Sheila Manchester spoke to Mark Dance, Cabinet Member for Regeneration and Economic Development at Kent County Council.Empty homes in England account for 3 per cent of the total housing stock. According to Council Tax Data collected by local authorities, there were 734,000 vacant dwellings at the end of September 2010. Of those, 301,000 are in the private sector, accounting for 1.6 per cent of all private sector stock.
A GOVERNMENT PRIORITY
Bringing empty homes back into use is claimed to be a Government priority as it contributes to the housing supply to meet local needs and help tackle homelessness, prevent neighbourhood decline and regenerate areas.
Empty and sad or tenanted and homely? Kent County Council brings homes back into affordable use. (Some photos are by the Empty Homes Agency).
As part of the Comprehensive Spending Review in October 2010, the Government announced a £100m fund to bring empty homes back into use, and then published its Housing Strategy on 21 November 2011, of which an important part is its strategy for tackling empty properties.
The strategy included details the £100m capital funding in the 2011-15 Affordable Homes Programme that was set aside to tackle long-term empty properties which would not come back into use without additional financial intervention. This funding aims to deliver at least 3,300 Affordable Homes by March 2015.
£70m of this funding has been assigned to the HCA to deliver a programme to bring empty properties back in to use as affordable housing. The remaining £30m is available to community and voluntary groups via a separate funding programme run by Tribal Education for DCLG.
A report by the Institute of Public Policy Research published last year warned that the UK housing shortfall could reach 750,000 by 2025, with little to suggest that new house-building will rise to a level to plug the gap. In April the Government appointed architect George Clarke as its first empty homes advisor, further evidence that the Government regards empty homes as an important part of the solution.
As Mary Portas highlighted the state of UK high streets, Mr Clarke will raise awareness of the number of empty homes – thought to be as many as 750,000 – and a means of returning these to use. The Government has already established an empty homes fund: £80 million on offer to local authorities around the country to start tackling the problem. At the time of writing approximately £60 million has been allocated across 20 authorities, which must now demonstrate a return on this investment.
LANDLORDS READY TO HELP
The majority of private sector landlords are ready and willing to bring empty social housing back into use according to a new survey. With 75,000 social homes lying empty across England, a survey of members of the Residential Landlords Association has revealed that 82 per cent are prepared to purchase empty social homes at auction.
Calling on the Government to implement such a policy, RLA Chairman, Alan Ward said: “With the country facing such a housing supply crisis, it is a national disgrace that so many social homes are lying empty whilst families across the country struggle to access suitable accommodation and at a price that they can afford. Landlords are champing at the bit to be able to do what they are good at, namely recycling old property and redeveloping it, boosting overall supply and playing an important part in reviving often deprived and run-down areas.
“Ministers should urge local authorities and housing associations to ensure all empty properties can be put up for auction to enable them to be brought back into use much more quickly.
“In order to encourage a quick turnaround, a one year deadline should be imposed on the purchaser for the property to be let to encourage swift investment.”
KENT CC TAKES ACTION
Kent County Council (KCC) launched No Use Empty in 2005 (NUE) as a means of tackling empty homes across Kent. Seven years later it has returned 2,126 homes to use, and the Council believes that the scheme provides a template for other local authorities to follow.
“When we launched the initiative there were two aspects that differentiated it from other empty homes programmes in the UK. Firstly, it is delivered not by one authority, but by KCC in partnership with four District and Borough Councils, and is now adopted by all twelve authorities across Kent. Councils typically tackle empty homes in a piecemeal fashion but there are clear benefits to working together: you can share knowledge and develop best practice, pool resources (more important now than ever) and build up more political and public support. Most authorities employ a single Empty Homes Officer who effectively form one team, meet regularly and discuss projects ongoing across the County.”
The other unusual aspect of NUE was that it offered financial assistance to owners who wish to refurbish empty homes and return them to use. Given the reduction in bank lending, the availability of loans from the NUE Loan Fund (loans of up to £25,000 per unit to a maximum of £175,000 are available on condition homes are then rented privately or sold) is key in getting some projects off the ground.
“Owners can use the NUE loan to leverage further funds from banks and other sources. To date we have issued more that £5.5 million in loans, which has leveraged a further £12.5 million of investment. Of the 2,126 homes we have returned to use, roughly 1 in 10 has been as the result of a NUE loan. All loans are repayable on two/ three year periods, and are recycled into the scheme. “Despite the adverse lending conditions, only two loans have not been repaid on time, a result of our thorough checks on applicants.”
The majority of homes are returned by engaging with the owner, providing guidance on tax and legal matters. We make them aware that the asset will sharply depreciate in value the longer it remains unoccupied. “Where owners simply won’t engage with us, we have the option of acquiring the property via a Compulsory Purchase Order or assuming responsibility for the management of the property via an EDMO. While the Loan Fund provides ‘the carrot’, these courses of action represent ‘the stick’. These are rarely employed (3 per cent of cases) but are necessary tools in dealing with ‘problem properties’.”
Research suggests that derelict homes can depreciate the value of nearby occupied properties by up to 18 per cent and provide a catalyst for crime and antisocial behaviour.
An area that feels in decline discourages people from investing in their own properties. Therefore, in some cases authorities have no option but to act and tackle long-term properties to ensure the housing market is not undermined.
“We are embarking on a new phase in NUE which will concentrate on larger empty buildings, alongside empty homes. In the past we have undertaken projects involving unused hotels, churches and pubs, which can be converted into a number of new housing units. These projects have a more pronounced regenerative impact on the surrounding area. It is crucial to offer financial assistance to owners as the cost of converting larger properties is likely to be prohibitive. We are also exploring tie-ups with housing providers to take on the management of the new units, and guarantee rents.
“In the current climate it is imperative that local authorities explore every possible avenue in tackling the empty homes issue.”
GUARDIANS ON HAND
Another interesting initiative is Guardians of London, www.guardiansoflondon.com which offers a service for landlords with long-term empty properties and people looking for affordable properties to live in.
Guardians of London is an anti-squatting ‘guardian’ scheme for empty residential and commercial buildings. Guardians are carefully vetted and often come from key worker sectors and the professions. They live in the buildings in shifts 24 hours a day, thus preventing vandalism and invasion by squatters and they are responsible for keeping the building tidy, clean and safe.
For landlords, the use of guardians avoids the need for hiring expensive security companies who are not always able to patrol all parts of a building and also, as the guardians are paying to live there, the landlord is earning revenue from the empty building rather than having to board it up (which neighbours don’t always like) and having to pay out for security companies.
Guardians themselves benefi t by securing affordable housing, often in areas in which they would never normally be able to afford to live; key worker guardians (police, nurses, firemen and women etc) can rent in properties very near to their place of work.
Gavin Handman, Head of Facilities at Guardians of London said, “Guardians of London is committed to offering landlords a way out of the current empty property nightmare, which at times can seem a bottomless pit of expenses and statutory charges. A guardian-occupied building will provide the landlord with a regular income from their empty building. It’s a win-win situation!
“If a landlord is currently paying up to £8,000 per month on a security firm to patrol and secure their building, by putting 15 guardians into it to keep it secure and prevent it from becoming dilapidated, instead of losing £8,000 per month, the landlord can actually earn up to £1,500 per month instead.”
KENT COUNTY COUNCIL http://www.no-use-empty.org/index
HOMES & COMMUNITIES: www.homesandcommunities.co.uk
THE EMPTY HOMES AGENCY www.emptyhomes.com
THE RESIDENTIAL LANDLORDS ASSOCIATION www.rla.org.uk
GUARDIANS OF LONDON http://www.guardiansoflondon.com