Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


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 to:

    (1)  the problems caused by empty houses;

    (2)  the reasons for so many empty houses;

    (3)  possible solution.

1.  PROBLEMS CAUSED BY EMPTY PROPERTIES

    —  vandalism, unauthorised access;

    —  smashed windows/doors/downspouts/walls;

    —  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 spirit.

2.  REASONS FOR SO MANY EMPTY HOUSES/INCREASE IN PRIVATE RENTED PROPERTIES

(a)  Economic

  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" scheme.

  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 basis.

  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 out—thus 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.

(b)  Structural

  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 investment.

  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 enormous—yet 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

(Sunnyhurst Ward)

Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council


 
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