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Empty Homes: Filling the void

England’s 200,000 plus empty homes are not only a blight on neighbourhoods they are a huge waste of resources at a time when housing demand is far outstripping supply. So why are there so many vacant properties and what can be done to bring them back into use? By Michelle Gordon

 

THERE has been a huge focus on building new homes from the Government this year with a pledge of £1.4bn to deliver affordable housing by 2020-21; £2bn to pilot “accelerated construction” and a £2.3bn Housing Infrastructure Fund. But as the Government looks to solve the pressing issue of housing supply should its focus be moving away from newbuild towards existing buildings?

Government figures published in May showed that there were 203,596 vacant properties in England as of 2015, yet there is no empty homes strategy in place. This figure is the lowest on record says the Government, having fallen from 318,642 in 2004 but with 250,000 homes needed every year just to keep up with current demand can it really afford to push the issue aside?

Empty Homes, a national campaigning charity which is focused on promoting strategies to bring vacant properties back into use, thinks not and is calling on the Government to establish a new empty homes strategy with dedicated investment programmes to support the creation of new affordable homes from vacant properties, alongside building new homes.

There is also huge public support for Government intervention on the issue with 83% of British adults believing that tackling empty homes should be a higher priority, according to research carried out by ComRes. The survey, which was commissioned by Empty Homes, also revealed that two in five (39%) said that vacant properties are a blight on their local area and 76% believe that their local authority should place a higher priority on tackling empty homes. A substantial majority (78%) agree that the Government focuses too much on building new homes and not enough on bringing empty homes back into use.

“The strong and rising support from the public for the Government to prioritise tackling long-term empty homes should be a wake-up call for those in power to invest more in the creation of affordable homes from empty properties, alongside building new homes,” said Helen Williams, director at Empty Homes.

“With the ending of a dedicated empty homes programme in March 2015 empty homes seems to have slipped down the Government’s agenda and our research clearly shows this is now well out of step with public opinion.

“Empty Homes remain a blot on the landscape in too many areas and local authorities need to continue to resource their empty homes work to ensure they can respond to residents’ concerns and make the most of existing properties to meet their local housing needs.”

The charity highlighted the potential for empty commercial properties to be turned into affordable housing in a report, funded by the Nationwide Foundation. It recognises that there are challenges in successfully creating new housing through this route but there are a host of benefits, aside from creating affordable housing, it says, including reducing blight, improving the vibrancy of the local environment and enabling owners to make better use of property assets.

The research doesn’t suggest “poaching” property from the commercial sector to the residential sector. However, it says with high levels of commercial space in many areas where people are priced out of decent housing conversion to affordable homes can “make sense.”

It found few cases where structural issues created a major impediment to conversion. More often the challenges are around perception on the part of the owners of the property who may not realise its potential to be brought into housing use in an economically viable way.

“Our research showed that contrary to popular belief, dealing with structural issues to create suitable housing from former commercial property is not the main barrier. The bigger issue is in fact engaging owners of empty commercial property to recognise and realise the potential of their asset in ways that they often do not think exist or can easily be overlooked when the day job is running a business or in the context of a large property portfolio,” said Williams.

The charity’s ‘Empty Homes in England’ report analyses the Government’s data on long-term empty homes – those that have been empty for six years or more – and investigates the causes behind the issue. “We are examining areas with the highest levels of empty homes to understand their characteristics better, and to help inform a better understanding of what works with a view to helping more communities to use their housing stock effectively and improve their neighbourhoods,” said Williams.

“It is crucial to get to the heart of the issues that local people face and the reasons properties stay empty if we are to achieve effective strategies for bringing them into use and improving neighbourhoods for the benefit of communities.”

The report recommends that local authorities should have an empty homes strategy for their area, and work in partnership with property owners, housing associations and community-led organisations to reduce the number of long-term empty homes and to attract and allocate resources to refurbish empty properties for those in housing need.

Councils should take a casework approach with owners of empty properties, it says, to encourage, advise and support them to bring homes back into use, employing dedicated empty homes staff to act on information about vacant properties and build up expertise in working with owners, including making enforcement action where necessary.

They should seek to support neighbourhood improvement approaches in areas with high levels of empty homes by developing strategies that involve local people, attracting and allocating funding to these areas, and supporting community-led organisations through financial support and facilitating the transfer of properties/assets says the report. It also recommends that the Mayor of London and local authorities in high value areas, should conduct studies to understand the extent and impact of buy-to-leave and review what measures they could adopt to incentivise people to bring those properties to the market for sale or rent; and to deter people in the first place from buying properties primarily for their capital appreciation, rather than as a home to live in or rent out.

Finally it calls on central Government to re-establish dedicated grant funding programmes to support local authorities, housing associations and community-led organisations to create new affordable housing from long-term empty homes across England.

Government should re-establish dedicated support for areas with high concentrations of empty properties to support community-led neighbourhood improvement approaches which reduce the number of long-term empty properties and bring wider area improvements it says and it should look at the case for supporting additional measures to deter buy-to-leave that may require legislation at a national level.

Empty homes are as much a part of the housing crisis as the gap between supply and demand said Williams, adding: “In the face of such high housing needs making the most of existing stock is imperative.”

 

Photo: Boarded up homes in Birkenhead, Wirral. Courtesy of ‘SomeDriftwood’, Creative Commons

This article first appeared in the December 2016/January 2017 edition of Housing magazine

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