Memorandum by Central London Empty Property
Officers' Forum (EMP 34)
The Central London Empty Property Officers'
Forum was formed in June 2001 to provide an opportunity for officers
working in central London boroughs to share knowledge and experience
and to promote good practice. Officers whose posts include responsibility
for bringing empty properties back into use from the following
boroughs currently attend regular meetings:
London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham
Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.
It should be noted that the opinions expressed
in this submission do not necessarily convey the views of the
boroughs, a number of whom are submitting individual memoranda
to the Inquiry.
Accommodation in central London is in great
demand; property values across Greater London are extremely high,
with the average price of residential property in the five boroughs
listed above ranging from £171,253 to £567,952
and the market is buoyant. Despite these factors, there were something
in the region of 105,000 empty properties as at 1 April 2001,
of which a third had been empty for at least six months.
The evidence and comments in this submission
relate to local experience only.
Crime, including vandalism
Damage to neighbouring property
Detrimental effect on neighbouring
Loss of Council Tax revenue
Contributes to shortage of accommodation
Contributes to increased use of bed
and breakfast accommodation by Homeless Persons Units
Costs to local authorities and other
agencies such as the police, for dealing with all the above.
Increased Council Tax revenue
Increase in supply of accommodation,
especially for key workers
Potential for additional affordable
Potential for Housing Association
Leasing Schemes, which reduce temporary accommodation budgets
and provide more suitable accommodation for homeless applicants
It is hard to imagine why, in an area such as
central London, 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 are:
lacks skills/knowledge to manage property;
complex probate cases, including
difficulties tracing beneficiaries;
purchased vacant as investmentowner
can make profit without refurbishing and or letting due to escalating
speculative purchase by owner who
lacks funds to redevelop and or skills/knowledge to manage;
abandonment, sometimes due to age
ignorance of options available including
grants and private finance;
in the case of partoccupied
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
Budget 2001VAT reduced rates
It is difficult to evaluate the effectiveness
of the measures introduced by the 2001 Budget. 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.
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 per cent reduction in council tax after
six months. While charging full council tax is unlikely by itself
to dissuade owners from keeping homes emptyparticularly
in areas where council tax charges are lowthe officers
are of the opinion that such a measure would make it less desirable
to leave properties standing empty. A further incentive to return
dwellings to residential use would be the discretion to impose
a punitive charge on long-termeg three years plusempties.
We would not, however, advocate charging the full rate to an owner
who legitimately faces difficulty in bringing property back into
One of the biggest obstacles to empty property
work, is the restriction on councils sharing information, particularly
council tax records.
The Council Tax department of most local authorities
has information regarding the ownership of every empty property
in their area. However, they are unable to share this information
due to data protection laws.
There is some dispute, as to whether the restriction
comes about because of Data Protection issues, or the Local Government
Finance Act, which restricts the use of Council Tax Data for anything
other than Council Tax collection.
One view is that sharing information regarding
ownership details would be a breach of the Data Protection Act,
and not the Local Government Finance Act. Another authority has
obtained a legal opinion that local authorities are not prevented
by law from sharing this data.
This is an anomaly, which must be addressed.
It is absurd that two internal departments of the same council
cannot share information when the common aim is the improvement
of council services to the public. It is not good for "joined
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 consider that
the use of CPO's is an important element of any empty property
strategy. The City of Westminster already has an active and very
successful CPO programme using its powers under the Housing Act
1985. Publicity for an authority's CPO policy is crucial, so that
owners of long-term empty properties are fully aware of the consequences
of failing voluntarily to bring empty properties into residential
use. It is; however, 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
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
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 DTLR consider implementation
as well as adoption of an empty property strategy.
The use of compulsory purchase should form an
integral part of any such strategy if it is to be effective.
Planning guidance should contain measures to
facilitate and encourage the use of empty property for residential
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.
Local authority and RSL empties are generally
low in central London, due to high demand.
In Central London and many other parts of the
country, the increasing difficulty in recruiting and retaining
nursing staff has led to the setting up of the Starter Homes Initiative
and other schemes to house these and other key workers. At the
same time, however, some NHS trusts have sold off their staff
accommodationin many cases offering no alternative accommodation
to staff. Accordingly it is necessary, when considering key worker
accommodation, to address the use of existing property owned by
health authorities, the police and other key worker employers
and, where necessary, to introduce measures to ensure that such
property is not disposed of.
LAWNE, an alliance of London Boroughs, is working
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 re-housed in this way, but can
advise that one London authority alone has re-housed 50 families.
This strategic approach to matching lowdemand
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.
36 Source: HM Land Registry figs for April-June 2001. Back