Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (EMP 26)

EMPTY HOMES

1.  INTRODUCTION

  1.1.  Empty homes are a wasted resource. The Government wishes to see fewer empty homes for a range of reasons. Better use of empty properties eases pressure on the housing stock and for development on greenfield land. Reducing the proportion of empty homes also has desirable outcomes in terms of reducing opportunities for crime, vandalism, arson and anti-social behaviour as well as alleviating the problems associated with low demand and unpopular housing.

  1.2.  This memorandum describes the Government's approach to dealing with empty homes in the private sector. It then addresses issues of low demand and abandonment, where the empty homes are part of a wider set of problems, and the role the planning system plays in bringing empty homes back into use.

2.  UNDERSTANDING THE FIGURES

  2.1.  In April 2000, the total number of vacant dwellings in all tenures reported in England stood at 764,000—3.6 per cent of the housing stock. The total has been in steady decline since its high point of 869,000 (4.4 per cent) in 1993. A full breakdown is given in annex 1 to this memorandum, which includes data and analysis of areas where vacancy rates and evidence of low demand coincide.

  2.2.  It is important to note that the vacant dwellings statistics represent a snapshot of the housing market at a particular point in time and take no account of the reasons for vacancy. The housing market could not function at all without some vacancies. It is normal for a proportion of our homes to be empty for short periods while they are being bought and sold, or between lettings, or while improvements are being carried out. These "transactional" vacancies amount to perhaps 2 per cent of the stock at any one time. While it would be desirable to minimise them, they do not represent the core of the problem of empty homes.

  2.3.  It is the longer-term vacancies, particularly where homes have been empty for more than a year, that are the real cause for concern. In areas of high housing pressure, they entail a serious waste of opportunity and resources. Reducing the numbers, and making more effective use of existing buildings generally, will help to ease demands for new development. In areas where demand has declined, some long-term empty homes may be surplus to requirements. But simply leaving them to decay will provide further opportunities for crime, vandalism, arson and anti-social behaviour and impede efforts to regenerate the area.

3.  EMPTY HOMES IN THE PRIVATE SECTOR

Understanding the vacancy process

  3.1.  Understanding the way in which properties flow into and out of vacancy and the factors which lead to prolonged vacancy, is important in drawing up effective strategies to deal with the problem. The vast majority of empty homes (81.5 per cent) are privately owned. This sector also accounts for over 85 per cent of all long-term vacancies. These tend to be mostly pre-1919 terraced houses and converted flats and are more likely to be in poor condition compared with transactional vacants. Research published in 1996[2] looked at the vacancy process of privately owned dwellings. It found that most vacancies underwent a change in ownership before being brought back into use. Only one fifth of owners responsible for bringing dwellings back into use were also responsible for generating the vacancy. The research also found that the main reason for vacancy generation was the death of the previous occupant or their movement into hospital or long-term care (27 per cent and 14 per cent respectively). Other reasons included repossession or eviction (13 per cent), or the former residents simply moving out for other reasons.

  3.2.  The research identified two distinct periods of vacancy: firstly when the vacancy is generated, and, secondly, following a change of ownership, there sometimes follows a prolonged period of vacancy. Reasons for the vacancy being prolonged after generation were primarily the poor condition of the dwelling, or difficulties experienced in selling or letting the dwelling, or complications over ownership. Following acquisition, many dwelling are not occupied immediately and the research found that this was overwhelmingly because repairs were necessary. A lack of resources for improvement was often cited as a major barrier to the speedy re-use of empty housing. The research suggested that half of the problematic vacant properties identified would cost more than £5,000 to bring back into use.

The role of local authorities

  3.3.  An important conclusion that can be drawn from the research is the need to develop preventative measures that tackle properties at an early stage of the vacancy process and prevent prolonged vacancy and the associated problems this creates for bringing properties back into use.

  3.4.  Local authorities should play a key role in tackling empty homes. The Housing Investment Programme encourages authorities to draw up strategies for tackling the problem and they are required to report their performance in doing so through the Best Value in Housing programme. The Empty Homes Agency estimates that less than three quarters of authorities currently have an effective strategy in place and has proposed a new statutory duty on local authorities to develop empty property strategies. The Government recognises that authorities which are committed to effective action on empty properties will normally choose to set out their plans in the form of a clear strategy which matches resources to the scale of the local problem. That does not mean, however, that imposition of a statutory requirement to produce such a strategy would in itself result in any greater commitment, or level of useful activity, on the part of other authorities. However, we have recently given a commitment to include reference to empty property strategies in the revised Code of Guidance on Homelessness. We will also continue to reinforce the message that local authorities should play an active role in addressing the problem of empty homes and redundant commercial property.

  3.5.  The Government is aware that many local authority empty property officers experience difficulties obtaining adequate information on the scale of vacancy in their area and ownership details of individual empty homes. Council tax records provide the most comprehensive source of this information. However, data protection considerations currently present a significant obstacle to putting them to use for this purpose. We are discussing this issue with the Office of the Information Commissioner and the Empty Homes Agency in the hope of identifying a way forward here.

  3.6.  The Empty Homes Agency plays a vital role in assisting local authorities in drawing up and implementing effective empty property strategies. The Department enjoys a close working relationship with the Agency and we are pleased to support its work through grant provision. However, bearing in mind the wide range of expertise required of local authority empty property officers, there is a need for a separate organisation that can help officers to develop, and secure recognition for, their professional skills. The Government would like to encourage a national network of empty property practitioners covering each region. We therefore welcome the formation of the National Association of Empty Property Practitioners earlier this year.

Government action to tackle empty properties in the private sector

  3.7.  In 1999, the Department established an Empty Property Advisory Group, consisting of representatives of advisory organisations including the Empty Homes Agency, British Property Federation, Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, local authorities and government departments. The Group's objective was to inform Government policy on measures aimed at bringing empty properties back into use. The report and recommendations of the Group were among those considered by the Government in formulating its policies for the Urban and Rural White Papers.

  3.8.  The Urban White Paper[3] set out a comprehensive set of proposals aimed at delivering an urban renaissance, and trailed a package of fiscal incentives which were subsequently announced in the Budget 2001. The package includes the following measures which are aimed specifically at tackling empty homes and under-used commercial property:

    —  100 per cent capital allowances for conversion of redundant space over shops into flats;

    —  reduction to 5 per cent of the rate of VAT on costs of renovating homes empty for three years or more;

    —  zero rate VAT on refurbishment and sale of properties empty for at least 10 years.

  3.9.  These measures were brought into effect under the Finance Act from 12 May 2001. The Empty Homes Agency estimate that around 150,000 long-term empty homes could benefit from the VAT changes. The resulting cost savings will make many potential schemes to re-use empty homes financially viable and help to reduce the barrier presented to owners who face significant repair costs in bringing back to use long-term vacant homes. In addition, the lower rate of VAT will encourage better standards of building works by discouraging use of informal labour.

  3.10.  We estimate that currently about 1,000 flats over shops conversions are undertaken each year in the UK. In England alone there are some 55,000 empty residential flats over shops and there is significant potential to create additional flats by converting vacant storage space above shops. This suggests that the potential impact of the capital allowances concession, particularly in primary/secondary shopping parades, could be very significant.

  3.11.  The Government believes there are real opportunities for local authorities and their partners to encourage innovative approaches that fully exploit these fiscal measures and we will work with organisations such as the Empty Homes Agency to maximise take-up. To this end, the Department, Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise will work together to publish a range of guidance to promote the package of fiscal incentives introduced in the Budget. We are also planning a feasibility study to identify an appropriate methodology to monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of the measures.

  3.12.  The Urban White Paper commits the Government to:

    —  commission a business study designed to persuade commercial property owners to bring redundant commercial properties back into housing use;

    —  commission comprehensive best practice guidance for local authority empty property officers on devising successful empty property strategies;

    —  fund a series of regional seminars to raise awareness and spread best practice; and

    —  support a forum for local authority Empty Property Officers in each region.

  3.13.  The Department is taking these measures forward with the help of the Empty Homes Agency, which was recently awarded funding from the Department's Special Grants Programme worth up to £235,000 over the next three years. Also, provision has been made within the Department's 2001-02 research programme for the best practice studies to be commissioned.

4.  LOW DEMAND AND ABANDONMENT

  4.1. There has been a growing awareness of and interest in the problem of low demand and abandonment, as neighbourhood decline has increased dramatically in some parts of the country. The Social Exclusion Unit commissioned Policy Action Team 7 on Unpopular Housing to explore the problem, which culminated in a seminal report into low demand in October 1999.[4] The report was underpinned by a large-scale research project[5] into the phenomenon, which provided the first comprehensive national study into the scale and incidence of the problem, as well as likely causes and solutions.

  4.2.  The research found that low demand is a cross-tenure problem that has increased in recent years. It is estimated that 470,000 homes in the social rented sector and 375,000 in the private sector are located in low demand neighbourhoods. Only a proportion of these properties are actually empty—abandonment is just one of the extreme consequences of an underlying problem of low demand. But it is clear that the presence of significant numbers of boarded up and abandoned homes can accelerate the decline of an area.

  4.3.  The problem is focused mainly in the North West and North East, Yorkshire and the Humberside and the Midlands. However there are pockets of unpopular housing in other parts of the country.

  4.4.  PAT7 found the reasons for low demand are complex and inter-related. They include local economic and demographic decline following changes in the local job market. Very often housing does not meet modern aspirations (such as the pre-1919 terrace housing common to many low demand neighbourhoods) and is often in poor condition. A poor local environment and problems such as crime and anti-social behaviour can have a negative impact on demand in a particular neighbourhood.

  4.5.  In the light of their findings, PAT7 put forward a range of recommendations to government which are being taken forward. It is clear there are no quick fixes. Central government, local authorities and other key stakeholders are now working to get a grip on the problem through a series of new measures and pilot initiatives. The Government is determined to fulfil its commitment to turn round the incidence of low demand by 2010, but recognises the challenges to delivery.

Government action

  4.6.  The Housing Policy Statement "The Way Forward for Housing" [6] set out a range of measures for tackling problems across the housing market—including low demand. These are now being taken forward.

  4.7.  Investment in housing has been significantly increased, with an extra £1.8 billion being made available for housing over 2001-02 to 2003-04, to deliver improvements to the quality of housing stock and services.

  4.8.  The Government has carried out a review of the indices used to allocate these resources, to ensure a fair allocation to different parts of the country which reflects the scale and nature of local problems. A major element of this review looked at ways in which the index might better reflect the issues of regeneration and low demand. A consultation paper setting out proposals for changes to the indices was issued on 27 July 2001.

  4.9.  We are also working with the Housing Corporation to support its New Approach to Investment which will ensure that social housing is only built where it is most needed and that the Approved Development Programme supports strategic area renewal and regeneration.

Private sector renewal

  4.10.  Nearly £300 million is spent each year by local authorities through the Housing Investment Programme on the renewal of private sector housing. Much of this spending is targeted on turning round low demand areas, through the declaration of renewal areas and the use of renovation grants, group repair and other measures to improve the quality of the area.

  4.11.  The Government has proposed to reform the legislation governing housing renewal in the private sector. A consultation paper[7] was published earlier this year. We propose to lay a regulatory reform order before Parliament in the autumn, which would increase significantly the range of powers available to local housing authorities. The proposals include new powers to give financial assistance in connection with voluntary and compulsory purchase, which will make it easier to clear and redevelop areas facing severe abandonment.

  4.12.  The Government will issue new guidance to local housing authorities to accompany its legislative reforms. The guidance will provide advice on developing a strategic approach to housing renewal, and on the importance of working with other agencies to deliver long-lasting and effective solutions.

Private rented sector

  4.13.  A problematic private rented sector can contribute to abandonment of a neighbourhood. Exploitative landlords, often aided by anti-social tenants, may operate on a large scale, forcing out responsible tenants and owner occupiers and contributing to the spiral of decline.

  4.14.  The Way Forward for Housing confirmed our intention to consult on proposals to give local authorities discretionary powers to license the private rented sector in areas of low demand as a way of tackling this problem. We plan to do this in the autumn.

  4.15.  The Government also encourages voluntary landlord accreditation schemes where landlords agree to submit their property for assessment against a range of condition and management criteria. Most schemes are fairly new but there are schemes actively operated or planned by local authorities and universities in some 68 areas. As envisaged in The Way Forward for Housing, good practice guidance[8] on such schemes was published in May 2001.

Urban and regeneration policies

  4.16.  The Urban White Paper and the National Strategy Action Plan for Neighbourhood Renewal provide a long-term strategy for revitalising towns and cities, improving the quality of services and improving residents' living environment. Measures set out in these documents will help tackle many of the problems linked to low demand such as crime, anti-social behaviour and poverty and by striving to make urban areas more desirable places to live and work.

  4.17.  Poor housing cannot be dealt with in isolation. The key to delivering lasting change in our poorest neighbourhoods is reducing crime; improving health; tackling worklessness; and raising educational achievements. Thus our regeneration programmes are geared towards holistic activity, including support for bringing empty dwellings back into use.

  4.18.  Initiatives emerging from the Action Plan on neighbourhood renewal can also be used to help tackle low demand. For example, Neighbourhood Wardens can check on empty and void properties. They can help to deter vandalism and anti-social behaviour by reporting it to the police and local authority. By doing this they should improve the standards of living in an area, making it a more attractive place to live. This, in turn, will reduce movement away from an area and also encourage the take up of empty properties.

  4.19.  Local Strategic Partnerships offer a unique opportunity to pull together different agencies and stakeholders at the local level to develop new initiatives that address the problems related to neighbourhood deprivation. This comprehensive and strategic approach will be a useful tool in tackling the complex and interrelated problems of low demand.

Role of local authorities and other stakeholders

  4.20.  Local authorities and other local and regional stakeholders, such as RSLs, have a key role to play in turning round low demand and abandonment. We have provided local authorities with a range of guidance and are giving them new tools for tackling this problem. And we made clear in The Way Forward for Housing the importance of authorities developing a stronger, more strategic role across all housing in their areas.

  4.21.  We now look to local authorities to develop comprehensive and forward-looking strategies for addressing demand problems, in consultation with local residents and other key players. A good understanding of regional and local housing markets is vital. We have therefore commissioned a research project to determine the feasibility of collecting data on indicators of low demand at ward level, to better inform national and local level strategies for tackling this issue.

  4.22.  RSLs, supported by the Housing Corporation, have become increasingly involved in regeneration activities. Whilst housing provision is their main focus, their activities can also include regeneration of the housing stock in areas where the physical condition is poor and the provision of facilities and services which contribute to the social and community regeneration of an area. RSLs' "permissible purposes" were extended in 1999 in order to remove any doubts about their legal powers to engage in regeneration activities. In addition, the Housing Corporation is piloting with RSLs Housing Regeneration Companies, which seek to address housing regeneration across tenures (drawing the private as well as public sectors).

  4.23.  Housing Regeneration Companies aim to:

    —  adjust the supply of different housing types to better fit local demand;

    —  promote the use of existing methods and funds to regenerate properties and develop vacant sites;

    —  engage local communities in their activities; and

    —  build effective partnerships with the public, private and voluntary sectors to promote "joined-up" working—eg link housing renewal with urban regeneration policies. There are currently five pilots covering Coventry, Liverpool, London, Rochdale and Hartlepool.

5.  CLEARANCE AND COMPULSORY PURCHASE AND COMPENSATION

  5.1.  Clearance may be an appropriate response for homes in low demand that are in poor condition or obsolete because of their type or location. Such decisions are for local authorities to make, in consultation with local residents and other stakeholders, and depending on individual circumstances such as local market conditions and future demand. However, clearance cannot be seen as a solution on its own and should be implemented alongside other renewal activities, as part of a long-term strategy for the area.

  5.2.  The Government is currently preparing a Policy Statement setting out its proposals for making the system of compulsory purchase and compensation more efficient, more effective and fairer to all parties. This will be published as soon as possible, and will include an assessment of the need for reforming legislation. A recent report also pointed out that the operation of the compulsory purchase system is suffering from a loss of expertise and experience in acquiring authorities. We have therefore commissioned a Guidance Manual to help authorities make more effective use of the current system, which is due to be published in the autumn.

  5.3.  To assist RSLs' regeneration activities and to take forward one of the proposals of PAT7, the Housing Corporation has developed the "new tools initiative". This initiative covers activities such as two into one conversions; medium life rehabilitation; home improvement packages; acquisition for redevelopment and acquisition for demolition.

  5.4.  For acquisition and demolition schemes RSLs work in partnership with a local authority, within an agreed area, to purchase rundown private sector housing for demolition and work in partnership to secure wider renewal. The Housing Corporation is currently piloting acquisition and demolition grants in six areas where demolition of derelict stock is seen as a necessary component of a regeneration strategy—Rochdale, Gateshead, North Tyneside, Bolton, Manchester and County Durham.

  5.5.  Any further use of acquisition and demolition grant is likely to remain very targeted rather than becoming a part of the mainstream Approved Development Programme. The principal responsibility, and source of funding, for the demolition of private sector and local authority housing stock for which there is no longer any demand lies with local authorities. Current DTLR policy is that this should remain the case and that it would not be appropriate to contribute significant funding from the Approved Development Programme for this activity.

  5.6.  Clearance schemes can become complicated when private sector properties subject to compulsory purchase have seen a large drop in value. Where this results in negative equity for the owner, a CPO scheme can be delayed, preventing authorities from taking timely action. Although it would not be advisable for Government to intervene in cases of negative equity as a rule, as this would risk sending the wrong signals to borrowers and lenders, we recognise that there is a role for local authorities in providing additional assistance where it is in the broader public interest to do so. The measures described in paragraphs 4.10 and 4.11 will make it easier for authorities to provide discretionary help in connection with clearance strategies.

  5.7.  The Government is also supporting innovative local solutions to the problems associated with market collapse. It has worked closely with the Local Government Association and Council of Mortgage lenders to find a practical solution to the problem that negative equity can pose for the CPO process, through the piloting of the "Homeswaps" scheme in Salford.

6.  TACKLING EMPTY HOMES THROUGH GOOD PLANNING

  6.1.  The Government's policies for planning for housing are set out in Planning Policy Guidance Note 3[9]: PPG3 requires a fundamental shift in the way local authorities plan for housing. To promote more sustainable patterns of development and make better use of previously-developed land, the focus for additional housing is expected to be existing towns and cities.

  6.2.  Land is a finite resource and urban land and buildings can often be significantly underused. Failure to make the most effective use of the existing housing stock can lead to pressures for unnecessary releases of greenfield land. Local authorities, therefore, are expected to plan for sufficient housing land to meet the needs of their communities but to give priority to re-using previously-developed land within urban areas, bringing empty homes back into use and converting existing buildings, in preference to the development of greenfield sites.

Establishing urban capacity

  6.3.  In order to establish how much additional housing can be accommodated within urban areas and therefore how much greenfield land may be needed for development, all local planning authorities are expected to undertake urban housing capacity studies. These studies are now at the heart of the planning for housing process and form the basis for both the sequential approach set out in PPG3 and the managed release of sites.

  6.4.  In conducting urban housing capacity studies, local planning authorities are encouraged to follow the principles laid down in the Department's good practice guidance.[10]

  6.5.  Capacity studies are expected to identify as many sources of capacity as possible. The guide highlights that empty homes capable of being brought back into use can be a significant source of capacity and should be included in any capacity study. PPG3 makes it clear that studies should draw on empty home reduction strategies that local authorities have in place. The guide provides advice on how best to take assumptions about reductions in vacancies into account in planning for housing.

Strategic planning

  6.6.  Each local authority will be responsible for evaluating the capacity of their area but it is anticipated that regional planning bodies (RPBs) will co-ordinate the programme of capacity studies undertaken by constituent local authorities and maintain consistency of approach by agreeing the standards to be applied.

  6.7.  RPBs are expected to draw on urban housing capacity studies in proposing, and reviewing, the brownfield recycling target for their region and in developing the spatial strategy set out in regional planning guidance (RPG). For example, in some regions or sub-regions there may be concentrations of previously-developed land and buildings within one authority and a lack of it in neighbouring authorities. In such circumstances, the spatial strategy should focus new housing development in areas where brownfield opportunities are available in preference to developing greenfield sites. In assessing the required rate of annual housing provision one of the factors that the regional planning bodies have taken into account is whether there is scope to reduce the level of empty homes.

  6.8.  Structure planning authorities are also expected to draw on urban housing capacity studies to ensure that housing requirements are apportioned between districts in a way that maximises the use of previously-developed land and buildings and minimises the use of greenfield land.

  6.9.  The regional planning strategy set out in RPG has a central role to play in delivering urban renaissance, including improvement in the quality and attractiveness of rundown housing areas in a region. All RPG issued by the Secretary of State since the introduction of the new approach to planning for housing set out in PPG3 provides strategic encouragement to local planning authorities to reduce the level of empty homes.

  6.10.  Where necessary the Secretary of State has made changes to the draft RPG strategy to avoid greenfield releases further undermining low demand areas. For example, the Panel that examined draft RPG for the North East proposed a reduction in the overall level of housing provision and a re-distribution of that housing to the conurbations. This was in part to avoid unnecessary development on greenfield sites which would undermine brownfield development in low demand areas. The Secretary of State accepted the recommendation and made the changes in the RPG he published in April 2001.

Local action

  6.11.  PPG3 provides the framework for preventing the unnecessary development of greenfields for housing and making better use of land already developed. Local planning authorities are expected to work jointly with housing departments to assess the range of needs for different types and sizes of housing across all tenures in their area and to consider not only the need for new housing but ways in which the existing stock might be better utilised to meet the needs of the community. In particular, planning authorities are expected to adopt positive policies to identify and bring into housing use empty housing (and vacant commercial buildings and upper floors above shops) in conjunction with the local authority's housing programme and empty property strategy. Where appropriate properties can be acquired under compulsory purchase procedures.

Monitoring and managing

  6.12.  Vacancy rates are one of the contextual indicators that RPBs are expected to set to help assess the performance of the strategy and in understanding the evolving context in which the strategy operates. Similarly, local planning authorities are encouraged to monitor changes in vacants in order to review whether best use is being made of the existing stock. Good practice guidance is set out in the Department's guide Monitoring Provision of Housing through the Planning System[11].

7.  COUNCIL TAX

  7.1.  When the council tax was introduced, it was intended that bills would relate to the valuation band of the dwelling, but would also take into account occupancy. The full council tax bill is payable where there are two adult residents in a dwelling. A 25 per cent discount applies where there is one resident and a 50 per cent discount where the dwelling is no-one's sole or main residence. There is also a general six month exemption for dwellings which are vacant (that is, unoccupied and substantially unfurnished). Unoccupied dwellings that require major repair works or are undergoing structural alteration are exempt for a maximum of 12 months.

  7.2.  In the Rural White Paper, the Government stated that it will consult on proposals to remove or reduce the 50 per cent council tax discount for second homes. The Secretary of State announced on 6 July that the consultation would be extended to include properties left empty for long periods. This demonstrates the Government's commitment to provide support to revitalise both rural and urban communities. Details of the proposals will be set out in a consultation paper to be published later this year. This change requires primary legislation and the timetable for implementation therefore depends upon responses to consultation and Government decisions about Parliamentary priorities.

8.  GOVERNMENT OWNED VACANT STOCK

  8.1.  The Department compiles annual statistics on the vacant stock for "Other Public Sector" (essentially government departments, their agencies, NDPBs and Housing Action Trusts). In the past, the information provided has not always been complete, particularly for some agencies and NDPBs, and as a result the level of vacancies recorded for "Other Public Sector" is probably an under-statement. However, following a recommendation of the Empty Property Advisory Group, this information is now collected as part of the Green Ministers annual report and we are working with other Departments to improve coverage.

  8.2.  The Department publishes guidance for departments on securing better use of their vacant stock.[12] The current version was published in 1999, although it was last substantially revised in 1995. As recommended by the Empty Property Advisory Group, the Department is planning to publish revised guidance next year.

  8.3.  The Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions is responsible for the activities of the Highways Agency. In undertaking road schemes, the Agency is required to purchase statutorily blighted properties (ie those on the line of the proposed road as well as those within 100 metres of the proposed route where the value can be shown to have diminished by 15 per cent or more as a result of the Agency's proposals). Properties directly affected by the scheme are retained until they are required for construction and demolished, or, in cases where the scheme requirement changes, are declared surplus and sold. Properties not required for a scheme are normally sold as soon as possible following purchase.

  8.4.  Following the transfer of some 500 properties to Transport for London last year, the Agency currently holds some 700 residential properties, of which around 150 are vacant. Vacancy rates are falling and the Department has set a vacancy target for 2001-02 of no more than 15 per cent of the housing stock, with no more than 3 per cent vacant for more than six months. In setting its future property management and disposals strategy, the Agency will seek to make firm distinctions between surplus properties available for disposal and those that will remain in management. This will enable it to make better informed decisions and maximise the use of stock which needs to be retained in the longer term. The Department and the Agency are currently working together to maximise opportunities for using retained stock for social/affordable housing purposes.

  8.5.  The Ministry of Defence is the largest property owning department. Some 17 per cent of the Ministry's housing stock at April 2000 was vacant. In 1996, the Department sold its Married Quarters Estate, comprising of some 57,000 units, to Annington Homes Ltd. Some 2,400 units were immediately released to Annington for disposal and the remainder were leased back to the Ministry on a 200 year lease. Since then a further 7,700 units have been released, with a further 1,500 due for release this year. Properties are generally sold privately on the open market, although some bulk sales have been made to RSLs and developers. The majority of purchasers are first time buyers. A quarter are service or ex-service personnel and a quarter are considered by Annington to be key workers.

  8.6.  One of the major issues for the Defence Housing Executive (the Ministry of Defence agency responsible for providing housing for service personnel) is the effective management of the retained stock. It is in the process of establishing a pilot scheme in the Aldershot area to identify housing that may be vacant for varying periods of time in between service personnel movements to identify opportunities for leasing to RSLs to house people on housing registers and key workers.

  8.7.  The National Health Service Housing Coordinator is currently carrying out an initiative to improve the quality and quantity of residential accommodation available for NHS key workers, particularly in London and the South-east, where shortages of affordable accommodation are creating recruitment and retention difficulties. It is hoped that this initiative will take full account of opportunities to re-use vacant stock owned by NHS Trusts.

  8.8.  There are a number of examples of schemes undertaken by government departments and their agencies where innovative uses have been found for vacant stock. Two schemes involving the Highways Agency and the Prison Service were highlighted in a recent good practice guide[13]. However, this has not yet been adopted as general practice by all Departments and agencies, and in parallel with the Government's efforts to persuade others to make better use of their stock more needs to be done to reduce the level of vacant properties within its own stock, which is considerably higher than can be justified by operational requirements. The Department is therefore determined to continue to work with other Departments and the Empty Homes Agency to ensure that all departments and their agencies strive to reduce the proportion of their stock that remains vacant.

Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions

September 2001


2   Vacant Dwellings in the Private Sector HMSO ISBN 011 753 2142. Back

3   Our towns and cities: the future, the Stationery Office ISBN 0 10 149112 3. Back

4   National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal. Report of Policy Action Team 7 on Unpopular Housing. October 1999. ISBN 1-851123-21-0. Back

5   Low Demand Housing and Unpopular neighbourhoods. DETR. 1-85112-395-4. Back

6   Quality and Choice: A decent home for all. The way forward for housing. HMSO ISBN 1-851124-63-2. Back

7   Private sector housing renewal: reform to the Housing Grant, Construction and Regeneration Act 1996, Local Government and Housing Act 1989 and the Housing Act 1985, DTLR March 2001. Back

8   Developing a voluntary accreditation scheme for private landlords: A guide to good practice, DETR May 2001 ISBN:1851124780. Back

9   Planning Policy Guidance Note 3: Housing: DETR March 2000. Back

10   Tapping the Potential: Assessing Urban Housing Capacity, a Guide to Better Practice. DETR 2000. Back

11   Monitoring Provision of Housing through the Planning System: Towards Better Practice, DETR October 2000. Back

12   Revised Guidance on Securing the Better use of Empty Homes: DETR 1999. Back

13   Tackling London's Empties- A Good Practice Guide: Empty Homes Agency, 2001. Back


 
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