Memorandum by Newham (EMP 45)
I write with reference to the above inquiry.
I hope I am not too late to submit evidence. We have also submitted
some information via the Local Government Association.
In Newham, empty properties are the responsibility
of a joint initiative between the Housing Department and Environmental
Because of our role as educators and enforcers
of legislation, and our historic role in trying to secure the
improvement of privately owned and rented property, Environmental
Health are well placed to deal with these issues.
Being a London Borough, we are in a "high
demand" housing area. We do not use renovation grants as
a strategy for bringing vacant properties back into use, because,
as a Council, we use grants as a strategy for area renewal. In
the past, individual renovation grant aid did not have any significant
impact on improving the "image" of an area and our Members
felt that an area approach gave "added value" when it
came to regeneration.
In Newham, we have what we believe to be the
largest compulsory purchase programme in the entire South of England
(and possibly England). We have over 65 cases where the Council
has exhausted informal means and has resolved through a meeting
of full Council to take compulsory purchase (CPO) action. Whilst
some of this activity is driven by the Single Regeneration Budget
(SRB) 5 programme around Forest Gate, the majority of properties
are outside this boundary. We also have a queue of some 75 or
so properties where we plan to take compulsory purchase action
and are only holding back because our Legal Services Department
cannot process too many at a time. We have traced vacant property
owners to countries as far away as Australia, Dominica and South
Why are homes left empty?
There are many complex reasons including family
breakdown/tragedies; disrepair and the belief that the home is
worthless; investmenthoping values will increase; negative
equity; people "in care" or undergoing prolonged treatment
in hospital; problems with legal title and probate.
Part of our role, as Local Authority Officers
is to try to identify the reason and encourage the resolutions
of these barriers by working co-operatively with owners of vacant
Consequences of Empty Properties
Increased dereliction, and an air
of neglect and decay in an area.
Vandalism, arson attacks, increased
rubbish dumping and increased rodent complaints.
Increased crime. Overgrown gardens
act as a "shield" for street attacks, usually against
women, empties are used for rapes and as drug houses.
Both business users and residential
investors are deterred from investing in the vicinity.
Lowers property prices in the area.
Loss of rental income for property
Increased deterioration in the fabric
of a property when vacant.
Lowers levels of sustainability.
More people on the Council Housing
Waiting list/in "bed and breakfast" accommodation.
Hinders "area regeneration".
Benefits of an Empty Property Strategy
Reduces all of the above-mentioned
negatives (see consequences above).
Reduces the need to build new dwellings
on "greenfield" sites.
Bringing back into use flats over
shops cuts crime ratesenables this accommodation to be
rented by students and other single people, thereby preserving
other, more suitable accommodation elsewhere for families.
Improves the general repair of the
nation's housing stock.
Encourages energy efficient measures
to be undertakenand also increases the number of energy
surveys conducted by Local Authorities as required by the Home
Energy Conservation Act.
Enables Councils to obtain old debtseg
unpaid Council Tax; works in default either by the sale of the
vacant property or by the Council successfully identifying and
tracing owners. In one case, Newham recovered in excess of £35,000
on one property alone.
Reduces complaints to the Council/additional
calls on Council Services from neighbours adversely affected by
the condition of an empty home.
Brings life back into Town Centres.
We believe that people keeping properties
vacant, without any just cause, should not be encouraged by paying
Council Tax at 50 per cent of the "usual" rate after
a six month period. Consideration should be given to penalising
owners of vacant properties either by charging them at a rate
of 200 per cent after say 12 months or, at the very least, ensuring
they pay at the full (100 per cent) rate after the first six months.
Property owners who are "in care",
hospitalised for prolonged periods of time, in prison etc should
be dealt with by exemption from this general requirement, although
this perhaps ought to be limited to, say, the first five years.
After that time, it should be presumed that the person in care
is likely to stay there in perpetuity and should be selling the
property on/letting it out.
Newham is aware of the current consideration
being given to compulsory purchase powers. We would wish to make
the following observations:
As a general principal, to deprive
a person of their own property is a serious matter and it is right
that Public Authorities have constraints on this action. It is
felt that the current safeguards are more than adequate to protect
the interests of owners of vacant properties.
The current requirement for a Local
Authority to prove CPO action is a "last resort" is
very difficult and onerous to prove in law. Newham has failed
to prove to the Secretary of State that after a site being left
vacant and derelict for some seven years, CPO action was necessary.
With planning permissions lasting a maximum period of five years,
we can foresee occasions where a recalcitrant owner can keep renewing
planning applications and never developing the property/site.
Circular guidance should encourage
Councils to consider vacant sites and building currently in use
for commercial purposes (but with the potential to convert into
residential) to be subject to CPO action. It seems as though a
number of Councils are taking a "blinkered" view of
the term "vacant properties".
The costs of financing CPO action
are considerable for a Local Authority. All of the preparatory
works, the costs of representation and for the actual Public Local
Inquiry all fall to the Council, even when the objections can
be spurious ones from third parties.
Onward disposal of a property that
is vacant and that has been compulsorily purchased is problematic
and risky for a Local Authority. The Notice to Treat procedure
is not considered appropriate for use with vacant properties because
we cannot dispose of a property until compensation has been agreed.
This may involve Lands Tribunal and effectively means that CPO
property would have to be retained vacant for up to two years
where there was a dispute between the owner and Local Authority
as to the property value. However, with the General Vesting Declaration
procedure that Newham uses, with the aim of getting the property
sold on quickly (so that it can be refurbished and brought back
into use speedily), there is uncertainty from the Local Authority's
point of view in that we could sell on for one price and then
find that the negotiated value (afterwards agreed with the owner)
turns out to be greater. Would it be possible to consider suggesting
that a valuation from the District Valuer would be acceptable
for onward disposal, with the protection that an owner could appeal
within 21 days to a County Court?
Some criminal elements are abusing
the information that Councils have to publish by law in local
newspapers announcing that they intend taking CPO action. These
elements break into properties and carry out rather poor refurbishment
with a view to obtaining "adverse possession" of the
properties after a period of 12 years. They use the information
the Council has been able to determine about ownership of the
property, and which it is legally required to declare, as a means
of concocting a story to try to prove that they are the owners.
Some are renting these properties out to innocent individuals
at normal market rents through newspapers such as "Loot".
This seems to be happening in around 15 per cent of Newham's CPO
cases. We know of instances where private firms of solicitors
acting for clients in probate cases are experiencing similar difficulties.
Where owners cannot be traced/are
dead and either has disinterested next of kin or no next of kin
at all, and a property is clearly squatted, Local Authorities
should have power to compulsory purchase. This is because of the
lack of sustainability and legislative controls on squatters.
The Data Protection Act sometimes
frustrates the process of Council's trying to trace owners. For
example, gas, electricity, and water companies often have information
on ownership and it may be in everyone's best interest to share
this information. The Act currently precludes them from doing
this. Additionally, individual Council Departments cannot share
information on vacant properties. Council Tax information cannot
be obtained by Housing or Environmental Health Departments because
that information is privileged for Council Tax purposes both under
Data Protection and Council Tax legislation.
Should a Statutory Duty be placed on Councils
to write an Empty Property Strategy?
Some Councils are already taking their responsibilities
for dealing with vacant properties seriously whilst others are
not. I have doubts as to whether making it a "statutory duty"
per se would make any significant difference.
It is interesting that in Newham we find approximately
10 per cent of the properties we deal with do not get brought
back into use until the Council formally resolves to take CPO
action. Around 4 to 5 per cent of the total number of vacants
gets successfully compulsorily purchased.
Judging by the number (lack of) CPOs being undertaken
in the rest of London, either Newham is not being effective in
using informal means to bring vacants back into use or other Councils
are not pursuing those intransigent vacants all the way to the
Government Departments properties
To be fair, other than for properties "blighted"
for some 10 years whilst the A13 trunk road proposed improvements
were being debated, Newham does not suffer too much from this
I do know, however, that elsewhere in the country
this can be a serious problem, especially with Defence and other
Armed Services Establishments.
Some redundant hospital sites seem to take an
inordinate time before being redeveloped.
We are concerned that some companies "land
bank" over a considerable number of years. Whilst short-term
land banking has benefits, once this goes over one year, it can
In conclusion, I hope you can see that Newham's
Environmental Health Department has considerable experience in
dealing with long term vacant properties and compulsory purchase
powers. We would be pleased to meet with LGA officers or present
evidence to the Select Committee.
Lead Environmental Health Officer
Housing and Public Health Unit