Memorandum by Councillor Dave Smith, Blackburn
with Darwen Borough Council (EMP 14)
I would very much like to air my views regarding
the problem of empty private homes, as it is a real problem in
my ward (Sunnyhurst) and in the Borough of Blackburn with Darwen
as a whole.
To put the problem into context there are 3,000
empty privately owned homes in the Borough (6½ per cent of
the total). In my own ward there are 276 empties, 9.4 per cent
of the total. The numbers of private houses rented out by private
landlords has risen from around 1 to 2 per cent 15 years ago to
15 per cent now in Sunnyhurst ward.
Please find below a series of points relating
(1) the problems caused by empty houses;
(2) the reasons for so many empty houses;
1. PROBLEMS CAUSED
vandalism, unauthorised access;
dumped rubbish in yards, vermin;
further decrease in property value;
damp/damage to neighbouring properties;
"stigmatisation" of the
area leading to very low demand;
lack of natural surveillance leading
to increased crime;
break up of communities/community
2. REASONS FOR
Private landlords are able to charge £65-£75
per week rent for often very poor quality terraced housing. If
a landlord pays typically £8,000 to £15,000 for a house,
then within five years he/she is "in profit". Many saw
buying up cheap terraced houses as a "get rich quick"
The majority of private landlords mainly wish
to see DSS claimants (housing benefit) in their properties. If
people are working then why pay £75 per week when better
quality terraced houses are available to purchase at around £20,000
or newly refurbished housing association properties are available
from £50 per week?
Many tenants drift in/out of work, thus many
private rented houses become occupied/unoccupied on a very regular
Some DSS claimants have serious social or criminal
problems (eg drugs misuse/alcohol misuse or have been evicted
by social landlords for criminal behaviour or neighbour nuisance).
Because of the surplus of low priced private
housing, many neighbours of the problem tenants simply move on
rather than put up with the problems. Again this causes a breakdown
of the community, and more private housing empty, as the former
occupiers often cannot then sell their houses.
Many private landlords do not invest in their
properties as it is simply not viable (eg if £10,000 is invested,
the house may still only be worth £10,000 to £20,000).
Because of the "quick buck mentality"
and the increase of people in work, the market has now become
saturated with private rented homes. Many private landlords cannot
now rent their houses outthus there are more empty houses.
Because there are many non-local or absentee
private landlords there is often little or no control over tenants'
behaviour or actions. Houses are often "trashed" internally,
or when empty, broken into for remaining boilers, piping, lead,
fittings etc. Again, this leads to houses being empty for long
periods of time. Many private landlords claim they cannot afford
the costs of repairs/renovation.
Much of the pre first world war terraced stock
is now simply at the end of its viable life. Many were poorly
built in the first place (usually between 1870-1900), very often
on unstable or unsuitable ground.
As a result, basically no one wishes to purchase
such housing. Investment is simply not viable. £20,000 spent
on a property will not mean it increases its value by £20,000!
Often houses sell for £10,000 to £20,000 even after
In these cases, clearance is the only real option.
Because Councils like Blackburn with Darwen
have so many unfit private homes, the scale of the problem is
enormousyet resources for clearance are minimal. Unfit
empty houses attract all the problems outlined in section 1) and
Councils are left to "pick up the pieces" with minimal
or no resources. Residents become extremely frustrated that no
solutions seem to be in sight.
3. POSSIBLE SOLUTIONS
Resources must be made available to clear the
worst of the unfit housing.
"Block Repair" schemes can work well
in areas that are still popular/viable for investment.
The housing benefit system should be changed
so that rents charged match the fitness or value of the property.
It is crazy that taxpayers should subsidise private landlords
(eg the taxpayer pays out £3,500 plus per year to landlords
who often purchase houses for £8,000 to £15,000).
Compulsory purchase rules should be relaxed
so that Councils can easily and quickly purchase the very worst
or unsafe properties at realistic market prices.
Full council tax (or even double tax) could
be charged on all empty homes in order to encourage landlords
to fill or sell properties.
A new council tax band (A-) could be introduced
for occupied houses worth up to say £25,000. This could encourage
current occupiers to stay put or encourage new occupiers. This
could be balanced by another band at the highest level.
A radical option would be a zero council tax
on occupied houses worth under, say £25,000.
Councils should be given further powers to easily
trace and charge private landlords/owners to repair broken windows/doors
and use appropriate materials (not simply board up houses with
unsightly wooden panels or metal grills).
New regulations could be brought in for private
landlords to ensure their tenants do not cause nuisance/disorder.
(Similar to many housing associations/Councils). Councils could
be given powers to suspend benefit payments to the worst landlords.
Councillor Dave Smith
Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council