Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380
WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001
340. Is part of the problem planning policy
outside Southampton or outside the areas where the empty properties
are? Are too many new properties being built elsewhere?
(Mr Murphy) Your original question was on why the
properties were empty and when you look into it each case appears
different. There is not one reason why property is empty. It depends
very much often on where the owner is coming from. I jotted down
a list of reasons we have come across. I smiled earlier when a
couple of members of the Committee said they had found themselves
accidental landlords, because that is certainly one route in.
People end up acquiring properties through inheritance or whatever
and are ignorant of how best to deal with that. Sometimes properties
just get left over a significant period of time. We also have
some owners falling into incapacity, getting taken into care homes,
who realistically are never going to be coming back to those properties.
We also quite bizarrely have some owners with complete disinterest
in those properties, who are wasting the asset which just sits
there. Even though they could sell it, rent it, lease it and realise
an income or a capital value they are just not bothered about
it. They just leave it there. You have this wide variety of reasons
which are peculiar to the owner of each property which means that
the empty property strategy has to track down the owners and then
work with them from wherever they are to try to overcome the particular
barriers in that case in order to bring the property back into
use. You asked about planning. It does not seem to be the case
that market forces are driving these properties back into use.
They do stay stubbornly empty even though the market should dictate
that people could realise an income from selling them or letting
341. Do you get all the information you need
from the council tax returns or are you one of the authorities
which has trouble getting council tax information to identify
(Mr Gunner) We are fortunate that from very early
on we managed to establish a good working relationship in-house
to access non-personal data. We are unable to access personal
data about owners and their whereabouts, for example, which is
a major issue in trying to track people in order to have a meaningful
dialogue with them, but we are fortunate and it is a great benefit
in that we do have access to non-personal council tax statistical
information, that is where the addresses are, what sort of properties
they are and that sort of thing.
(Mr Murphy) Undoubtedly it would be helpful across
the board if there were much greater clarity on how we could use
council tax information to trace the owners of empty properties.
342. I should like to go back to the point I
raised before. In your case, is there any connection between the
empty homes and planning policies which permit the building of
new homes in other areas? Are those two things connected?
(Mr Gunner) It is probably fair to say that Southampton
does have a sub-regional operation in terms of housing need and
demand. It is very much an urban conurbation and a growing one.
It is difficult for us to comment in detail on related local authority
planning policies. All I would say is that if we were able to
devise more effective mechanisms of engaging empty properties
in urban conurbations such as Southampton, then that may well
deflate the need to build on greenfield sites elsewhere in neighbouring
boroughs in the Hampshire area.
343. If builders were not permitted to build
on the greenfield sites, would that solve your empty homes problem?
Is there a direct connection there?
(Mr Gunner) There is a connection. I am not sure whether
it would be a wholesale solution but it will certainly make a
344. I am very interested in what you are saying
so my question is to both of you or either of you. In other parts
of the country where we have either taken evidence or visited
and seen at first hand the problem of empty properties, we are
told usually the reason is the poor condition of the stock or
the unpopularity of the area. You seem to be telling us that your
problems, although you both have quite high homelessness figures,
you both have quite high waiting lists, the problem seems to be
that you have owners of empty properties who are not interested
in filling them. Is that right?
(Mr Gunner) That is a very good summary of the problem
we face. Most of the empty properties we have, unlike some of
the authorities you may have visited, are in the private sector,
in predominantly individual ownerships. People have inherited
properties by default, there maybe disputed probate, or relatives
who inherit a property are unable to agree on the way forward.
Most of our properties are pepper-potted throughout the city.
It is really the need to have a range of measures to tackle those
individual agendas which is going to be the only way we can engage
more empty properties in those sorts of ownerships.
(Mr Peters) From the Hastings perspective, things
are slightly different from the Southampton situation.
345. Somewhere in your evidence you mention
the fact that some of your private landlords are advertising to
attract tenants from other parts of the country.
(Mr Peters) Absolutely. The problem we have in Hastings
is that we have an over-supply of small one-bedroomed flats in
the main, when our real demand is for family accommodation. The
over-supply of small flats is largely a response to the size of
property in Hastings, generally older Victorian property which
has been subdivided when the market was at its peak into as many
units as possible. That is now giving us a problem ten years down
the line. We have the wrong type of empty properties in Hastings.
346. And the wrong type of tenant.
(Mr Peters) To an extent we have an issue about the
number of people who are being attracted to the town who are on
benefit. That is not to say everyone who is on housing benefit
is the wrong type of tenant, but it does bring with it a greater
proportion of people who have other problems. That clearly is
not helping the situation and it is not the major problem in Hastings.
347. If you are a pensioner in London is it
not still attractive to move down to Hastings?
(Mr Peters) Did you say if you are a pensioner?
348. If you are a pensioner in London, is it
not attractive still to move down to Hastings? I can understand
why it is difficult to persuade a pensioner in London to move
up to Burnley where they may be able to reduce their living costs
very considerably but it does appear to be a long way. I should
have thought that for a lot of people in London it was still quite
attractive to move down to Hastings.
(Mr Peters) That is correct. I was not sure whether
you had said "pensioner". Yes, there are some older
people who are coming to Hastings to retire. The problem is the
sort of property which is available there tends to be flats which
are in blocks of four or five stories or Victorian terraced houses
which have been converted, without lifts and so on. It is quite
difficult for them to access the accommodation.
349. May I ask you both about the Government's
policy on asylum seekers? Has that policy had any impact on your
empty homes problem?
(Mr Gunner) It has not had much of an impact on Southampton
as far as I can gather. There may be one or two properties which
may have been brought back into use for asylum seeker purposes
but there seems to be no general trend of encouragement to bring
back into use empty properties purely by that route. They tend
to be maybe normal landlords, routine re-letting to a different
sort of customer rather than the normal students or whatever they
may have been beforehand. In itself it does not seem to have a
particularly big impact, as a re-occupation catalyst.
(Mr Peters) We have quite a number of asylum seekers
who have been placed in Hastings. It has helped an empty hotels
problem in that we have a number of hotels which have been used
and are now being used by NASS
to disperse asylum seekers. What we are finding is that many of
the asylum seekers are single people and not people with families
and children. We are finding that when they get a positive decision
to remain in the country, they are moving into the private sector
and occupying some of these small flats. We are talking about
a very small number of cases.
350. You have both given evidence about the
issue of CPOs. You both argued for improved procedures. Could
you indicate how you think it can be improved?
(Mr Gunner) It is the principle really. To be absolutely
frank, it is a very long time since we have done any straightforward
housing CPOs in Southampton. Part of the issue is that a lot of
the expertise is no longer current within local authorities. There
is a need for a re-training exercise at the very least. My main
concern is that properties which have been empty for ten years
or longer are no longer a home in the accepted sense. It therefore
seems to us that there is maybe a case to make more of a streamlined
faster procedure so with these long-term empty properties, if
there is no other agenda, no other re-occupation solution, as
a last resort the local authorities can move in quite quickly
to bring those into occupation for people in housing need.
351. Are you arguing for a change in the law
to allow that to happen?
(Mr Gunner) I do not profess to be an expert in the
law on CPOs, but in principle and from conversation with other
colleagues in the field, there does seem to be a need to do this.
(Mr Peters) May I echo that from the Hastings perspective?
We have not been actively using compulsory purchase orders for
Housing Act purposes in recent years, but it is something we would
want to consider in developing our empty homes strategy. There
is clearly an issue about the length of time it takes from the
time you decide a compulsory purchase order is appropriate to
when you hopefully get the right decision. If there are objections
you are talking about at least 18 months, possibly two years from
beginning to end, which does not really help the situation when
you are trying to deal with an empty property.
352. Another possible alternative which has
been put to us is a compulsory leasing order. Is that something
else you support? Do you see that as being another tool which
local authorities could use to good effect?
(Mr Gunner) A personal view is that something like
that is effectively a half-way house measure. My experience tells
me that without some form of threat of enforcement, a lot of empty
properties will remain just that. You do need some form of enforcement.
The compulsory lease order concept, while still fairly new, would
need further research on the legalities and human rights issues.
Nevertheless, it appears to me to have the attraction that it
merely divorces control of an empty property from its ownership.
The concept would be that the local authority moves in, takes
control of the property, renovates it to an acceptable standard,
lets it to people in housing need at affordable rents, recoups
the cost of the repairs from the rental stream, then eventually
returns it to the owner in a much better condition than it was
at the beginning for the owner then to do something hopefully
more positive with. The attraction is that it is not a full CPO
and acquiring the freehold or full ownership of the property.
That remains with the owner but the community, local authority,
people in housing need get the benefit of that property.
353. One of the things Hastings have argued
for is to be able to carry over capital allocations from year
to year. You feel that if you embark on a strategy and you do
not get your timescales then you get into difficulties. Is that
a general problem for authorities or is it a particular problem
for a smaller authority where perhaps the capital allocations
(Mr Peters) I am not sure I can comment on the wider
issues. I have had the experience of working on housing in London
and it was an issue there, but perhaps not to the same extent
in Hastings. The issue in Hastings is that we no longer have any
council housing, we transferred our stock five or six years ago.
We are relying on housing associations to help us provide social
housing. In that sense it is important that allocations of funding
from the housing corporation are flexible enough to enable a housing
association to say they do not have a property in mind at this
time but they do expect the council to be putting two or three
properties their way through compulsory purchase in a year or
two's time and they need to make sure the money is there to help
deal with that at the appropriate time.
354. Southampton's memorandum refers to vacancies
for personal and idiosyncratic reasons. What proportion of your
empty homes do you think fall into that category?
(Mr Gunner) I would say the majority, to be frank.
There are one or two larger portfolio landlords who are offenders
in the sense of deliberately keeping properties empty throughout
the city. It would perhaps require a different agenda to tackle
those but certainly the majorityI would estimate roughly
75 per centare in individual ownerships. That roughly equates
with the national figure which is 66 per cent or about two thirds.
355. In that case, with all the tinkering round
one can do with regulation, legislation, grants and so forth,
is it not actually the work of people like yourself and Ms Dubury
which can make the difference in those situations?
(Mr Gunner) Very much so. If you are dealing with
individuals, then it is an individual who can help to achieve
a solution to those empty properties. I would recommend, from
personal experience, that in local authorities you do get the
benefit of a dedicated Empty Property Officer. That is a major
plus point in re-occupying empty properties.
356. May I ask Hastings to talk a little bit
about the private sector lease scheme you mentioned in your memorandum
and also about empty home grants?
(Ms Dubury) We will be running the private sector
lease scheme with two housing associations which are happy to
work with us. They are both very experienced in other areas. They
have not worked in Hastings before but they are looking to move
into Hastings. When we first mentioned it at the stage of putting
together the empty homes strategy they were very keen to work
with us. Essentially they each work in a slightly different way.
One will take the property on once the renovation works have been
carried out, once the council has administered the grant and the
property is ready to go. The other is interested right at the
very start; they do their own surveys, they get their own people
in to do the works and they take the property on right at the
start. It is quite good. If the landlord is not interested and
wants in effect to get rid of the property but without selling
it, we can put them to one housing association. If they are quite
keen to be involved in the work themselves, we can put them to
the other housing association at the end.
357. In terms of empty homes grants, what is
the balance between the rights and wrongs of making grants or
offering loans or taking an equity share?
(Ms Dubury) One of the conditions of our grant is
that the property is then available for social renting for five
years. In effect we are seeing a return on our money because we
are able to place people in housing need in those properties.
At the moment the grant is the best way to go for Hastings. The
strategy is only very young and it only started this year. We
will review that in future years to see whether we think that
perhaps moving to some loans and some grants will be a better
358. May I ask you all what the one thing is
which could be done for you which would make your task of attacking
the empty homes issue easier and more straightforward?
(Mr Peters) I am not sure we would agree on one thing.
Certainly from our perspective in Hastings the big issue at the
moment is being able to identify individual owners of properties
and the properties they are responsible for: a way of addressing
the issues about information sharing to make it a far more efficient
process so we could directly contact the owners of properties
who are holding them vacant in Hastings. The majority of the properties
are owned by people who live outside the borough, so no matter
how much publicity we do locally, it is not getting to them. >From
my perspective that is a big issue at the moment and it is something
which could be resolved quite easily.
(Mr Gunner) Going back on a previous theme, I would
say a recognition that for last-resort cases some form of enforcement
is paramount. I would commend the concept of the compulsory lease
order as a useful tool to achieve that.
359. Do you think that is because you would
use it very often or you would simply use the threat of it?
(Mr Gunner) Up until fairly recently we have had a
persuasive campaign; we have tried reasonably successfully to
help owners with grants, with advice and that sort of thing, but
in so doing there has been a hard core of intransigent owners
where no form of entreaty or encouragement has worked and is likely
to work in our opinion. In devising a small programme of those
types of properties, where a community are having a go at us for
not doing anything and saying we ought to do something about it
as a councilwe have about a dozen of thosejust the
threat of enforcement has worked and provided tangible results.
Out of the 12 we started with only six to nine months ago, three
or four have already been occupied voluntarily. It just indicates
to us in Southampton that unfortunately some form of enforcement
is unavoidable if we are serious in engaging empty homes.
Chairman: On that note, I thank you very much
indeed for your evidence.
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