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

Memorandum by The Countryside Agency (EMP 60)



  The Countryside Agency is the Government's statutory body working for people and places in rural England. Our objectives are to: conserve and enhance the countryside; promote social equity and economic opportunity for the people who live there; and to help everyone wherever they live, to enjoy this national asset. We recognise that bringing empty homes back into use helps meet a number of these objectives including improving the supply of affordable housing, reducing development pressure on the countryside and assisting the regeneration of market towns. We, therefore, welcome this Inquiry and have used the questions you raised to present our key areas of concern and put forward proposals which would assist bringing more empty properties back into use.

  The starting point for our response is that the problems associated with empty homes is not confined to urban areas and their regeneration. It is also important to recognise that other empty properties, besides those in the residential sector, can be brought back into use and, like empty homes, make a contribution to regenerating rural communities. These points were recognised in the Rural White Paper (paragraph 5.5) and have been highlighted through the work of the Empty Homes Agency in its publication "Wasted Homes: a blueprint for action".

Why are so many homes empty?

  The majority of empty homes in rural areas are owned privately by owners with only one or two properties. Typically the owners have relocated due to work or have inherited properties from next of kin. Owners often have little or no experience of letting and need guidance through the letting and property management process. Properties often require extensive renovation work for which owners often lack resources. In rural areas popular with tourists and of high landscape value there is a high incidence of second homes which are vacant for large parts of the year.

  Many empty properties in rural areas are on farms. There is an estimated property holding of three cottages per farm, many of which are in considerable disrepair. Farmers are often reluctant to fund works or get involved in letting property.



  Bringing existing buildings back into use curtails the necessity of developing greenfield sites and so can help conserve the countryside. Moreover, just as in urban areas, the dereliction associated with empty properties can deter new investment and undermine the vitality of the area affected.

Provides affordable housing

  Access to a good quality affordable home is becoming increasingly difficult for people on lower incomes in many of England's rural communities. As well as adversely affecting individuals and families there is a direct impact on the balance and sustainability of rural communities. In most English rural communities there is an absolute shortage of affordable homes to rent or buy. In some tourist areas and those of high landscape quality this is exacerbated by high levels of second home ownership which reduce the availability of housing for local people.

Supports the regneration of market towns

  Over recent years many market towns have gone into decline and now require regeneration if they are to act as effective service centres and hubs for the surrounding rural hinterland. To assist the revitalisation of these centres the Countryside Agency is running a Market Towns programme which includes a "health check" which can be used to assess the strengths and weaknesses of market towns. Communities are also encouraged to assess the extent of derelict land and vacant buildings and identify opportunities for "living over the shop" schemes. One indicator of failing health is that more than 10 per cent of properties are vacant. Reversing this trend has an important part to play in the regeneration of market towns by offsetting identified housing need and improving the vitality market town centres through mixed uses, including accommodation for small businesses.

  A good example of the link between the redevelopment of empty property and the regeneration of market towns exists in Langport which is a small historic market town between Yeovil and Taunton. Because of significant social and economic changes the town was in need of regeneration and environmental enhancements. The council made a bid for English Heritage HERS (Heritage Economic Regeneration Scheme) funding in 1999 including an element which made better use of wasted space over shops. The bid was successful and one of the identified properties attracted further joint funding from the Housing Corporation and South Somerset District Council.


  Although the majority of accessible rural England continues to thrive in some areas, particularly the more remote, there is still a strong reliance on farming and tourism. The fragility of these economies has been amply illustrated by the impact of Foot and Mouth disease. Making use of empty properties, including agricultural buildings, can contribute to providing workspace for new sources of employment.

  To support this work the Countryside Agency is working with English Heritage to foster sustainable rural regeneration through the use of farm buildings.

Financial Benefits

  The Empty Homes Agency has identified the cost of keeping empty homes empty as £6,400 per year. This figure takes into account that Council Tax levied on the property is up to 50 per cent lower than an occupied property. Rural authorities faced with the extra costs of providing services to dispersed populations over wide geographical areas can ill afford this loss of revenue.

Catalyst for community involvement

  Empty properties can provide an asset base for community development or community reinvestment trusts. Using the income derived from bringing these properties back into use funds can be made available to support other community regeneration activities including, providing start up finance for micro-businesses and supporting credit unions.

  This concept has been developed and tested further by Salford University in conjunction with the Countryside Agency and resulted in the publication of Investing in people and land: sowing the seeds for rural regeneration and two pilot projects in Suffolk and North West Lancashire.


Adoption of "empty properties" in place of "empty homes"

  The current focus on "empty homes" can detract attention away from the contribution which a range of empty properties can make to regeneration. For example, in market towns the numbers of empty homes above commercial premises are few compared with the prevalence of redundant commercial space. Often there is a complex ownership structure to commercial property with ownership dominated by national companies even in smaller towns. Added to these problems are owners reluctance to have any sort of relationship, either legal or practical, with residential occupiers. It is important that future policies and practices include consideration of the future use of a range of empty properties to meet social, economic environmental needs.

Empty Property Strategies

  Empty property strategies should form an integral part of local authority housing and regeneration strategies. Rural Authorities with good empty property strategies have demonstrated the extent to which the problem of empty properties can be turned into a valuable resource. For instance King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council have developed a strategy that has enabled them to bring back into use over 150 homes within two years. The key to a successful strategy, as demonstrated by this authority and others, such as Cotswold District Council, is centred on a joint working approach. This means council services working together within a corporate strategy. This should ensure that all available information on identifying and possible uses for empty properties can be brought together efficiently.

  An important aspect of King's Lynn and West Norfolk Borough Council's strategy is centred on developing a wide range of initiatives with partner organisations such as RSL's, Private Sector and Accommodation forums and Regional Empty Property Officer Forums. These initiatives include Deposit bond schemes, Empty property grants and Flats Over Shops.


  Many of the empty agricultural dwellings are subject to an agricultural occupancy condition. However, the decline in agricultural employment means that in some areas there is little demand for this type of accommodation but there is a general need in many rural areas for affordable housing. We would favour the type of policy being pursued in places like Exmoor National Park which is seeking to change agricultural conditions to ones which allow for the property to be used to meet a local housing need.

  Some concern has been raised at the reluctance of local planning authorities to support the use of agricultural and redundant buildings for rural diversification. We see a need for further government guidance to local planning authorities on how they can implement the clarifications to PPG 7, introduced following the Rural White Paper, which seek to encourage sustainable rural development.

Council Tax

  A further incentive for owners to bring forward empty homes would be to charge 100 per cent council tax on empty properties which remain vacant over a number of years and where owners are making no effort to bring them back into use or are only letting the properties for very short periods of time. To assist this process it would be helpful if council tax records were able to distinguish between empty homes, second homes and holiday lets.


  We welcome the recent reductions to VAT from 17.5 per cent to 5 per cent for all repair and refurbishment works to properties that have been empty for three years or more. However, while helpful, this does not go far enough. We believe that other financial incentives should be explored to bring empty properties back into use, especially as there remains a lack of VAT parity between new build and refurbishment.

Improved resources to bring empty properties back into use

  Identifying properties in rural areas particularly is extremely time consuming. The relevant resources need to be made available, particularly in terms of staffing, in order to deliver an effective strategy. The Countryside Agency provide funding towards the employment of Rural Housing Enablers some of whom have become involved in bringing empty properties back into use as affordable housing. They could support activity, which engages a wider interest in increasing the use of empty properties in rural areas, such as local authorities and the Regional Development Agencies.

  There are additional costs incurred in bringing rural empty homes back into use. This is recognised in the additional funding made available through the Housing Corporation's Rehabilitation Grants for properties in any state of disrepair. We would support a similar supplement for rurality being made available through local authority Discretionary Renovation Grants.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 20 March 2002