been actively using compulsory purchase orders for Housing Act purposes in recent years, but it is something we would want to consider in developing our empty homes strategy. There is clearly an issue about the length of time it takes from the time you decide a compulsory purchase order is appropriate to when you hopefully get the right decision. If there are objections you are talking about at least 18 months, possibly two years from beginning to end, which does not really help the situation when you are trying to deal with an empty property.

  352. Another possible alternative which has been put to us is a compulsory leasing order. Is that something else you support? Do you see that as being another tool which local authorities could use to good effect?
  (Mr Gunner) A personal view is that something like that is effectively a half-way house measure. My experience tells me that without some form of threat of enforcement, a lot of empty properties will remain just that. You do need some form of enforcement. The compulsory lease order concept, while still fairly new, would need further research on the legalities and human rights issues. Nevertheless, it appears to me to have the attraction that it merely divorces control of an empty property from its ownership. The concept would be that the local authority moves in, takes control of the property, renovates it to an acceptable standard, lets it to people in housing need at affordable rents, recoups the cost of the repairs from the rental stream, then eventually returns it to the owner in a much better condition than it was at the beginning for the owner then to do something hopefully more positive with. The attraction is that it is not a full CPO and acquiring the freehold or full ownership of the property. That remains with the owner but the community, local authority, people in housing need get the benefit of that property.

  353. One of the things Hastings have argued for is to be able to carry over capital allocations from year to year. You feel that if you embark on a strategy and you do not get your timescales then you get into difficulties. Is that a general problem for authorities or is it a particular problem for a smaller authority where perhaps the capital allocations are smaller?
  (Mr Peters) I am not sure I can comment on the wider issues. I have had the experience of working on housing in London and it was an issue there, but perhaps not to the same extent in Hastings. The issue in Hastings is that we no longer have any council housing, we transferred our stock five or six years ago. We are relying on housing associations to help us provide social housing. In that sense it is important that allocations of funding from the housing corporation are flexible enough to enable a housing association to say they do not have a property in mind at this time but they do expect the council to be putting two or three properties their way through compulsory purchase in a year or two's time and they need to make sure the money is there to help deal with that at the appropriate time.

Chris Grayling

  354. Southampton's memorandum refers to vacancies for personal and idiosyncratic reasons. What proportion of your empty homes do you think fall into that category?
  (Mr Gunner) I would say the majority, to be frank. There are one or two larger portfolio landlords who are offenders in the sense of deliberately keeping properties empty throughout the city. It would perhaps require a different agenda to tackle those but certainly the majority—I would estimate roughly 75 per cent—are in individual ownerships. That roughly equates with the national figure which is 66 per cent or about two thirds.

  355. In that case, with all the tinkering round one can do with regulation, legislation, grants and so forth, is it not actually the work of people like yourself and Ms Dubury which can make the difference in those situations?
  (Mr Gunner) Very much so. If you are dealing with individuals, then it is an individual who can help to achieve a solution to those empty properties. I would recommend, from personal experience, that in local authorities you do get the benefit of a dedicated Empty Property Officer. That is a major plus point in re-occupying empty properties.

  356. May I ask Hastings to talk a little bit about the private sector lease scheme you mentioned in your memorandum and also about empty home grants?
  (Ms Dubury) We will be running the private sector lease scheme with two housing associations which are happy to work with us. They are both very experienced in other areas. They have not worked in Hastings before but they are looking to move into Hastings. When we first mentioned it at the stage of putting together the empty homes strategy they were very keen to work with us. Essentially they each work in a slightly different way. One will take the property on once the renovation works have been carried out, once the council has administered the grant and the property is ready to go. The other is interested right at the very start; they do their own surveys, they get their own people in to do the works and they take the property on right at the start. It is quite good. If the landlord is not interested and wants in effect to get rid of the property but without selling it, we can put them to one housing association. If they are quite keen to be involved in the work themselves, we can put them to the other housing association at the end.

  357. In terms of empty homes grants, what is the balance between the rights and wrongs of making grants or offering loans or taking an equity share?
  (Ms Dubury) One of the conditions of our grant is that the property is then available for social renting for five years. In effect we are seeing a return on our money because we are able to place people in housing need in those properties. At the moment the grant is the best way to go for Hastings. The strategy is only very young and it only started this year. We will review that in future years to see whether we think that perhaps moving to some loans and some grants will be a better option.

  358. May I ask you all what the one thing is which could be done for you which would make your task of attacking the empty homes issue easier and more straightforward?
  (Mr Peters) I am not sure we would agree on one thing. Certainly from our perspective in Hastings the big issue at the moment is being able to identify individual owners of properties and the properties they are responsible for: a way of addressing the issues about information sharing to make it a far more efficient process so we could directly contact the owners of properties who are holding them vacant in Hastings. The majority of the properties are owned by people who live outside the borough, so no matter how much publicity we do locally, it is not getting to them. >From my perspective that is a big issue at the moment and it is something which could be resolved quite easily.
  (Mr Gunner) Going back on a previous theme, I would say a recognition that for last-resort cases some form of enforcement is paramount. I would commend the concept of the compulsory lease order as a useful tool to achieve that.

Chairman

  359. Do you think that is because you would use it very often or you would simply use the threat of it?
  (Mr Gunner) Up until fairly recently we have had a persuasive campaign; we have tried reasonably successfully to help owners with grants, with advice and that sort of thing, but in so doing there has been a hard core of intransigent owners where no form of entreaty or encouragement has worked and is likely to work in our opinion. In devising a small programme of those types of properties, where a community are having a go at us for not doing anything and saying we ought to do something about it as a council—we have about a dozen of those—just the threat of enforcement has worked and provided tangible results. Out of the 12 we started with only six to nine months ago, three or four have already been occupied voluntarily. It just indicates to us in Southampton that unfortunately some form of enforcement is unavoidable if we are serious in engaging empty homes.

  Chairman: On that note, I thank you very much indeed for your evidence.





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