Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda


Memorandum by London Borough of Camden (EMP 51)

EMPTY HOMES

INTRODUCTION

  The London Borough of Camden launched its Empty Property Strategy in 1996. Camden employs a full time officer based in the Housing Advice Service, whose role includes bringing empty properties back into use, compulsory purchase and liaison/development work with private sector landlords.

  Despite the high demand for accommodation in Camden[37], the fact that property values in Camden are extremely high, with the average price of residential property being £337,911 for the period April-June 2001[38] and the market buoyant, there were something in the region of 2,724 empty properties as at 1 April 2001, of which 2,143 had been empty for at least six months.

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

CONSEQUENCES OF LONG-TERM EMPTY PROPERTIES

    —  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.

BENEFITS OF BRINGING EMPTY PROPERTIES BACK INTO USE

    —  Increased Council Tax revenue.

    —  Increase in supply of accommodation.

    —  Potential for additional affordable housing.

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

WHY HOMES ARE LEFT EMPTY

  It is hard to imagine why, in an area such as Camden 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, plus educated guesses 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.

EFFECTIVENESS OF GOVERNMENT POLICY

Budget 2001—VAT reduced rates

  It is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the measures introduced by the 2001 Budget. In Camden 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% 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 Housing Department would welcome the option as an incentive to bring empty properties into use and to increase the supply of housing.

  As, however, this matter has not been the subject of a decision by the Executive Body, it is not possible to comment further.

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 are of the opinion that the use of CPO's is an important element of any empty property strategy. To this end, Camden is currently reviewing its CPO programme. However, it is 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 there ought to be a duty to produce an Empty Property Strategy, which could be evaluated alongside other documents contained in HIP submissions. Boroughs that achieve average or above average assessments could then benefit through additional discretionary HIP allocations that would give them the option of expanding this area of work.

  The use of compulsory purchase should be a feature of any such strategy.

Planning guidance

  Camden's Unitary Development Plan contains 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.

  Such measures are subject to other UDP policies.

LOW DEMAND

  Camden is on the steering group of LAWNE, an alliance of London Boroughs that seeks 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 rehoused in this way, but can advise that one London authority has rehoused 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.

Ruth Newman

Private Sector Development Officer

September 2001


37   There were 12,891 applicants on Camden's Housing Needs Register as at January 2001. Back

38   Source: HM Land Registry. Back


 
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