Memorandum by Hyndburn Borough Council
The Council feels that there is a link between
unwanted empty homes and other properties and the decline of areas
of housing, although we have nothing but circumstantial evidence
and experience to prove this. Resident's feel threatened by empty
properties, even whilst they are still not very apparent and,
in reasonable condition, but once they become obviously derelict
or subject to vandalism and unauthorised access, then local communities
can start to experience negative feelings about the whole of a
neighbourhood or area.
There is also a more potent effect on non-residents
passing through the area. Such areas rapidly gain notoriety as
"derelict" or declining, and potential buyers are deterred
from even expressing an interest in properties.
Benefits of Reducing the Level of Empty Properties
The benefits of bringing properties back into
use are several. As well as the benefit in terms of an increased
amount of accommodation, there is a major effect on the environment
of the immediate neighbourhood, of bringing properties back into
beneficial use. Usually, the standard of external repair and appearance
of occupied properties is better and this can have a dramatic
effect on a locality and public confidence in it, although in
some areas the decline has reached such a stage that recovery
is unlikely without wholesale regeneration.
Why are so many homes empty?
In North-east Lancashire there are a number
1. A reducing population.
2. The limiting level of owner occupationOlder
family members cannot leave their property to another member of
the family as a home, as all other family members are owner-occupiers
in their own right. Whatever happens there is potential for a
property to be left empty.
3. Contraction in the private rented sectorThe
deregulation of the private rented sector in the late 1980's lead
to a marked increase in the number of houses held for private
letting. In the late 1990's there has been a shortage of tenants,
and thus many properties have been left empty.
Effectiveness of Government Policy to Date
The situation in Hyndburn is such that the two
major initiatives by the Governmentreduced VAT on long-term
empties and the exemption from stamp dutyare not really
relevant and therefore we cannot comment from experience.
Beyond that the principal problems concern the
ability of the Council to trace the owners and other interested
parties, of empty stock. Although the land registry may have names,
often the address information is out of date.
If we are unable to find an owner, it becomes
a long and potentially risky affair for the Council to take effective
actionusually compulsory purchase or clearance. It would
be of great assistance if a simplified and streamlined procedure
could be made available.
The capital cost of some of these actions is
also a problem where an authority is facing a great demand for
assistance from a number of sources.
Council Tax 1The ability of the Local
Authority to charge 100 per cent Council Tax would act as an incentive
for owners not to buy properties that they did not intend to use.
It might well be that an initial period of being empty is allowed,
but this has to be carefully judged to prevent abuse.
Council Tax 2As a bigger incentive to
at least keep their empty properties in decent order, perhaps
a Council Tax multiplier should be considered which might be abated
if the property remained in reasonable condition.
VAT 1The recent changes to VAT are difficult
to work out and in Hyndburn have had minimal effect. In theory
it might be worth someone keeping a property empty for longer
to obtain the VAT exemption. Our experience would be that it is
off neutral effect, but might be left available as a tool to be
used in appropriate circumstances. Overall, we do not feel that
this type of change would have a beneficial effect.
VAT 2Consideration should be given to
harmonisation of VAT on new-build and renovation work. This would
make renovation relatively more attractive economically.
Compulsory Purchase.This is often needed
to finally deal with an empty property, either by purchase for
future use, say by an RSL or via a "homesteading" type
scheme, or for clearance. Apart from the cost of the compensation,
the main problem is where an owner cannot be traced making initiation
of proceedings more prolonged. If this area was addressed then
together with increasing experience within Local Authorities and
the circulation of Good Practice by the Government, compulsory
purchase would be a more effective tool. It has to be remembered
however, that compulsory purchase for continued use of properties
that are not likely to attract tenants or occupiers is pointless.
A Variation on a Repairs NoticesWhat
would be a very useful tool in limiting the negative effects of
empty properties on the decline of an area, would be a variation
on the repairs notice, where the elements considered would include
the appearance of the building, the method of securing it, to
avoid unsightly boarding, and the condition of the gardens or
yards. The present repairs notice is primarily linked to the fitness
standard and quite rightly ignores purely aesthetic issues, but
often it is the appearance of the empty property that is the problem.
A power for the Council to enforce a reasonable level of appearance
would be beneficial. Whilst the Council does have powers to deal
with dilapidated buildings, properties can be seriously detrimental
before they are in such a state as to be derelict and come within
A Statutory Empty Properties StrategySuch
a duty is not bound to lead to Local Authorities tackling the
problem. Anyone can write a strategy, delivering on it is a different
story. This would benefit those Local Authorities who have sufficient
manpower to write a strategy and be prejudicial to the smaller
authorities who wish to spend time tackling the problem rather
than preparing glossy strategies.
Reuse of existing properties versus New-BuildThere
is a clash of priorities here! Whilst, it is felt that regional
planning guidance should take into account the level of empty
properties that are, or can be made suitable for use, it must
be borne in mind that there is a considerable desire amongst the
public for new houses. This is because of a number of reasons
including easier access to finance, better starting deals and
the reasonable expectation of not having large repair bills in
the first few years. Estate layout and better car-parking and
garden provision are also important. There is also a reaction
against buying in what are perceived as run-down areas with "social"
Therefore, the Council feels that Regional Planning
Guidance should take more into account, the level of empty stock
available, allowing for its condition, in setting targets for
new homes. Local Authorities should be able to refuse approvals
for new-build schemes that will cause a deleterious effect in
the area, or as an interesting alternative, possibly builders
might be required to contribute to the costs of removing surplus
stock created by the building of new houses.
Finally, it should however, be realised that
over a longer period of time, 10 years or so, there should be
some replacement of older housing by new, simply to keep the average
age of the stock from increasing continuously.
What can the Public Authorities do about properties
The key issues for publicly owned stock is that
they are used if there is a demand, and demolished and taken out
of the stock if they are not needed. If properties are being mothballed
for future use then they should be kept in a reasonable condition
particularly as regards appearance.
Specific Steps to be taken
Development ControlThe Council feels
that there needs to be a clarification of planning policy to allow
a greater degree of discretion to the local planning authority
to judge whether or not the overall effect of a particular new
build scheme would be so detrimental to the overall housing situation,
that it should be refused.
This must extend to the structure plan and local
In taking these steps, justification must be
sought otherwise a NIMBY approach might result, but due consideration
has to be given to preventing the wholesale decline of areas of
houses and other building, when the ultimate costs will be borne
mainly by the public purse.
In conclusion in overall terms too many new
houses are being provided without thought for the consequences!
It follows from this that the Government Offices
for the Regions should be more vigorous in ensuring that planning
policy is meeting the needs of the community, and in supporting
Regeneration InitiativesEffects on Empty
Regeneration initiatives can adequately tackle
the condition of empty properties, but need to address the desirability
of that property from the point of view of a potential occupier
or owner. Often, potential occupiers are put off by the relative
attractiveness of properties in other localities. Therefore simply
getting empty properties repaired is not necessarily a solution,
they must be capable of attracting occupiers.
The opposite, where there is an attempt at regeneration
without addressing the condition of empty properties is not likely
Excessive Building of New Homes for Rent
This is a complex point. Whether or not this
is true depends upon the target group for the newly built houses,
and whether or not the "empty" stock in that locality
might attract the target group if there was no new-build available.
If the two sectors are not competing for occupiers, if they are
aimed at different groups, then there might be no cross-linking
effect, on the other hand, if the target groups are the same,
as often might be the case, the newly built premises are likely
to result in a higher level of vacancy in the older stock. New
build of publicly supported stock for rent or for sale for that
mater, should be carefully thought out to avoid major deleterious
effects on older housing.
Demolition of surplus stock
If there is a need to reduce the surplus of
housing, it makes sense to remove those in the worst condition
and in the least desired areas. Clearance of surplus stock is
the only practical solution unless property is to be moth-balled
for future use, with all the consequent risks.
Accredited List of Landlords
We do not feel that such a move would affect
"Negative equity" is a problem only
when an owner has to sell the property. In the case of forced
sales such a displacement by clearance, then the owner should
be entitled to transfer their equity or lack of it to a new dwelling.
The lender is no worse off than they were before. If commercial
lenders do not wish to participate, effectively by not lending
in areas that might conceivable suffer, then Local Authorities
should be allowed to lend instead. Should an attitude on the part
of commercial lenders, would indicate that they have no role to
play in urban regeneration except in purely favourable circumstances.
J. D. Hickinbottom
Urban Renewal Manager