Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Paul Palmer Esq (EMP 35)



  I have been a dedicated full time Empty Property Practitioner for five years.

  I worked at the London Borough of Newham as their first ever empty property officer for two and a half years. I wrote and implemented their first strategy and brought over 200 properties back into use.

  I was privileged to win a national award from the Empty Homes Agency for my work.I then left Newham to work at the Empty Homes Agency as local authority executive, training empty property officers and local authorities all over the country. I also currently serve as the secretary of the National Association of Empty Property Practitioners, and chair of the Central London empty property officers group. I have also acted as a consultant to the Greater London Authority on its London Empty Property Strategy, the DTLR, and several private sector bodies. I am currently the Empty Property Officer for the City of Westminster.


  My experience of seeing empty properties around the country has helped me to see all the factors and issues surrounding empty homes.

  I saw for myself the effect of empty homes in places like Coventry and Newcastle.

  Areas that were once vibrant and prosperous, not necessarily in a material sense, but rich in community spirit, are now wastelands, barren areas with just a few die hards, scared for their safety.

  In the South, the issues are different. Areas such as Epsom and other affluent areas in the south east, seldom admit to a problem, but they do have empty property.

  It is important to note that ALL authorities have empty property. Some due to low demand, some due to deprivation and some due to natural causes such as deceased owner-occupiers with no family.

  However, in the south the issues range from inner London authorities such as Newham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets who have large numbers of empty property along with a huge need for more, to areas such as Horsham, with relatively few empty properties and little demand.

  All these areas face the same issue of blight, nuisance and the eyesore of visual pollution that such empties create.

  I have experienced at first hand the despair of neighbours whose homes suffer terribly due to the empty property next door or nearby. Rodent infestation, damp, arson, squatting, vandalism, drug dealing and taking, all stem from such properties, leaving surrounding residents powerless when these properties are in the private sector.

  There is evidence that the fire brigades and Police forces are concerned about empty property, having to attend to properties that are the subject of arson or crime.

  In Newham, I met with senior offices who explained that they often boarded empty property at their own expense, with no prospect of reclaiming the expense. We set up a referral service, whereby officers from stations across the borough could report empty properties to me and I would work to bring it back into use, thus removing the problem.

Financial Implications

  There are huge financial implications of empty property. I once calculated that some 50 billion pounds is wiped off the capital value of property in this country. This was based on the RICS, (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors); report that states that empty property devalues neighbouring property by 10 per cent. If you take the recent average price of property in the country as £117,000, this would be £17,000. Times this by the number of long term empties only, the worst ones, which is 250,000 and you have = a lot of money!

  Added to which is the loss of council tax revenue approx. £50,000,000 and it is easy to see the financial losses.

  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, and keyworkers,

    —  removal of eyesores and crime risks,

    —  increase in Council Tax receipts

    —  removal of potential fraud, by owners claiming discount on occupied property,

    —  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.

Why left empty?

  The question as to why homes are left empty is difficult to answer considering the value that most properties attract. However, they fall into the following areas:

    —  large estates such as Freshwater, who seem to have such vast estates that leaving a few empty is of no concern to them,

    —  small time landlords who buy speculatively but who do not have the resources or knowledge to finish the scheme, and

    —  properties that have fallen out of ownership due to the death of the owner.

2001 Budget

  The effectiveness of the measures brought about by the 2001 budget is a little early to comment on. However, we have yet to see large scale publicising of them. Also, builders and developers have access to this information from their own sources, and will not always be working with the empty property officer. There is a need for Central Government through the DTLR to publicise the role of empty property officers in a larger way. This could be done by supporting the National Association of Empty Property Practitioners. It is hoped that the results will be seen for themselves in an overall reduction in the figures of long-term empties over the next few years.

  It is pleasing to note that the criterion for claiming the reduction in VAT includes evidence from the local empty property officer. This gives increased recognition to the important role that these officers have, recognition that is often overlooked by many authorities.

Statutory Duty

  It is my view that it should be a statutory duty for authorities to produce a strategy, but also that the strategy should be implemented.

  Anyone can produce a strategy and tick a box stating so, however, putting it into action is another matter.

  This will mean that targets will have to be set nationally by the DTLR and authorities that do not perform need to be penalised. Obviously these targets will need to be set locally, as the issue varies in size and nature across the country.

  Epsom for example, does not have the same problems as does the L.B Hackney, but it does have empty property, therefore strategies need to be strategically focussed to address local issues and local solutions.

  This will mean that authorities cannot just produce a strategy by cut and pasting from other authorities, they will have to do some research locally. This heightens the case for a dedicated officer, although some authorities would be hard pressed to justify a full time officer.

Council Tax

  I would 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, I would like this power to be discretionary, allowing flexibility when determining which properties to target. For example, one wouldn't 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.

  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.

  Most Council Tax departments 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 ridiculous 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 Orders. (CPO's)

  CPO's 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 on:

    —  the local environment;

    —  quality of life for local residents and people who work and visit in the area;

    —  perception of the work carried out by local authorities.

  In my 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, I 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 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.

  I believe that, in general terms, the existing procedures relating to CPO's work well. However, I 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 CPO's 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.

  As well as tackling the complex procedures it is considered that if the use of CPO's is to make a significant contribution to the overall success of empty property strategies on a nationwide basis the following issues need to be addressed:


  CPO's have long been perceived in a negative light and this has fuelled reluctance amongst local authorities to use them. CPO's need to be projected in a far more positive way, particularly highlighting the major contribution they can make to the overall success of Empty Property and regeneration Strategies.


  There is a common misconception amongst local authorities that CPO's are costly and cannot be accommodated within capital expenditure programmes. The special funding rules that apply to CPO's, which ensure this is not the case, need to be spelled out in clear terms.


  Many local authorities have, at best, only limited knowledge of CPO procedures and practice. If, as in Westminster, CPO's are seen as an essential complement to a successful empty property strategy, it is imperative that training programmes are put in place so that relevant staff can develop understanding and experience in this specialist function which involves a long learning curve.

My Recommendations

    —  there should be increased recognition of the work of empty property practitioners;

    —  it should be a statutory duty to have an empty property strategy;

    —  authorities should have discretionary power to charge full/punitive Council Tax;

    —  the issue of data sharing must be resolved;

    —  CPO's must be streamlined.


  As a practitioner with several years experience in this field, I welcome the heightened prominence the issue has received recently, and welcome the select committees involvement.

  I applaud the efforts of the Empty Homes agency who have worked hard to get us to this stage, and look forward to the National Association of Empty Property Practitioners taking up this role in the future.

  I hope that recommendations made by the committee will be implemented and that this will facilitate the necessary changes to enable the reduction of empty, wasted homes in this country.

Paul Palmer

Empty Property Practitioner

September 2001

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2001
Prepared 24 October 2001