A new lease of life

With latest figures showing an astonishing increase in the number of empty properties in Hackney (from 795 to 2895 in the space of just a year), we reprint here an article from The Guardian’s website arguing the case for local councils taking over ownership of private properties left vacant for no good reason.
(Friday October 10, 2003 – Society Guardian website)

As consultation ends on a scheme to force landlords to bring their empty properties back into use, Jack Dromey urges the government to take measures to implement it

With all the talk at the moment of a housing crisis, you could be forgiven for not picking up on the fact that there are a startling 729,770 empty homes across England. Not a lot of people know that but just think of the contribution that they could make to meeting housing need?
While some of these empty homes are in areas of low demand for housing, over half are empty where there is high housing need. In London and the south-east, for example, there are just under 185,000 empty homes. Of this total more than 80% are in the private sector and 70,000 have been empty for more than six months.

Yet in 2002 there were around 59,000 families registered as homeless in the same region.

The debate on empty homes in this country has moved on. It is no longer about the shocking management of empty homes by the NHS, Ministry of Defence or local councils, as much work has been undertaken in this area over the last decade. The big challenge now is bringing back into use those long-term empty private homes to meet increasing housing need.

To date local authorities across the land have adopted empty property strategies and have worked with private owners of empty homes to ensure the homes are brought back into use. Through targeted grants programmes, and gaining the associated nomination rights, empty homes have been brought back into use.

Yet a voluntary approach is only sadly going to take us so far. Take just one local authority, the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham, which has for many years run a progressive empty property strategy. Despite this excellent work, the council still found itself with over 1,000 properties where their approaches had been turned down. In many cases these owners are “accidental landlords”. They may be owners of a shop, with a flat upstairs, or landlords who have inherited a property. The best long-term solution is to turn these landlords into good landlords or encourage them to make a decision to get out of the property business rather than force them out of it.

An idea was developed with such properties in areas of high housing need, where a good reason can’t be given for keeping the property empty, and the owner has turned down offers of assistance, the local authority should have the discretionary power to take over the management of the property.

The authority would undertake the necessary capital works to make good the house and then the rental income stream could pay for this work. Once the debts had been paid, the management of the house would revert back to the owner. As the management period neared completion, the owner would be offered training on being a landlord or advice on how they could continue letting out the house. The key issue with this idea is that ownership is not the issue it is occupation.

Indeed it can be seen as a win win solution. The owners receive an income and their property is improved, housing need is met and the community loses another empty home and its ability to attract crime and vandalism.

Such a scheme was advocated by the Local Government Association in its submission to the housing and planning select committee and is supported by Shelter, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and indeed my own union the Transport and General Workers’ Union. And a number of local authorities are expressing interest in this scheme, from Southampton to Salford showing that this idea is not one restricted just to London.

The recent select committee investigation into empty homes in 2002 recommended a pilot scheme to test such a scheme and the government responded with interest to this idea. In their Communities’ Plan published on 5th February 2003, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister announced that it was minded to go out to public consultation on this issue, and a consultation paper was launched at the joint Empty Homes Agency/Social Market Foundation conference in May.

And we have now come to the end of a three-month public consultation period. The government has responded quickly to the campaign run by the Empty Homes Agency, but it must not lose momentum. Compulsory leasing (or empty homes management orders as the government prefers to call it) has massive potential to increase the supply of affordable housing by using existing assets. This is a radical idea but one that we need to put into action fast.

For that reason I call upon the government to include compulsory leasing in the housing bill when it returns to parliament in the next session. With the current intense pressure for new housing the government must turn this idea from rhetoric to reality soon. We can’t afford to wait.

Jack Dromey is the national convenor at the Transport and General Workers’ Union

For more information on the IWCA’s policies on this issue see www.iwca.info