Memorandum by London Borough of Hammersmith
and Fulham (EMP 32)
Hammersmith and Fulham covers just 6.33 square
miles, but is the home to around 157,000 people, making the borough
one of the smallest but most densely populated in London.
Our borough is one of contrasts. Affluence and
prosperity are mixed with high levels of deprivation and poverty.
Strong local economic growth in the late 1990s has lead to the
Hammersmith area becoming a regional business and employment centre.
Many major international businesses, including the BBC and Coca-Cola
have established their corporate headquarters within the borough.
Property prices and private rents are the fourth highest in London,
and indeed the country. Household incomes have risen sharply in
recent years and are well above national average levels. Despite
this the borough is classified as the 18th most deprived local
authority area in England. Even this under-represents the nature
of disadvantage, given that half of the census enumeration districts
in the borough are in the poorest 10 per cent of all enumeration
districts in England and many are in the poorest one per cent.
Many wards in the borough are amongst the most deprived in the
Whilst the borough's private housing sector
is larger than many other London boroughs, the proportion of this
tenure which is available as affordable housing is small and under
threat. The demand for affordable and below market rent housing
has not correspondingly decreased and there is strong evidence
from increased levels of homelessness that there is increasing
demand. This means that whilst the most vulnerable can access
social housing, others in housing need cannot. The options for
these people are limited; however, many have managed to find housing
within the private rented sector.
Today, despite many successes and local economic
success there is increasing social, economic and environmental
polarisation between the majority of residents who are well housed
and in well paid employment, and a sizeable population who remain
on low incomes, living in unsatisfactory housing conditions.
Current information shows that there are 4000
private sector residential empty properties of which 1800 have
been empty for more than six months and 1300 for more than a year.
Crime, including vandalism
Damage to neighbouring property
Detrimental effect on neighbouring
Loss of Council Tax revenue
Contributes to shortage of accommodation
Contributes to increased use of bed
and breakfast accommodation by Homeless Persons Units
Concentrations of empty property
mean reduced numbers of local customers for local businesses fueling
Reduced rental income to owners damages
Increased Council Tax revenue
Increase in supply of accommodation
Potential for additional affordable
Potential for Housing Association
Leasing Schemes, which reduce temporary accommodation budgets
and provide more suitable accommodation for homeless applicants
Contributes to urban regeneration
enhancing local economy.
It is hard to imagine why, in an area such as
Hammersmith and Fulham with the third highest housing costs in
the country owners leave properties standing empty.
Examples of reasons given are:
lacks skills/knowledge to manage property;
complex probate cases, including
difficulties tracing beneficiaries;
purchased vacant as investmentowner
can make profit without refurbishing and or letting due to escalating
speculative purchase by owner who
lacks funds to redevelop and or skills/knowledge to manage;
abandonment, sometimes due to age
ignorance of options available including
grants and private finance;
in the case of partoccupied
premises, some landlords deliberately fail to replace tenants
and allow the property to fall into a state of disrepair in order
to get rid of regulated tenants paying fair rents;
no financial penalty for keeping
empty property above shopsplanning
restrictions, unsuitable means of access, reluctant freeholders,
sometimes low demand;
costs of repair and refurbishment
prohibitively expensive to many owners who have difficulty raising
Budget 2001VAT reduced rates
It is too early to measure the effectiveness
of these changes. There have only been a limited number of enquiries
since the changes were announced.
The law as it stands does not act as an incentive
for owners of long-term empties to bring them back into residential
use because of the 50 per cent reduction in council tax after
six months. While charging full council tax is unlikely by itself
to dissuade owners from keeping homes emptyparticularly
in areas where council tax charges are lowthe officers
are of the opinion that such a measure would make it less desirable
to leave properties standing empty. A further incentive to return
dwellings to residential use would be the discretion to impose
a punitive charge on long-termeg three years plusempties.
We would not, however, advocate charging the full rate to an owner
who legitimately faces difficulty in bringing property back into
use. Charging full council tax on empty properties would limit
local authorities ability to identify empty residential properties
through the council tax register.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to empty
property work, is the restriction on councils sharing information,
particularly council tax records.
The Council Tax department of most local authorities
has information regarding the ownership of every empty property
in their area. However, they are unable to share this information
due to data protection laws.
There is some dispute, as to whether the restriction
comes about because of Data Protection issues, or the Local Government
Finance Act, which restricts the use of Council Tax Data for anything
other than Council Tax collection.
One view is that sharing information regarding
ownership details would be a breach of the Data Protection Act,
and not the Local Government Finance Act. Another authority has
obtained a legal opinion that local authorities are not prevented
by law from sharing this data.
This is an anomaly, which must be addressed.
It is absurd 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
Whilst the council tax register remains the
best potential source of information on residential empty properties
it is not comprehensive. Empty flats above shops are often charged
business rates rather than council tax. Such properties are only
recorded as empty if the commercial unit, usually the shop below
is also empty. In urban areas such as inner London flats above
shops often make up the majority of long-term empty residential
properties. In Hammersmith and Fulham for example out of 1300
properties that have been empty for more than a year, nearly 1000
are flats above shops. There needs to be stricter guidance on
council tax charging to enable local authorities to adequately
identify and target solutions at this key area of the urban empty
Hammersmith and Fulham Members have given Officers
authority to carry out compulsory purchase of private sector empty
properties. We find it a useful tool as part of the overall strategy
however most cases are resolved informally without the need to
use this legal power. The inclusion of CPO's is an important element
of our empty property strategy. It is, however, appropriate that
such powers should be used only as a last resort and action should
always be in the public interest and reflect local housing need.
The use of compulsory purchase should form an
integral part of any such strategy if it is to be effective, but
must be considered within the overall framework of an enforcement
concordat. A concordat approach ensures that CPOs are used in
a transparently fair way, and are used only where all other alternatives
We note that CPO procedure is currently subject
to review and would make the following observations:
we welcome the introduction of a
comprehensive CPO manual and training for Compulsory Purchase
Officers, as recommended by the Advisory Group reviewing CPO procedures;
we would endorse the Advisory Group's
recommendation of the introduction of a fast-track procedure for
We would welcome the introduction of measures
to speed up and simplify the mechanism for resolving disputes
over the level of compensation. The accrual of interest from the
date of vesting means that local authorities can be faced with
paying very large sums in interest where there is a long delay
in agreeing compensation. A possible solution to this is to allow
the local authority to make an advance payment of up to 90 per
cent of its valuation immediately after taking possession whether
or not the owner makes a claim for such a payment.
One possible option which we feel could be developed
further is a Compulsory Leasing Scheme which we understand is
currently used in Holland. This is understood to involve the local
authority seeking permission to force a lease on an empty property
and undertaking refurbishment costs to make the property fit and
ready for letting. The property can then be used as social housing
and the fair rent, which would be paid to the local authority
to pay off the cost of refurbishment. This cost would therefore
dictate the term of the compulsory lease and at the end of the
term the property can be handed back to the owner in a reasonable
standard who has would hopefully have received the guidance and
business advice to undertake the management of the property either
themselves or engage the services of another, to hopefully avoid
the property becoming empty again in the future. Hammersmith and
Fulham is seeking permission to pilot this scheme as a freedom
and flexibility as part of the Public Service Agreement
Empty Property strategies
The priority given to empty property work and
the approach of a local authority to this area of work varies
enormously across the country, as does the nature and extent of
A requirement to draw up an empty property strategy
would focus attention on the matter, would encourage authorities
to take a corporate approach to dealing with empty properties
and would be a useful tool in assessing the position nationally
and achieving consistency.
We would suggest that DTLR consider implementation
as well as adoption of an empty property strategy.
An important part of an empty property strategy
must be a local authorities' enabling role to develop training
advice and education for "amateur" landlords/owners.
Our experience shows that many owners allow properties to become
and remain empty because they do not have the skills to make effective
business decisions. A key part of Hammersmith and Fulham's housing
strategy is to improve standards in the private rented sector
by equipping landlords with these skills. Hammersmith and Fulham
believe that this approach will have long-term benefits in enabling
landlords to return properties to use, and to avoid properties
becoming empty in the first place. Prevention has got to be better
than any cure. Schemes such as this need to fit into an overall
strategy for the private rented sector and are linked to other
initiatives such as the enforcement concordat and landlord accreditation.
Local authorities should maintain a register
of residential empty properties, changes in guidance on the use
of council tax information would allow information to be derived
form this source. A register would be a vital resource for local
authorities in targeting their action on empty property. It would
also allow better auditing of local authorities estimates of numbers
of empty property.
The current Best Value Performance Indicator
relating to private sector empty properties (BVPI64) is broad.
Whilst we welcome the scope that this allows for local authorities
to adopt a wide range of strategies to tackle empty properties,
we have concerns that it can be interpreted very differently making
comparisons between different local authorities difficult, and
not portraying a true picture of local authority effectiveness
and performance. The indicator needs to require a stronger link
between the enabler used by the local authority and the outcome
of properties returned to use.
Planning guidance should contain measures to
facilitate and encourage the use of empty property for residential
increasing the amount of land in
residential use and making the fullest use of vacant or underused
buildings considered suitable for residential development ;
encouraging change of use to residential
in buildings that are surplus to requirements.
Hammersmith and Fulham public sector voids are
among the lowest in London and performance on turn around times
have improved year on year and we believe we have now reached
a point where void times are so low that further improvement can
only be very small.
Hammersmith and Fulham is part of LAWNE, an
alliance of London Boroughs, working to co-ordinate and promote
regional mobility by allowing housing applicants voluntarily to
move from London, where there is an acute shortage of affordable
housing, to the Midlands and the North, where properties stand
empty due to low demand.
For some time, various London authorities have
been developing links with authorities in the North in order to
offer their applicants the chance to find affordable accommodation
that is either not available to them at all or that entails a
long stay in temporary accommodation first. We do not have figures
on how many applicants have been re-housed in this way, but can
advise that one London authority alone has re-housed 50 families.
This strategic approach to matching lowdemand
properties to applicants in areas of high demand is a good example
of how joint working can help provide creative solutions to problems
of supply and demand, allow greater choice to housing applicants
and reduce expenditure on temporary accommodation.