Memorandum by Shelter (EMP 44)
Shelter welcomes the opportunity to respond
to this Inquiry. The issue of empty homes is particularly important
at a time when the lack of affordable homes is resulting in increasing
numbers of homeless households being housed in temporary accommodation,
including in bed and breakfast (B&B) hotels.
Empty homes are part of the landscape in too
many areas of the country. In some cases homes can be left empty
while demand for housing far outstrips current supply. There is
a need to ensure we maximise the use of housing in these areas.
In areas where demand for housing is lower, there is a need to
understand better the range of reasons for this low demand, and
to take corrective action where necessary. These policy options
will however, require a new determination and new powers to ensure
Empty homes can blight areas very quickly and
result in social, economic and environmental costs to local neighbourhoods.
In short, it is not just the empty house that is at issue, but
also the knock-on effect for the wider community. Homes that are
empty even for only a short period can have a detrimental impact
on local areas.
In certain parts of the country, there are neighbourhoods
which are unpopular. The reasons for this are complex and reflect
fundamental economic and demographic changes. One of the effects
of these changes is large numbers of empty homes in the social
and private sectors.
In other areas, local authority properties remain
empty for a range of management reasons. A survey of a number
of local authorities undertaken for Shelter in 1999 (No excuse
not to build, Kleinman et al) shows that within the local authority
and housing association stock, the main reasons for empty properties
causing problems were due to:
Delays in nominationsfrom
local authorities to housing associations, leaving the property
empty for a longer period than necessary.
Unsuitable offers being maderesulting
in refusal and delay in reletting.
Crimevandalism and theft from
vacant properties can result in serious delays in reletting. Initiatives
to deal with security not only highlighted the fact that property
was empty, but acted as a disincentive to potential tenants.
Repairsdelays in tendering
and reservicing works.
More effective management practices and better
and quicker processes for allocating properties could tackle these
issues. In the private sector however, there is a need for a broader
range of initiatives to encourage properties to be brought back
into use, and many of these are reviewed below.
Efforts to reduce the number of empty private
sector properties in high demand areas should be focussed on bringing
the property back into use to meet housing need, either as long
term accommodation or as temporary accommodation for homeless
households. There are currently over 11,000 homeless households
in England living in B&B hotels due to the shortage of more
Where properties are compulsorily purchased
by local authorities in high demand areas one of the first options
they should, as a priority, consider is using the property for
temporary accommodation for homeless households. They could either
manage the property themselves or through a leasing scheme managed
by a housing association.
Local authorities should make use of powers
enabling them to specify conditions on private sector renewal
grants to improve empty homes. Such powers can be used to require
the owner to lease the improved property to a housing association
that could then manage the property as temporary housing for homeless
households. Alternatively grant conditions could require that
the owner lets the accommodation to households nominated by the
The vast majority of empty homes are to be found
in the private sector and within property owned by Government
departments. It is perhaps in these sectors that new initiatives
should be targeted. There will remain however, more that some
local authorities can do to bring empty properties in their own
stock back into use, and our proposals for action respond to both
The Government has set a target that only 3
per cent of homes should be empty. While we welcome this, there
will be scope in many areas to reduce the level to well below
this, using good management systems. However, if this target is
set for local authorities, we believe it should also be set for
Government departments. Reusing currently empty Government homes
could contribute significantly to local strategies to meet housing
need. Local public service agreements could be a mechanism for
ensuring that the target is met both locally and nationally.
We welcome the Government's proposals to consult
on providing a new power for local authorities to end the council
tax rebate for second and empty homes, and will respond to this
process. However, we are uncertain this will go far enough in
acting as a disincentive to landlords and owners. Instead, we
would welcome consideration to be given to either requiring or
enabling local authorities to charge double council tax on empty
homes. This would more accurately reflect the costs that empty
homes can have on neighbourhoods in reducing their economic and
While there remains the need to ensure proper
protection is given to owners for housing to protect from unfair
state intervention, the current rules for obtaining CPOs are over-burdensome,
complicated and time consuming. While the DTLR have been looking
at these rules for some time, there is a need for rationalising
to be undertaken quickly.
Even with rather cumbersome regulations, some
local authorities have managed to take decisive action to reduce
empty homes. In Westminster, for example, the willingness to use
CPO powers has resulted in 160 properties being brought back into
use. The majority of these have been able to be used quickly,
sometimes using grants, or are sold privately. Others have been
leased to housing associations to provide accommodation to households
in need. Only a small number of landlords have taken the issue
to public enquiry stage.
We fully support the need for all local authorities
to adopt an empty homes strategy. It is important however, that
local authorities have the necessary tools to achieve reductions
in empty homes through their strategies, which is why there remains
a need for the proposals outlined above to be taken on board.
Strategies need to have clear aims and targets,
be adequately resourced and reviewed regularly to ensure the aims
are being met. Such strategies should be linked to local housing
strategies and to the new requirement to draw up homelessness
strategies contained within the Homelessness Bill. They should
take an overview of local housing policy and practice, to ensure
a reduction in void times, in addition to seeking to bring private
sector housing back into use.
It will be important for strategies to be developed
as a partnership between housing departments, planners and the
local community, to ensure ownership by a wide range of interested
Strategies should identify the role of CPOs,
short life housing initiatives and the use of council tax charging
powers, including commitments from all local social housing landlords
to meet and exceed the Government target for empty homes. It should
also include commitments from Government departments with property
in the locality to meet this target.
Clearly, the most appropriate measure would
be to identify and prevent homes from being empty. The strategy
should include a commitment from the local authority and housing
associations to work towards this aim. It is much more problematic
to include the private sector, however, although the strategy
should include commitments to work with private landlords to identify
I trust these comments are useful. We would
be willing to give oral evidence if this would help in the Inquiry.
In the meantime if there is anything within this submission that
needs clarifying, please contact Matthew Waters, Shelter Policy
Unit on 020 7505 2055.