Scotland: empty homes
Part of the solution
13 April 2016
Kristen Hubert looks at the question of empty homes in Scotland
There are more than 27,000 long-term private sector empty homes in Scotland. They have been lying vacant for more than 6 months; conversely, housing waiting lists are more than 5 times this figure. Although empty homes cannot solve the housing crisis, they surely need to be part of the housing supply solution.
But housing supply is only 1 driver for working on empty homes. Bringing vacant properties homes back into use can also:
- contribute to regeneration efforts;
- help sustain rural towns and villages;
- increase feelings of community safety and satisfaction;
- bring valuable income into a community through renovation work and new local residents.
The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership was established in 2010 with funding from the Scottish government and set up its office at Shelter Scotland. Over the past 5 years, the organisation has expanded both its team and the scope of its work, but its focus has remained: selling the benefits of empty homes work.
Although empty homes cannot solve the housing crisis, they surely need to be part of the housing supply solution
The average renovation costs to bring an empty home back into use are £6,000–£25,000, compared to £100,000 or more for a new-build property. Those costs are borne by the owner, although some empty homes do not need any renovation. The partnership has also pushed for funding streams and council tax powers to help local empty homes officers to be as effective as possible.
In 2015, the partnership introduced the Empty Homes Advice Service and the Empty Homes Local Projects Service.
The Empty Homes Advice Service
The Empty Homes Advice Service is a national helpline. It was established to give a single point of contact so that anyone across the country can call to report their concerns about an empty home. The empty homes advisor will refer such reports to either the appropriate empty homes officer or named contact at the local authority and follow these up to check they get a response. Owners of empty homes can also contact the service for guidance on how to bring their properties back into use.
The Empty Homes Local Projects Service
This service helps anyone with an idea for a multi-unit empty homes project to realise their vision. Gavin Leask, the Empty Homes Local Projects Manager, will help develop project plans, find partners and source funding.
In our experience, it has been the homeowners who have brought most vacant properties back into use with the assistance of local authorities’ empty homes officers; many of these owners just needed a bit of hand-holding and someone to challenge their assumptions.
Currently, just over half of Scotland’s local authorities have at least 1 member of staff dedicated to empty homes work; there were none when the organisation started out.
As empty homes officers have been recruited and trained to provide targeted advice to owners, so homes have started to come back into use. It is the job of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership to assist the officers in their daily work by ensuring they have the training, tools and practical advice to carry out their role.
Of course, empty homes officers do not work in a vacuum and they rely on council colleagues and external partners to help them solve problems. They often call on property surveyors from both the public and private sector to help assess levels of repair and valuations, which assists the owners in making realistic choices.
The Forth Valley Empty Homes Officer in Grangemouth took on 2 empty flats in a multi-unit block, 1 of which had been empty for more than 10 years. They had caused various issues for the neighbouring units and prevented communal repairs; a resident actually had to move out of her home because of leaks coming from one of the empty units. The empty homes offer worked with various council departments, including the building surveyors, who detailed the repairs needed in advance of issuing a works notice on one of the units.
In the past financial year (2014/15), 560 empty homes, with a value of £93m, were brought back into use
Following further work by the empty homes offer with the owner of the 2 units, the flats were put on the council’s Empty Homes Matchmaker Scheme and offers have now been accepted on both.
In the past financial year (2014/15), councils reported to the partnership that they had brought 560 empty homes back into use. The combined value of these properties has been calculated as £93m.
The partnership’s aspirations
We would ideally like to see at least 1 dedicated empty homes offer in each council; these offers bring in more than the cost of their salary in terms of:
- debt collection;
- increased council tax (empty homes are often eligible for council tax discounts and exemptions during their first year);
- community benefits that are much harder to quantify, including improved safety and security, increased spend in the community from more residents and jobs for local contractors.
The partnership believes that working with owners is the best way to bring empty homes back into use. Councils and communities should have effective enforcement powers as a last resort where empty homes are having negative impacts on local communities. Often a change of ownership is all that is needed; usually the issue that is keeping the property empty is not to do with its location or fabric but the owner’s mindset, skills or financial situation.
Existing powers, such as compulsory purchase, are just too costly and time-consuming for most councils to consider: what is needed is something they will actually use. That is why the partnership supports the introduction of a compulsory sale order for empty buildings. This would allow councils to force long-term problem properties on to the market when owners show no sign of bringing them back into use.
We also want to see a larger variety of funding streams and financial incentives for different bodies to get involved in bringing empty homes back into use: e.g. there is nothing currently available to encourage the purchase and restoration of an empty home by a first-time buyer. The potential of replicating successful English schemes, such as the Empty Homes Community Grant Programme, should be explored for Scotland. There is also a problem when it comes to empty homes that have fallen into serious disrepair, which need more than a small loan or grant to make it economically viable to bring them back into use.
Empty homes are a huge issue and this must be taken into account when it comes to funding. Their impact on community wellbeing goes far beyond the standard economics of housing supply.
Kristen Hubert is National Manager of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership
- The Empty Homes Advice Service can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 0344 515 1941
- This feature is taken from the RICS Property journal (March/April 2016)