Memorandum by The National Association
of Empty Property Practitioners (EMP 22)
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this evidence
are those of individual practitioners and not necessarily those
of employing organisations.
The National Association of Empty Property Practitioner
(NAEPP) was set up in May 2001 with the support of the then housing
minister, Nick Raynsford. Enjoying administrative support from
and chaired by The Empty Homes Agency, NAEPP has also received
funding from The Housing Corporation in the form of a good practice
and innovation grant and endorsement from DTLR. It is a national
body set up by local authority empty property practitioners for
empty property practitioners to provide support and training in
a field that is often afforded little funding and priority. Empty
property practitioners are located not only in housing but also
Environmental Health and Planning departments. An effective network,
therefore is crucial for dissemination of good practice and joined
up thinking. NAEPP welcomes this detailed inquiry into empty homes
as a much needed exercise in coordination.
2. WHY EMPTY?
There are many reasons why empty properties
are left. Lack of funds; unfinished projects; properties left
after the owner had died intestate; land-banking by private investors
and sometimes just plain laziness. As mentioned before large areas
are becoming empty due to lack of investment and a decline in
the services provided. Forward thinking is needed if demolition
and rebuild is to be curtailed on a vast scale.
3. EXISTING PROBLEMS
The issue of empty homes has a different aspect
in the North compared to the South. Local authorities in the North
suffer from the problem of low demand. Streets of empty properties
stand empty as investment and faith in the community has receded
resulting in an intolerable level of crime and property decay.
These areas areas a last resultbeing targeted for
clearance and then rebuild providing opportunity for critics to
question whether this is prudent use of public funds.
A national empty property strategyalthough
not a definitive solution in isolationwould provide a national
overview and focus for investment targeting.
Homesteading is an opportunity for
communities to be rebuilt. Government support would ensure that
funding and investment is afforded to these schemes providing
employment, education and transport infrastructures.
Some LAs when determining their district/borough
plan are still not taking filled empties into consideration. This
results in over-estimation by planners of the amount of new housing
needed. The imposition of a statutory duty to adopt an effective
empty property strategy at local level would help to alleviate
Redundant Commercial Property
There is a vast amount of empty and redundant
commercial property across England that could be converted to
provide residential accommodation. This would then mean that local
authorities would be pro-active in developing policy to ensure
viability and regeneration of "office" areas in their
area instead of reactive when commercial buildings stand empty
due to a lack of forethought and planning.
For Government to insist that renewal
strategies and regeneration policies take into account areas with
increasing numbers of commercial properties with a view to converting
to residential whilst also having regard to the growth of industry/office
space in other parts of the town, which would then replace these.
For government to issue central guidance
to planners to ensure they enable residential conversions of commercial
properties to be afforded priority where appropriate.
4. HURDLES FACED
Council tax data sharing
The Council Tax department of most local authorities
has information regarding the ownership of every empty property
in their area. Currently confusion exists over whether that data
can be shared between departments. Data collected by the Council
Tax department is governed by the Local Government and Finance
Act 1992 for the sole purpose of council tax collection. This
has been interpreted to mean that it cannot be passed to the empty
property practitioner to identify empty properties within their
area. However some Council Tax departments do pass the data across
to ensure joined up thinking and the facilitation of delivery
of their empty property strategy.
Some Council Tax departments also take the view
that sharing information regarding ownership details would be
a breach of the Data Protection Act, and not the Local Government
Act. Indeed, it is the view of many that section 111 of the 1972
Act, and sections 2 and 3 of the 2000 Act DO give powers to the
authority to share such information.
Whatever the reason, it is an anomaly that must
be addressed. It is not good practice that two internal departments
of the same council cannot share information when the common aim
is the improvement of council services to the public. It is not
good for "joined up government".
For Government to issue central guidance
on the subject thus clarifying the position nationwide.
For Government to set up a dialogue
with the Information Commissioner to ensure that every possible
tool is used to circumvent the Data Protection restrictions. The
intention of the Data Protection Act 1982 was to protect individuals
from unsolicited mail and dubious marketing. Its intention was
not to thwart the duty of the local authority. As local authorities
are creatures of statute clear guidance and possibly secondary
legislation is needed to resolve the situation.
Complicated compulsory purchase procedure
CPOs can bring about a change of ownership to
properties where landlords have proved unwilling or unable to
bring empty housing accommodation into residential use to new
owners willing and able to do so. As well as the qualitative and/or
quantitative housing gain that this achieves, the transformation
of badly managed, often visually offensive empty properties to
improved permanent homes for residential use has a marked impact
quality of life for local residents
and people who work and visit in the area; and
perception of the work carried out
by local authorities.
In our view the use and threatened use of CPO's
must be closely aligned to, and form an integral part of, any
Empty Property Strategy. Therefore, we strongly advocate that
when local authorities adopt or review empty property strategies
they should make it clear that the use of CPO's will form an important
part of that strategy and will be vigorously pursued where appropriate.
The CPO policy should be well publicised so that owners of long-term
empty properties are fully aware of the consequences if they fail
to return bring properties into residential use by voluntary means.
If an effective and robust CPO policy does not
exist it is inevitable that some owners will ignore a local authority's
attempts to encourage and persuade them to bring their property
into residential use with impunity, safe in the knowledge that
no further action will be taken. This is unfair to owners who
do bring their empty properties into use voluntarily. The absence
of a CPO policy will also ultimately bring the empty property
strategy as a whole into disrepute, because it will be seen to
not deal effectively with the worst abuses.
We believe that, in general terms, the existing
procedures relating to CPO's work well. However, we share the
Government's view that the laws and procedures are unwieldy and
complex and that this has led to a situation where the vast majority
of local authorities have little or no expertise or experience
of Cops and are therefore reluctant to use them. The current review
designed to streamline and simplify the procedures and make them
easier to understand and implement is therefore welcomed.
We would welcome legislation that made CPOs
more streamlined, and offer the following suggestions.
For Government to apply the "VAT
ten years empty" rule to empty properties. The intention
of English Land Law is thatas land is a very limited commodityno
land should be landlocked or barred from use. Owners who leave
their properties empty are in effect "land-locking"
that land and go against the very intention of our land law system.
Las should have full Government support then to compulsorily purchase
a property left empty for such a length of time with no opportunity
for the owner to "rescue" it at the last moment.
For Government to afford Las the
power to acquire properties for an appropriate time to be able
to effect repairs with viability and them to let the property
to those in housing need for a period of say 15 years. Ownership
at the end of this time would be passed back to the freeholder.
For Government to issue clear guidance
on the subject of funding CPOs as it still remains shrouded in
a good deal of mystery and confusion.
Lack of statutory duty to produce an empty homes
It is our view that every local authority should
have a statutory duty to produce and implement an effective strategy
to tackle empty homes in their area. The majority of empty property
work is currently handled by officers as just part of their already
heavy workload. NAEPP believes that this full-time postin
some areasneeds to be dealt with by a dedicated empty homes
For Government to impose a statutory
duty upon LAs to produce a working strategy tailor-made to their
For Government to issue annual targets
for each local area thus ensuring that one authority does not
simply "cut and paste" a neighbouring strategy on to
their own but instead carries out detailed research of their area.
This research would include not only housing need but also regeneration
issues and shifting industry/office accommodation patterns.
For Government to issue recommendations
to LAs to employ a dedicated officer to empty homes work with
a consideration for the most effective delivery. Considering the
difficulties faced in sharing council tax data that might include
exploring the possibility of locating the EPP with the Council
Lack of training/joined up thinking
Most local authorities are unaware of the full
extent of empty property work and consequently recruit officers
to the task without providing training other than to join a regional
forum and thus enjoy networking. The empty property practitioner
has to play detective to determine empties and how to bring them
back into use. A definitive list of empties is needed in England
and that can only happen if access to information is facilitated.
For government to issue guidance
to utility providers and postal services advising on the ability
under Data Protection Act 1992 to provide LA EPPs with a list
of empty properties no longer receiving gas and/or electricity.
For government to issue guidance
to police and fire services asking them to advise Las of the importance
of advising them of empty properties in their areas particularly
to stem vandalism/nuisance and to reduce the possibility of further
crime and arson.
For Government to fully support the
work of NAEPP in providing national network and training opportunities
The benefits of bringing empty property back
into use are numerous. In many authorities they include; provision
of much needed temporary and permanent accommodation for homeless
families, removal of eyesores and crime risks, increase in Council
Tax receipts and the removal of potential fraud. In areas of low
demand, it is important to address the issue so as to stop the
cycle of decline, as confidence is lost in communities whose heart
is ripped out by large-scale demolition and abandonment.
The financial implications of keeping property
empty are staggering. The average house price in England is £113,000
(Proviser 2000-01). If we allow a lower value of £85,000
(75 per cent) as a large proportion of empty property is in areas
of low demand and combine that with the number of empties currently
stand is at 762,600 devaluing both neighbouring properties by
10 per cent then that shows that empty property wipes £13
billion off the property market in England.
This is in addition to lost Council Tax revenue.
We would therefore also welcome legislation that allows authorities
to charge full council tax on long-term empty property. This would
remove the perverse incentive that owners now currently enjoy
to keep property empty as they receive a discount for keeping
property empty. However, it is vital that this power should be
discretionary, allowing flexibility when determining which properties
to target. For example, one would not want to be punishing an
owner who legitimately faces difficulty in bringing property back
into use. However, one would want to punish an owner who clearly
has the means, but refuses to co-operate. Being able to impose
the full charge, or even a punitive charge of 150 per cent, would
give the empty property officer more power, and would act as a
further stick, which we could use to force action from the owner.