Empty houses: a national scandal?

The councils strike back

24 September 2019

While the number of empty properties throughout the country is on the rise, the misconception persists that local authorities are doing nothing to bring them back into use. But nothing could be further from the truth

The recent BBC1 series The Empty Housing Scandal has thrown the state of the UK’s long-term vacant properties into sharp relief. Although there are an estimated 200,000 empty homes – including 11,000 unoccupied for more than 10 years – it is simplistic to think that these offer a quick fix for the UK’s housing problems.

Research by the National Housing Federation confirms that the current shortage in England has reached 4m homes. It is therefore in everyone’s interests to bring vacant homes back into use.

Such buildings can quickly fall into a dangerous condition, with pigeons and other vermin entering, water penetration, as well as wet and dry rot. These factors may have an impact on surrounding properties: besides decreasing the value of neighbouring homes, they can soon become the venue for antisocial activities, such as vandalism, drug-taking and even prostitution, while squatters may also move in. Empty properties are often found in highly desirable areas where houses can fetch prices of more than £500,000, and obviously their derelict state doesn’t enhance the chances of neighbouring homeowners who want to sell up and move away. Houses that have been vacant for any length of time need more than a fresh coat of paint and a new kitchen and bathroom.

The UK’s huge housing deficit means that people are living in totally unsuitable accommodation, such as emergency bed and breakfast, hopelessly overcrowded dwellings, or, of course, swelling the ranks of those sleeping on the streets. As far as private landlords are concerned, too, an empty home is an expensive headache. Rogue tenants may have disappeared suddenly, leaving rent unpaid and the house damaged – and the landlord, who hasn’t a clue where they are, is left with a vacant property in such a disgusting state it can’t be re-let without first spending a lot of money to make it habitable.

Meanwhile, the local authority faces a triple whammy: it may not even know about the empty home until advised of it, either by the neighbours or perhaps an alert delivery person. Even then, it is not a simple matter of slapping a compulsory purchase order (CPO) on a derelict dwelling – there is serious detective work entailed in identifying the owner or, if they are deceased, those who expect to inherit. This can take years; it involves interrogating public records such as the Land Registry and using probate research companies.

This comprehensive search becomes even more complex if it transpires that there is more than one owner or beneficiary. During this time, the council is empowered to display a section 86 notice under the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to secure the property against any unauthorised entry.

Having identified the owner or beneficiary, the local authority liaises with them to establish whether they can work together to bring the property back up to a habitable standard. It is only if they refuse that the council can issue a CPO. And don’t forget that, while a property remains empty, no one is paying council tax: over several years, that must be a huge amount of lost revenue for cash-strapped local authorities.

Bearing in mind the huge odds stacked against them, councils up and down the country are doing a pretty good job of making empty homes fit for use once more. Burnley Borough Council, for instance, offers the owners of empty homes an interest-free loan of up to £20,000 to enable them to bring properties back into use, subject to certain criteria:

  • the landlord must either be accredited, or working towards accreditation, with Burnley’s Good Landlord and Agent Scheme, or licensed through the council’s selective or mandatory licensing schemes;
  • the landlord must ensure that reoccupied properties are managed satisfactorily
  • the property must require work to bring it up to the Decent Homes Standard;
  • it must have been vacant for more than 6 months;
  • it cannot be included in a confirmed or future clearance programme.

Meanwhile, Bolton Council reminds owners of the risks and expense of leaving properties empty: along with many local authorities, it subjects owners of properties left vacant for two years to pay a council tax of 150%. Besides offering an empty homes loan, it uses a matchmaker scheme to pair unoccupied properties for sale with potential buyers on its lists who are willing to consider them even if they need extensive works. Owners of vacant properties can advertise with the council free of charge.

Re-using vacant properties will not solve the UK’s appalling housing shortage

In the South East of England, Kent County Council launched its No Use Empty campaign in 2005 (no-use-empty.org.uk). The initiative aims to improve Kent’s urban environment by bringing empty properties back into use as quality housing and raising awareness of the problems they cause for local communities if left vacant. Originally focusing on Thanet, Dover, Shepway and Swale, which together had the highest number of empty properties, the initiative was expanded to all 12 district councils in the county in 2008.

No Use Empty offers three forms of financial assistance, supported by £6m capital funding from the county council.

  1. A loan scheme helps owners and developers refurbish or convert empty homes or redundant commercial buildings, such as parades of shops and offices, to provide good-quality residential accommodation. On completion, properties must be made available for sale or rent. The scheme is a revolving fund – as loans are repaid, the money is lent again to support new schemes.
  2. A partnership fund is available to help the districts undertake enforcement action, such as issuing CPOs. Although district councils are empowered to deal with rundown empty properties, they often have neither the financial and human resources nor the knowledge to do so.
  3. A direct purchase scheme allows the council to acquire empty properties for redevelopment into housing.

The scheme is run by a team that operates virtually from different locations. In 2012, the council launched an affordable housing loan scheme, which has a capital fund of £2m coming jointly from its own resources and the Homes and Community Agency. This scheme works with Optivo Housing Group, formerly Amicus Horizon, which manages the refurbished properties on behalf of the owners for a 5-year period, providing a guaranteed monthly rental income.

The No Use Empty initiative, which has now also been rolled out to local authorities in the west of England, had its 15 minutes of fame in The Empty Housing Scandal, which showed that there are 450 unoccupied properties in Folkestone, yet there are 1,200 people on the housing waiting list.

One such vacant property comprised a redundant prep school that had been left derelict for 6 years. An entrepreneurial and courageous builder, used to seeing this eyesore on his way to work, investigated the possibility of bringing it back into use. Both the exterior and interior were in a dreadful state; but he saw beyond the fire and water damage, evidence of drug taking and theft of copper and steel.

Using loans from Folkestone & Hythe District Council and Kent County Council, he transformed the pair of huge Victorian semi-detached properties into 8 flats – 7 with 2-bedrooms and 1 single-bedroomed, allowing living space for up to 30 people – and meaning the local authority could reinvest the council tax for future projects.

This is just an overview of schemes adopted by a handful of councils in England. There are many more local authorities doing their utmost to ensure a home is doing the job it is meant to do. Property Journal would welcome stories of empty homes initiatives from councils in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as well.

Only the overoptimistic would believe that re-using empty homes will solve the country’s appalling housing shortage. But it can give those who are desperate for a roof over their heads an affordable option.

Jan Ambrose is editor of the residential section of RICS Property Journal

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