10:51 AM, 12th May 2023, About 10 months ago 14
The UK is going through a housing crisis, with landlords leaving the private rented sector in droves and many people unable to find a home.
But could the solution to alleviate the housing crisis be in offering England’s 250,000 empty houses and flats for rent?
This Property118 investigation highlights the massive number of empty homes across the UK and why compulsory purchasing orders (CPOs) are not the answer.
According to government figures, there are currently 250,000 empty homes across England. However, the figure could be substantially more.
Chris Bailey, the national campaign manager at Action on Empty Homes, said: “Official government data on long-term empty homes is what gives us that 250,000 figure, and it has been steadily rising ever since the last national Government Empty Homes Programme of investment in bringing them back into use ended back in 2015.
“The upward trend began in the next full year after that programme closed with a rise of over 5,000 (or 2.6%) in 2017’s data. By 2022 numbers had risen by around 50,000 (24%).”
Mr Bailey added that there are a considerable number of homes which are empty because the owner has died, and these haven’t been brought back into use.
He explained: “In all, there are 122,000 of these – a rise of 37% on pre-pandemic data – but these homes aren’t counted in that national ‘official’ 250,000 number because they don’t pay council tax.”
New-build homes that do not sell immediately and are often left empty for a long period of time are also not included in the list.
According to Action on Empty Homes, there are currently 231,000 empty properties which are classed as short-term empty homes that haven’t yet moved into the government’s long-term empty home category.
Furnished empty homes, such as second homes and holiday homes, of which there are 257,000, are also not included in the list.
Mr Bailey said the number of empty homes in England could be well over one million.
He told Property118: “The figure is over a million. Every year when the number rises the government tell us about the measures, they have in place to help, like increased council tax for empty homes.
“Yet still, year after year, we tell them that these aren’t the right measures and still every year the numbers keep on rising.”
In Wales, there is a severe shortage of rental properties which leaves many people stuck on housing waiting lists.
Welsh MS Janet Finch-Saunders previously told Property118 that the Welsh government is more concerned about people owning second homes than tackling the issue of empty homes.
She said: “The Welsh government keeps going on about second homeowners and having a go at them but historically there are more empty homes in communities than there are second homes.”
Ms Finch-Saunders told Property118 there are 22,457 chargeable empty homes – more than last year.
She said: “I have spent time with empty homes officials and walked around a village in Aberconwy where there are a shocking number of empty properties.
“The Welsh government should liaise with the UK government to reduce the amount of time probate takes, promote financial incentives to the empty property owners, work with estate agents, and increase the number of empty homes officers across Wales.”
She added that taking action will help those people who are stuck on social housing waiting lists.
Ms Finch-Saunders said: “Taking a series of actions would be in the best interest of the community in which the houses are situated, and the 90,000 people in Wales languishing on social housing waiting lists.”
In places like Southampton, the number of empty homes has doubled in the last decade.
Census figures show the percentage of empty homes in the city went up from 2.9% in 2011 to 5.5% in 2021.
The Office for National Statistics says the census took place during the coronavirus pandemic when many were living with parents and overseas residents were returning home and travel was restricted.
So just how are councils trying to tackle empty homes?
Up and down the country, councils use compulsory purchasing orders (CPOs) to bring a property back into use when owners have refused to do so.
Mr Bailey said rather than using CPOs, councils should be looking at empty management dwelling orders.
He said: “Our recommendation has been supported by councils of all parties from Conservative councils like Kensington and Chelsea, to inner city Labour councils like Southwark, but it isn’t compulsory purchase, it is what is sometimes called a ‘no fault Empty Dwelling Management Order’ (EDMO).
“This allows councils to let homes to those in housing need, without having to compulsory purchase them.”
He added that EDMOs are being under-used by councils.
Mr Bailey goes on: “This power exists but is currently under-used because councils have to wait years to use it and it won’t get granted until a home is falling down, being vandalised or has turned into a crime hotspot such as a ‘crack house’ or brothel.
“Like most councils and their residents, we think this is waiting too long and puts an unreasonable barrier in the way of better housing management.”
Southwark council says that compulsory purchasing orders and empty management dwelling orders should be reformed to take into account the impact of empty homes on the community and the local housing need.
The council points out that CPOs and EDMOs can only be pursued after a property can be shown to have been empty for two years.
It argues that the limit should be returned to its original six-month threshold.
Councillor Kieron Williams, leader of Southwark council, told Property118: “We are using every tool we have to tackle the housing crisis.
“That’s why we are building thousands more homes across Southwark, with the highest number of new council homes started on site last year in the country, and why we agreed our Empty Homes Strategy to get privately owned empty homes back into use for families too.
“However, we also need stronger powers from the government to take action when overseas investors let homes sit empty.”
Babergh and Mid Suffolk district council say it has launched a Houses 4 Homes scheme that will help reduce the number of empty properties.
A spokesperson from the council told Property118: “We’re keen to tackle the issue of empty homes and bring as many as possible back into use as it’s a sustainable way to increase the overall supply of much-needed local housing, as well as reducing blight on our neighbourhoods.
“Earlier this year, we launched Houses 4 Homes – aimed at reducing the number of long-term empty properties within our districts, by working with their owners and offering advice and support, project management guidance and interest-free loans.”
The NRLA say local authorities need to encourage landlords to take on empty homes, by tax incentives or financial support.
A spokesperson from the NRLA told Property118: “No proactive and responsible landlord ever wants to leave a property empty for any longer than is absolutely necessary.
“An empty rental property is not generating an income and is at risk of deterioration or vandalism, which nobody wants to see.
“In the first instance, NRLA would encourage local authorities to reach out to the owners of long-term empty properties, who are very unlikely to be portfolio landlords, to support their return to use.”
The spokesperson added: “Rather than dissuading investment, we would welcome efforts by local and central government to encourage landlords to take on empty homes, perhaps by means of tax incentives or financial support to bring them back into productive use.”
What can a landlord do if their property is empty long term to protect it? Particularly when it comes to insurance.
Jason McClean, director at the Home Insurer, said: “Unoccupied properties generally need to be visited every seven days and a record kept – whether on paper or on phone.
“They also need the central heating kept on at 15 degrees or the tanks drained down to protect against the escape of water.
“A let property is normally deemed empty after 30 consecutive days of no resident staying overnight. It is best to move to specialist unoccupied insurance as landlord policies will normally reduce or not pay out at all in the event of a claim after this time.”
He added: “Sensible precautions are locking all doors and windows, visiting regularly, keeping the garden and mailbox tidy and draining down the tanks.
“Unoccupied insurance is very flexible and can accommodate most needs, including renovations and void periods.”
However, Mr Bailey at Action on Empty Homes says that all political parties need to look at empty homes as part of the solution to help solve the housing crisis.
He said: “The challenge for all political parties is how to offer genuinely affordable housing to millions who can’t afford to buy and can’t find anywhere affordable to rent either.
“Much better access to rent-controlled or social housing is part of the answer and using some of those empty homes might be part of the solution.”
Editors Note: There is no statutory definition of the term ‘unoccupied and substantially unfurnished’. It is for the billing authority to decide whether a property meets this definition.
The Department for Communities and Local Government said in 2014: A property which is substantially unfurnished is unlikely to be occupied or be capable of occupation. In England a property must be empty for two years whilst in Scotland and Wales a property must be empty for one year before it is classed as ‘unoccupied’. More information can be found here.
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