Memorandum by Community Action on Empty
Homes (EMP 17)
Community Action on Empty Homes is a national
project funded by the Community Fund to support community initiatives
tackle empty homes through the provision of information, and support
and development of networks. The project, established in 1997
by the Empty Homes Agency works with communities across England
concerned with the social and environmental impact of leaving
For the purpose of this submission I will focus
on key issues identified in the Select Committee Press Notice
and apply them particularly to those communities experiencing
low demand for housing, difficult to let property and related
issues. CAEH supports the key recommendations of the Empty Homes
1. THE CONSEQUENCES
The link between empty homes and urban degeneration
has been clearly established. Empty homes are acknowledged to
attract crime, anti-social behaviour, to devalue neighbouring
properties and project a negative image of a community, reducing
confidence and undermining regeneration of that community.
Empty homes are also seen to accelerate decline
especially in areas already vulnerable to problems of crime, stigma
and changing demand. Empty properties act as a disincentive to
any new residents, and can lead existing tenants particularly
of rented property to seek to relocate, further increasing problems
of void property.
As such, empty homes can feed a spiral of decline
where one or two empty homes can quickly become a whole street
of empty properties. CAEH has documented a number of examples
of the rapid spread of empty property, in vulnerable communities.
The Project would welcome the opportunity to provide the Committee
with contacts and case studies of examples of the above.
2. THE BENEFITS
Reverse the decline of our urban
centres, encourage and facilitate urban regeneration.
Help develop sustainable communities.
Make better use of our existing resources,
not just homes but the infrastructures that serve those communities.
To help meet housing needsreduce
the use of bed and breakfast accommodation in areas of acute housing
Reduce the need to build new homes
on Greenfield sites.
Reduce crime and anti-social behaviour.
Help sustain the value of existing
3. WHY SO
Property speculation by private investors,
particularly damaging in areas of low demand where low house prices
allow speculative landlords to acquire cheap property for investment
The impact in areas vulnerable due to social
and economic problems and changing demand can be far reaching.
Where the value of property is in decline or in areas of negative
equity the local authority may be reluctant to take enforcement
Lack of financial disincentives/incentives for
Owners of long-term empty homes pay
a reduced council tax for empty property.
VAT at 17.5 per cent for the renovation
of property empty for up to three years, is a clear disincentive
to re-use in the period when there is the greatest potential for
rapid and successful renovation and re-use.
Lack of knowledge/awareness
Ignorance of the options available
on the part of many property ownerstwo thirds of all empty
properties are owned by individuals not professional housing or
Out of sightout of mind: this
is especially true when property may have been inherited from
a deceased or hospitalised relative and may be located far from
the remaining family.
Failure by planning bodies to identify
empty homes as a housing resource in calculating the figures for
additional households at regional, county and local level can
reduce impetus to re-use existing homes.
Failure by planning authorities to
implement planning policy guidance notes which prioritise the
re-use of existing buildings.
Lack of positive planning policies
supporting the successful re-use of existing property and restrictive
planning policies mitigating against conversion or temporary re-use
of redundant commercial or other property.
Cost of refurbishment/repair.
Difficulty in obtaining empty property
grants due to lack of powers afforded to local authorities under
the Housing, Regeneration and Construction Act.
Complicated procedures to fund work
to privately owned empty homes via councils/RSLs.
Local authority and RSL short- to medium-term
Local authorities and RSLs undertaking
regeneration of their existing stock can keep property empty,
for longer than is absolutely necessary because of fears that
finding short-term use for property may lead to delay to works.
There are however many examples of good practice of short-term
use of properties empty in these circumstances and CAEH is working
to encourage LA/RSLs to consider short-term/short-life use of
empty property where possible.
Local authorities undertaking rolling
programmes of sale or regeneration of their stock keep properties
empty pending sale/redevelopment.
CAEH welcomes the results of the 2001 Budget.
However, failure to harmonise VAT between refurbishment and new
build has reduced the impact of government policy to date. While
warmly welcoming the reduction of VAT on renovation of property
empty for more than three years (2001 Budget), much could be achieved
through further change to the current VAT system.
CAEH recommends that the government harmonise
VAT for new build and the renovation of empty property.
5. LOCAL AUTHORITIES
To give local authorities the power to increase
council tax on long-term empty homes would help communities with
high numbers of privately owned void property. There are many
examples of speculative landlords buying cheap property in vulnerable
communities and allowing property to degenerate and lie empty.
These landlords currently pay only 50 per cent tax despite the
impact their empty property might have, the "cost" to
the community both the financial cost in devaluing neighbouring
property and the social costs to the community.
CEAH would recommend that councils be given
the discretion to charge full council tax on long-term empty homes.
The simplification of the CPO procedure would
aid the use of this important tool to help local authorities tackle
long-term, eyesore empty homes.
7. A STATUTORY
A statutory requirement to ensure every local
authority addresses the issue of empty homes in their own area
would encourage local authorities to fully consider the impact
and opportunities of empty property.
An alternative option would be to include consideration
of empty homes within the requirements of the Homelessness Bill
currently before Parliament. CAEH supports the Empty Homes Agency's
recommendation in supporting the amendment tabled by David Kidney
MP that would require local authorities to consider the nature
and extent of empty homes in their area and the potential role
they could play in meeting the accommodation requirements identified
in their statutorily required Homelessness Strategy.
8. HAS THE
Research to date indicates that RPG has failed
to take account of the re-use of empty property in making provision
For example, the Regional Planning Body for
the North West has actually increased the housing requirement
figure for the region by including vacancy levels over and above
the government recommended target of between 2 to 3 per cent.
Therefore although the North West reported 138,000
empty homes and 34,000 long-term empty homes in the region (HIPHousing
Investment Programme returns for 2000) the Regional Planning Body
do not include the figure for empty homes as housing potential
but increased housing provision to allow for vacancy levels at
1998 rates. In Draft Regional Planning Guidance for the North
West provision is made for "approximately 343,000 additional
households, which after adjustments for vacancy rates equates
to 357,000 dwellings." (North West Regional AssemblyDraft
Regional Planning Guidance for the North West section 6.26).
This calculation was made on the assumption
that the vacancy levels would remain static at 1998 levels for
the life of the plan apart from a reduction to a 5 per cent vacancy
level in the conurbations of Manchester, Liverpool and Salford.
Therefore at the regional level empty homes
are not identified as a potential housing resource but calculated
as a static figure and the figure for housing provision is increased
by the current or previous vacancy rate.
In government guidancePPG11the
vacancy figure is identified as a "contextual indicator"
and it seems that RPB have interpreted this to mean that the potential
contribution of empty homes is not taken into account at regional
level in calculating for new housing provision.
This is of great concern to CAEH for the following
If empty homes are not being counted
in at regional level it appears that the assumption is to be made
that they will be included in calculations in Structure Plans,
Unitary Development Plans and/or Local Plans. However, our evidence
to date indicates that potential of empty homes to contribute
to new housing provision is not being taken into account at structure
and local plan level.
There are examples of local planning bodies who
have reduced their housing requirement figure by the number of
empty homes they expect to bring back into use in the life of
the local plan but it seems this is the exception rather than
Failure to include empty homes in
accounting for new housing provision could have a serious impact
in regions where there are already high numbers of empty homes
and has the potential to over-inflate the housing market, accelerate
decline of existing urban centres, undermining urban regeneration
and increasing the loss of Greenfield sites to new house building.
It also fails to take account of new planning guidance note PPG3,
which prioritises the use of existing empty property.
CAEH recommends that the government consider
this issue with some urgency and take steps to clarify the guidance
relating to empty homes to ensure that the contribution of empty
homes to help meet housing needs is not discounted.
9. WHAT SPECIFIC
Empty homes, as has been discussed, can fuel
the decline of a community experiencing low demand. Clearly the
problems of low demand are both complex and far reaching and the
response must be tailored to local circumstances and crucially
involve the local community. CAEH fully recognise that low demand
is not an issue of "bricks and mortar", that empty homes
are a symptom of other problemssocial and economic problems,
crime and stigmabut empty homes are shown to accelerate
decline, and regeneration initiatives must address the re-use
of empty property.
CAEH has many examples of community led regeneration
proposals and schemes which aim to tackle empty homes as part
of wider regeneration initiatives.
10. TOO MANY
CAEH is deeply concerned about the failure of
Regional Planning Bodies to take account of empty homes in calculating
new housing provision and believes that too many homes are being
built and proposed by Regional Planning Bodies in Greenfield sites
while homes in existing urban centres lie empty. CAEH recommends
more robust monitoring of the implementation of new planning guidance
notes and greater encouragement by Government Offices to ensure
better use of existing property.
The apparent disparity in the level of implementation
of planning guidance notes by planning authorities in England
relating to the re-use of empty homes, suggests that the current
system is not adequately supporting and/or monitoring the implementation
of new planning guidance and as such is seriously undermining
the impact of new guidance.
It would seem that Government Offices are the
most appropriate body to more actively scrutinise and encourage
the implementation of planning policy guidance notes. The project
is aware of a number of examples of good practice where planning
authorities have actively implemented new planning guidance notes.
Among the most pro-active are Hertfordshire
County Council who undertook a Town Renaissance Campaign to assess
the potential that exists in Hertfordshire's urban areas, also
supporting their Urban Capacity Study for the area.
Despite the recognition of the potential contribution
that empty homes and other wasted buildings could make to meeting
housing need and supporting urban regeneration, little will change
unless at a local level each authority undertakes:
a comprehensive and robust Urban
Capacity Study so authorities are aware of their existing resources;
and crucially takes account of that
potential in calculating housing provision and applies the sequential
approach to allocation of land for housing.
Guidance on undertaking Urban Capacity Studies
Tapping The PotentialAssessing Urban Housing Capacity:
Towards Better Practice recognised that three sources of capacity
commonly omitted from studies have been the scope to provide dwellings
through flats over shops, residential sub division and bringing
empty homes back into use. Yet in aggregate these three sources
alone could make up almost 40 per cent of potential capacity nationally.
12. TOO MANY
Clearly if new homes are built for rent in areas
of low demand and simply attract tenants from existing rented
homes to new developments, little will have been achieved. Demolition
can have a role to play in regeneration but not as a "knee
jerk" reaction but as part of a long-term strategy involving
local people in identifying the key issues impacting their community
and developing the appropriate responses in partnership with all
Although the term "low demand" implies
that the problem is a "change in demand for housing"
this is unhelpful and an oversimplification. For example the Panel
Report for Draft Regional Guidance for the NE recommended 110,000
additional dwellings for the region, most recent figures show
49,900 are currently empty in the region. The Panel Report for
Draft Regional Guidance for the NW recommended 350,000 new dwellings
for the region with 138,000 existing empty homes. In both regions
communities are experiencing low demand. The problem is therefore
not overall lack of demand for housing but changing demand in
The problems of low demand involve a wide range
of issues from the social, economic factors at play in a community
to the levels of crime and stigma experienced by those communities.
The problem must be recognised as a regional issue and although
local strategies must respond to local needs, the housing market
does not recognise local government boundaries and empty homes
must be tackled at the regional level.
As such any response to the problem must be
holistic and long term in its approach. Knocking down homes will
not provide work opportunities for local people, or improve local
schools or necessarily reduce crime. Demolition may well have
a part to play but will not solve the problems of low demand,
as the problem is not the "bricks and mortar".
CAEH would welcome the opportunity to provide
any further information, case studies or contacts to support the
work of the Select Committee.