Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by the Greater London Authority (EMP 40)

EMPTY HOMES

1.  ABOUT THE GREATER LONDON AUTHORITY

  1.1  The Greater London Authority (GLA) established in 2000 covers the 32 London boroughs and the Corporation of London. It is designed to provide city wide strategic government and to promote the economic and social development and the environmental improvement of Greater London.

  1.2  The Mayor is responsible for strategic planning in London and for producing the Spatial Development Strategy for London—which he has chosen to call the London Plan. It is, however, generally accepted that new housing programmes will not be adequate to tackle the shortage of affordable housing and the GLA is looking to a portfolio of planning and other measures for the GLA Housing Strategy, which will be included in the London Plan where appropriate.

  1.3  Making better use of London's existing resources is a key element of the Mayor's plans to increase housing capacity in London. The GLA's London's Housing Capacity published in 2000 estimated, in consultation with the London boroughs, that vacant dwellings brought back into use would account for nearly 25,000 dwellings spread over the plan period, 1997 to 2016.

  1.4  The Mayor committed the GLA to work with the Empty Homes Agency, London councils and businesses to bring back empty properties into use. Given the potential contribution of empty properties to address the severe shortage of accommodation in London, it is essential that the Select Committee investigate the issue of empty property in areas of high and buoyant demand, as well in areas of low demand.

2.  THE SCALE AND NATURE OF THE PROBLEM IN LONDON

  2.1  As at April 2001 the estimated total number of empty dwellings in London was 104,481, of these 85,445 (82 per cent) are in the private sector. The comparable figures for 2000 were 105,200 empty homes, with private sector vacancies totalling 83,400.

  2.2  The vacancy levels in the local authority stock have been going down for some years, from 20,781 empty dwellings or 3.3 per cent of the stock in 1996 to 12,882 dwellings (2.3 per cent of the stock) in 2000 and 11,085 vacant dwellings in 2001. Where vacancy rates are higher than 3 per cent in a borough this is usually a feature of regeneration activity. Generally, across London lower vacancy rates, improved turn round times on empty property, the Right to Buy and zero addition to the stock are contributing to the overall decrease in council lettings in the Capital, ability to move home and increased use of temporary accommodation, especially bed and breakfast hotels.

  2.3  Empty homes in London are not an issue of low demand. London has for some time been experiencing an acute shortage of affordable housing and difficulties recruiting and retaining staff to work in key public services. Despite the demand for accommodation there are still large numbers of private properties lying empty.

  2.4  In 2000 the level of empty privately owned residential properties in London represented 3.7 per cent of all privately owned homes (compared to 2.3-2.8 per cent in social housing).

  Furthermore, around 26,000 of these empty homes had been empty for over a year.

  2.5  As well as being a huge waste of London's resources and a loss of revenue at the local level, long term empty properties can attract crime and put pressure on public services such as fire and police services. Those properties in poor repair contribute to a feeling of neglect and deprivation in some pockets of London and are a magnet for anti social behaviour.

3.  WHY HOMES ARE EMPTY

  3.1  The reasons why homes remain empty in areas of high housing demand are complex. So are the reasons why owners fail to take advantage of the advice and assistance about bringing properties back into use on offer in London. However, some of the main reasons why privately owned accommodation remains empty are as follows:

    —  Substantial funds are required to repair to a sufficient standard to be habitable. (In a recent GLA survey (2001 to be published), 19 London boroughs reported that they offered financial assistance to owners to repair or renovate long term empties, usually in exchange for the opportunity to nominate applicants to the accommodation for a fixed period of time. Financial assistance is often limited to a particular amount or percentage of the cost of the works, leaving owners to find the remaining funds. There are owners for whom this is not possible. In addition, despite these boroughs allocating over £10 million pounds to empty property schemes in 2001-02 this amount can only tackle a very small proportion of properties requiring repair in London.)

    —  the perception of owners that offering the property for rent is too risky, in terms of rent arrears, potential damage and `hassle';

    —  properties are stuck in probate or after probate the beneficiary is unclear what to do with the property;

    —  the owner is not aware that he/she owns the property or the owner lives elsewhere in the country or in another country and it is easy to ignore the property;

    —  with rising house prices, property companies/developers 'sit' on properties until they can be developed or sold;

    —  there is no strong social stigma to having an empty property within the private sector (compared to the climate that exists within local authority and RSL owned stock).

4.  ADDITIONAL MEASURES TO BE TAKEN BY GOVERNMENT, THE HOUSING CORPORATION, LOCAL AUTHORITIES AND OTHERS

  4.1  Efforts made by the Government to ensure that housing and planning authorities have regard to maximising the use of empty properties have been important. It is too early to assess the impact of changes to VAT on improvements but this was a welcome change in policy. However, there are several actions the Government could take that would further support the work of local authorities and others. The GLA strongly supports those agencies and bodies that have argued that:

    —  Local authorities should be permitted discretion to charge full or indeed, punitive council tax on homes empty for a year or more. In the current housing climate it is perverse to offer an incentive to keep a property empty.

    —  Local authorities should be statutorily obliged to establish a comprehensive, corporate, Empty Homes Strategy. Such a strategy should not just be the responsibility of housing departments but involve planning, revenue, regeneration, environmental health and valuers. Although the recent GLA survey found that all but two London boroughs have now developed such a strategy, a statutory duty would underline the importance attached to the issue by the Government and help officers keep the issue high on the political agenda. It will also make local authorities more clearly accountable for fulfilling their strategy.

    —  Empty property officers should be given access to council tax records for the purposes of identifying empty properties and their owners. Whilst officers in almost two thirds of London boroughs have negotiated local agreements to utilise council tax records, there exists great uncertainty and fear among staff about the legitimacy of doing so under the Data Protection Act.

    —  The Compulsory Purchase procedure should be simplified and local authorities encouraged to adopt a more aggressive approach to using their Compulsory Purchase powers. The GLA survey found that during the last five years only around 73 empty properties have been compulsorily purchased by London boroughs (although these alone provided an additional 300 repaired or renovated homes).

    —  Additional resources need to be made available to local authorities and RSLs to support schemes that make use of privately owned homes to provide rented accommodation for those in housing need (including homeless households and key workers).

    —  Private owners need to be encouraged to offer accommodation for letting. One of the main obstacles in London is the delay in the assessment and receipt of Housing Benefit. Outsourcing of the service together with the introduction of new verification procedures has exacerbated this long-standing issue in many parts of London.

5.  GOVERNMENT DEPARTMENTS AND THEIR AGENCIES

  5.1  The GLA is currently working with its own functional bodies (the Metropolitan Police Authority, Transport for London, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority and the London Development Agency) to collate information on residential property owned within the group and to ensure that properties are put to best use. Where possible the GLA will encourage functional bodies to consider disposing of unused or empty sites for schemes that can provide affordable housing.

  5.2  Similarly Government departments and their agencies should be required to provide and publish annual information on the number of empty homes within their ownership or management. At present it is extremely difficult to gather data to establish the scale of the problem in London and whether any progress is being made. In the GLA survey twelve boroughs were aware of around 330 empty homes owned by institutional landlords, the NHS being the most commonly cited landlord.

GLA Housing and Homelessness

Policy and Partnerships Directorate

September 2001


 
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Prepared 24 October 2001