Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by Shelter (EMP 44)

EMPTY HOMES

  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 their success.

CONSEQUENCES OF EMPTY HOMES

  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.

SOCIAL HOUSING: WHY THERE ARE EMPTY HOMES

  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 nominations—from local authorities to housing associations, leaving the property empty for a longer period than necessary.

    —  Unsuitable offers being made—resulting in refusal and delay in reletting.

    —  Crime—vandalism 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.

    —  Repairs—delays 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.

EMPTY PRIVATE SECTOR HOMES: MEETING HOUSING NEED

  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 suitable housing.

  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 local authority.

TARGET FOR REDUCING THE NUMBER OF EMPTY HOMES

  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 these imperatives.

  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.

COUNCIL TAX

  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 social viability.

COMPULSORY PURCHASE ORDERS (CPOS)

  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.

EMPTY HOMES STRATEGIES

  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 parties.

  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 potential problems.

  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.

Chris Holmes

Director

September 2001


 
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