Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Central London Empty Property Officers' Forum (EMP 34)


  The Central London Empty Property Officers' Forum was formed in June 2001 to provide an opportunity for officers working in central London boroughs to share knowledge and experience and to promote good practice. Officers whose posts include responsibility for bringing empty properties back into use from the following boroughs currently attend regular meetings:

    City of Westminster

    London Borough of Brent

    London Borough of Camden

    London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham

    Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.

  It should be noted that the opinions expressed in this submission do not necessarily convey the views of the boroughs, a number of whom are submitting individual memoranda to the Inquiry.


  Accommodation in central London is in great demand; property values across Greater London are extremely high, with the average price of residential property in the five boroughs listed above ranging from £171,253 to £567,952[36] and the market is buoyant. Despite these factors, there were something in the region of 105,000 empty properties as at 1 April 2001, of which a third had been empty for at least six months.

  The evidence and comments in this submission relate to local experience only.


    —  Crime, including vandalism

    —  Blight

    —  Eyesore

    —  Nuisance/antisocial behaviour

    —  Damage to neighbouring property

    —  Detrimental effect on neighbouring property values

    —  Loss of Council Tax revenue

    —  Contributes to shortage of accommodation

    —  Contributes to increased use of bed and breakfast accommodation by Homeless Persons Units

    —  Costs to local authorities and other agencies such as the police, for dealing with all the above.


    —  Increased Council Tax revenue

    —  Increase in supply of accommodation, especially for key workers

    —  Potential for additional affordable housing

    —  Potential for Housing Association Leasing Schemes, which reduce temporary accommodation budgets and provide more suitable accommodation for homeless applicants


  It is hard to imagine why, in an area such as central London, with its high demand for property to buy and to rent and consequential high purchase and rental prices, owners leave properties standing empty. Examples of reasons given are:

    —  property inherited—beneficiary lacks skills/knowledge to manage property;

    —  complex probate cases, including difficulties tracing beneficiaries;

    —  purchased vacant as investment—owner can make profit without refurbishing and or letting due to escalating prices;

    —  speculative purchase by owner who lacks funds to redevelop and or skills/knowledge to manage;

    —  abandonment, sometimes due to age or ill-health;

    —  ignorance of options available including grants and private finance;

    —  in the case of part—occupied 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 property empty;

    —  planning Disputes.


Budget 2001—VAT reduced rates

  It is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the measures introduced by the 2001 Budget. There has been no discernable increase in renovation of empty properties nor has there been an increased demand for renovation grants. It will be necessary to monitor the overall figures for empty properties over a number of years to see if there is a general reduction.

Council Tax

  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 empty—particularly in areas where council tax charges are low—the 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-term—eg three years plus—empties. We would not, however, advocate charging the full rate to an owner who legitimately faces difficulty in bringing property back into use.

  One of the biggest obstacles 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 up government".

Compulsory purchase

  Compulsory Purchase can be an extremely effective tool for empty property practitioners where owners are unwilling voluntarily to bring properties back in to use. We consider that the use of CPO's is an important element of any empty property strategy. The City of Westminster already has an active and very successful CPO programme using its powers under the Housing Act 1985. Publicity for an authority's CPO policy is crucial, so that owners of long-term empty properties are fully aware of the consequences of failing voluntarily to bring empty properties into residential use. It is; however, appropriate that such powers should be used only as a last resort and in the public interest.

  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 uncontested CPOs;

    —  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.

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 empty properties.

  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.

  The use of compulsory purchase should form an integral part of any such strategy if it is to be effective.

Planning guidance

  Planning guidance should contain measures to facilitate and encourage the use of empty property for residential purposes, namely:

    —  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.


  Local authority and RSL empties are generally low in central London, due to high demand.

  In Central London and many other parts of the country, the increasing difficulty in recruiting and retaining nursing staff has led to the setting up of the Starter Homes Initiative and other schemes to house these and other key workers. At the same time, however, some NHS trusts have sold off their staff accommodation—in many cases offering no alternative accommodation to staff. Accordingly it is necessary, when considering key worker accommodation, to address the use of existing property owned by health authorities, the police and other key worker employers and, where necessary, to introduce measures to ensure that such property is not disposed of.


  LAWNE, an alliance of London Boroughs, is 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 low—demand 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.

September 2001

36   Source: HM Land Registry figs for April-June 2001. Back

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