Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by Community Action on Empty Homes (EMP 17)

INTRODUCTION

  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 property empty.

  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 Agency.

1.  THE CONSEQUENCES OF SO MANY HOMES BEING EMPTY

  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 WHICH WOULD ARISE FROM BRINGING EMPTY HOMES BACK

    —  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 needs—reduce the use of bed and breakfast accommodation in areas of acute housing need.

    —  Reduce the need to build new homes on Greenfield sites.

    —  Reduce crime and anti-social behaviour.

    —  Help sustain the value of existing property.

3.  WHY SO MANY HOMES ARE EMPTY

Property speculation

    —  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 purposes.

    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 action.

Lack of financial disincentives/incentives for re-use

    —  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 owners—two thirds of all empty properties are owned by individuals not professional housing or property companies.

    —  Out of sight—out 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.

Planning authorities

    —  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.

Financial barriers

    —  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 empty property

    —  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.

4.  EFFECTIVENESS OF GOVERNMENT POLICY TO DATE—2001 BUDGET

  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 SHOULD BE PERMITTED TO CHARGE THE FULL COUNCIL TAX ON EMPTY HOMES

  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.

6.  COMPULSORY PURCHASE POWERS SHOULD BE REVISED

  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 DUTY SHOULD BE PLACED ON LOCAL AUTHORITIES TO ESTABLISH AN EMPTY PROPERTY STRATEGY

  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 REGIONAL PLANNING GUIDANCE TAKEN ACCOUNT OF THE RE-USE OF EMPTY PROPERTIES IN MAKING PROVISION FOR HOUSING?

  Research to date indicates that RPG has failed to take account of the re-use of empty property in making provision for housing.

  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 (HIP—Housing 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 Assembly—Draft 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 guidance—PPG11—the 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 reasons:

    —  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 the rule.

    —  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 STEPS SHOULD BE TAKEN IN AREAS OF LOW DEMAND

  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 problems—social and economic problems, crime and stigma—but 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 HOMES ARE BEING BUILT AND PROPOSED BY REGIONAL PLANNING CONFERENCES ON GREENFIELD SITES IN AREAS EXPERIENCING LOW DEMAND

  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.

11.  GOVERNMENT OFFICES FOR THE REGIONS SHOULD BE MORE VIGOROUS IN IMPLEMENTING GOVERNMENT POLICY LAID DOWN IN PLANNING POLICY GUIDANCE NOTES

  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 Potential—Assessing 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 HOMES FOR RENT CONTINUE TO BE BUILT IN AREAS WITH LOW DEMAND AND SOME HOMES SHOULD BE DEMOLISHED

  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 key stakeholders.

  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 particular communities.

  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".

CONCLUSION

  CAEH would welcome the opportunity to provide any further information, case studies or contacts to support the work of the Select Committee.

September 2001


 
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