Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Empty Homes Agency (AFH 58)


   The Empty Homes Agency is an independent campaigning charity that seeks to raise awareness of the issue of empty homes in England and to work with others to devise and promote solutions to bring properties back into use.


  The Agency supports the definition of Affordable Housing outlined in DETR Circular 06/98, that Affordable Housing comprises of low-cost market and subsidised housing regardless of ownership for people who are unable to access rented or the purchased sector on the open market. We also support the guidance outlined in Planning Policy Guidance Note 3, that what is considered "affordable" should be determined locally and subject to local circumstances.


  We believe that there are three key schemes that could improve the existing supply of affordable housing. These are:

Compulsory leasing

  Around 85 per cent of empty properties are in the private sector. Despite the excellent work by local authorities to bring some of these properties back into use by combining grants with subsequent nomination rights, there are still large numbers of long-term empty properties in high demand areas where the owner is not interested in taking action. For example there are approximately 1,000 such properties in Hammersmith and Fulham alone.

  The Empty Homes Agency supports giving local authorities a new discretionary power of compulsory leasing. This is a move beyond grants and before the established compulsory purchase order, and would be used where a property has been empty for a substantial period and the owner cannot give a reason why the property should remain empty, the property could be taken over on a fixed term lease. The property would be improved and nomination rights would be obtained for the length of the lease for possibly homeless families or key workers. It is a win-win scenario as the rent stream would pay for the capital works, the property returns to the owner at the end of the lease in a better state, and accommodation would have been supplied at an affordable rent in a high demand area.

  At the end of the lease the owner could be given training on being a landlord or given advice on other lettings options to ensure the property is still brought back into use. This is not designed to be punitive but to show "accidental landlords" the benefits to them of bringing a property back into use.

  The recent select committee investigation into empty homes recommended a pilot of this scheme and the EHA urges this investigation to consider a similar recommendation as a key element of providing affordable rental accommodation.


  Short-life is temporary guaranteed accommodation provided by a housing co-operative. They provide excluded contractual tenancies, which means that there is no judicial discretion and tenants can be moved on if the co-op has up to six months notice. This option is ideal for ensuring that empty properties are used pending a demolition or regeneration scheme.

  Short-life also provides more affordable rents. For example: Brent Community Housing provide 75 per cent of their short-life accommodation to key workers who would struggle to find alternative accommodation.

  Yet short-life does not have a high profile in the housing sector but does represent a viable solution in the short-term. The EHA urges the committee to make a visit to a short-life provider to see the vital contribution that this type of affordable housing can make in a high demand area.

Mobility schemes

  One factor that the committee should consider is the number of affordable homes in areas of low demand especially in the north of the country. The EHA would like to highlight the innovative work undertaken by Burnley and Padiham Community Housing as it has so far offered affordable housing to 65 families formerly living in London. They offered a holistic package including a home, school, doctor and links to local employers. This movement has freed up affordable homes in London for other families and has created new local demand in a previously low demand area.

  Although only a small part of the affordable homes solution, it deserves some more attention. Can this supply and demand be matched up together with job opportunities? How can housing associations fund the initial work to make good the empty properties? Is there a case for a national scheme to co-ordinate such movement and where could pump priming funding be sought?


  The EHA would generally encourage local planning authorities to consider using "cash in lieu" payments from planning gain agreements for affordable housing to be used for bringing empty property back into use as affordable housing.


  The Agency believe that while overall targets at a Regional and County level are useful, the actual provision figures should be set at a District, Borough or City level where specific figures can be set for these areas and be based on actual site provision and knowledge.

  In Regional Planning Guidance, the way the housing provision figures are presented need to be more transparent. National policy promotes making use of existing property as well as new build, but the figures in the final guidance do not reflect this. By not accounting for this means that there is no incentive to address this issue in terms of numbers. Housing figures should show what allowances for empty property (residential and non-residential) have been made, and include targets for reusing empty property along side the figures for new build provision.

  Also where the HIPS[41] vacancy figure is above around 3 per cent, local authorities should be able to make a realistic reduction in the new housing provision figure where there is an empty property reduction, regeneration or other such scheme in place to address this.


  We believe that rather than more Greenfield development; better use of empty buildings is required. Latest figures (April 2001) show that there is still over 750,000 empty residential properties, and there are over 310,000 long term empty property in private ownership. This does not account for those in the private sector nor the potential from long-term vacant commercial property.

  To make better use of empty property would require a significant change in the housing "sequential approach" contained in PPG3[42] whereby the use of empty buildings and conversions is considered before considering previously developed land, followed by Greenfield sites.

  While we accept that the reuse of existing buildings is only a partial solution to providing Affordable Housing, this would not only provide a more sustainable approach to development, but it would mean that local authorities would have to start addressing the issue of empty property adequately and use empty property as a housing resource, rather than something to just make an allowance for. This would place greater emphasis on making use of existing empty buildings in both policy and practical terms.

41   Housing Investment Programme. Back

42   Planning Policy Guidance Note 3 on Housing. Back

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