Examination of Witnesses (Questions 329
WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001
329. May I welcome you to the Committee? May
I apologise that we are running a little bit late and ask you
to introduce yourselves for the record?
(Mr Murphy) I am Nick Murphy, Director from Southampton
(Mr Gunner) I am Keith Gunner, Empty Propeerty Officer,
Southampton City Council.
(Ms Dubury) I am Vicki Dubury. I am Empty Homes Officer
at Hastings Borough Council.
(Mr Peters) I am Richard Peters, I am Head of Housing,
Hasting Borough Council.
330. Are you happy for us to go to questions
or does anyone want to make a statement first?
(Mr Murphy) May I say one sentence? In contrast to
the earlier submissions I sat in on on low demand areas, Southampton
is a very high demand area with excess housing demand over supply
yet we still have this problem of empty properties. There does
seem to be a significant difference in that many of these empty
properties are dispersed rather than concentrated on estates and
tend to be private sector. The solutions are different as a result
and maybe that is something we shall explore through questioning.
331. Hastings say that public subsidy is needed
to bring empty houses back into use. Could you tell us how much
subsidy, if that is the case?
(Mr Peters) We are looking at considerable shortfalls
in the difference between property before improvement and afterwards.
In our renewal area we have been providing grant aid to owners
of private properties and that included owner-occupiers and private
landlords. To give you an example, we are looking at properties
which before improvements are perhaps worth somewhere around £50,000.
We have had to invest grant aid of nearly £98,000 to bring
the property up to a reasonable standard. After improvement the
property is going to be worth in the region of £125,000.
In that case you can see that there is a shortfall of £23,000
between the before and after improvement value and without the
public subsidy the property would not have been brought up to
a 30-year life standard.
332. Is that a good use of public funds?
(Mr Peters) That is an excellent question. Within
the renewal area we do have a range of different property types
and the one I highlighted there is perhaps at the extreme. The
average grant is around £40,000 at the moment.
333. But you were asked whether that is a good
use of public money.
(Mr Peters) What I was going to come on to say was
that in an area such as that we need to target some of the poorest
condition properties to help bring up the rest of the area. In
a small number of cases it is a legitimate use of public money.
The area is partially a conservation area and there are some quite
complex issues about whether one could adopt the sort of wholesale
clearance proposals which we have heard about earlier on this
334. What has happened in those properties where
you spent up to £98,000? What has happened? Have people stayed
(Mr Peters) They have. This is a fairly recent scheme
which has only been running for two and a half to three years.
Where people get a grant from the council they are required to
pay money back if they move out of the property over a five-year
period. Consequently it has had an effect of stabilising the area
in that people are not selling up and moving on because they would
have to repay a substantial chunk of money. If you ask the question
in two years' time, I may give you a different answer. At the
moment it does seem to be creating some stability.
335. I note in the memorandum from Hastings
that you say you have almost 3,000 empty properties in the borough,
yet regional planning advice is requiring you to provide 3,250
new homes in the period up to 2006. Surely this is going to make
your problems worse.
(Mr Peters) A very good question.
336. All our questions are good ones. It is
the answers we are worried about.
(Mr Peters) The situation needs to be unpicked a bit.
The 3,000 empty properties in Hastings do include a substantial
number of second homes. We have to include those for government
returns. We are actually talking in terms of round about 900 second
homes out of the 3,000. So they are not generally available to
meet housing need in the longer term. They are generally used
as holiday homes, weekend retreats and so on. We also have a substantial
number of properties which are empty for relatively short period
of time. That is a reflection of the turnover within the private
rented market in Hastings. When we bring it back down to the core
long-term empties, we are looking at a smaller number, though
admittedly still quite a large number. We are looking at round
about 1,000 to 1,500 of those properties. The targets for new
housing in Hastings are dictated by regional and governmental
targets. We are given a target which relates to the South East
region and particularly Sussex and we are having to look at bringing
greenfield sites into play to help meet that target. We are also
arguing strongly that we should be allowed to count some of our
empty homes which we are bringing back into use to help us meet
337. How are you getting on with negotiating
with the planners on that point? You are arguing that if you bring
empty homes back into use you should knock them off the tally
you are required to build for new homes. How are you getting on
(Mr Peters) We have no difficulty with our own planners
within Hastings. They are very supportive of the approach and
within our draft local plan, which is at deposit stage at the
moment, we have a target of 320 properties included in that over
the next five years. Our argument is basically that although within
the planning regime it is accepted that the average number of
empty properties is taken into account in terms of meeting housing
need, that is a figure of around three per cent, we are not even
sure in East Sussex that at the last structure plan stage that
three per cent was allowed for. In Hastings we have around seven
or eight per cent empty properties and we feel it is appropriate
to be counting at least one or two per cent of those properties
as a contribution towards meeting the target.
338. Are East Sussex going along with that?
(Mr Peters) We have an issue at the moment where East
Sussex County Council have objected to our local plan and the
inclusion of this target. They would argue that in effect we are
double counting. Our argument would be that we think it is appropriate
to include it in our target because we have such a high proportion
of our private housing stock empty.
339. In the memorandum from Southampton you
say that you are an area of high demand, you have an empty homes
strategy, yet you keep having empty homes. What is going wrong?
(Mr Gunner) It is an area where we could do a lot
more active research. Part of the problem is that the majority,
almost 50 per cent, of empty property stock in Southampton is
built pre-Second World War and we can only surmise, but we feel
that each property has a limited life. If it is not maintained
up to standard there comes a point where it cannot be re-occupied
any more. We feel that while some properties are coming in and
out of occupation, once a lot of the older stock comes out of
occupation it tends to stay so. That seems to be the problem but
it does require more research. As far as the empty property strategy
activity is concerned, as well as existing dwellings we also try
to target vacant space above shops and conversions of non-residential
properties into dwellings. Obviously that would not affect the
unoccupied dwelling target.