It’s interesting to see that a central London property previously owned by a former Rolling Stone is currently on the market for well over £2,000,000. If the celebrity association helps in the search for a buyer then all well and good.
But, it’s also interesting to read that whilst the number of those who are living on the streets or in temporary accommodation (often with young children) is inexorably rising, there are around 700,000 empty properties in England alone (of which 80,000 are in Greater London).
Homelessness and hopelessness are two sides of the same coin and in their January 2016 House of Commons Library Briefing Paper Number 3012 “Empty Housing (England)” Wendy Wilson and David Foster reflected upon concerns that not enough was being done to bring the existing empty housing stock back into use.
By 2020 the government has said that it wants to see hundreds of thousands of new homes built throughout the country. However, many commentators are concerned that post-Brexit these expectations are incapable of being fulfilled because of the financial and planning hurdles that need to be overcome. Many are also worried about the environmental impact on those communities, given that the new properties are planned on such a large scale; there is also that concern that too few of the new homes will be affordable for those defined as “just about managing” — the JAMs, as this struggling group has been labelled — who may have to wait until tomorrow, particularly as developers do not build new properties from a purely socially responsible point of view, but to make decent long-term, sustainable profits.
Reading the Wilson Foster paper, it becomes clear that a cold hard look should be taken at the mechanics and costs of refurbishing at least a proportion of the properties that have stood empty for over two years. It would appear that the Empty Homes Loan Fund of £3,000,000, which was set up in September 2013 to help do just that, was closed because “of low take-up”. The administrators of the fund presumably returned the full unused amount of the Empty Homes Loan Fund to the Treasury with accrued interest — but the report makes no mention of this.
The problem would seem to be exacerbated by the shortage of suitable new public sector housing stemming from the success over many years of the “Right to Buy” legislation. So how can this be tackled? In fact local authorities do have a weapon in their armoury which is under-utilised: the Empty Dwelling Management Order (EDMO) was brought in during 2004.
Concerns were raised that its powers could be used against private property owners to seize their properties. Such fears have proved groundless because it would appear that councils in England and Wales have actually exercised their powers under EDMO less than 50 times in the past 12 years. EDMOs allow local authorities to step in and take over the running and letting of vacant properties on the assumption that some form of back-to-back deal could be done with private sector to allow the refurbished properties to be rented on the open market.
Refurbishment of appropriate properties is much cheaper than new build and existing properties usually have land which may well lend itself to “modular” housing subject to appropriate statutory consents. Civil libertarians will, of course, argue that no-one should be compelled to hand-over their property under EDMO, but local authorities must pay appropriate compensation to property owners if located.
In any event, a significant number of empty properties in England and Wales are actually owned by some of the 165,000 registered charities and statutory organisations; with a constructive use of social media you don’t have to leave the comfort of your chair to locate them.
Local authorities keep a list of empty properties (both residential and commercial) for council tax and rating purposes (although they can be quite coy about producing these without persistent freedom of information requests). English Heritage, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and Save Britain’s Heritage are just some of those who have a comprehensive list of properties which are at risk across the country.
The opportunity to free up a national asset of massive value must be worth investigating by local authorities, smaller private developers, financiers and crowdfunders who could work together to make 2017 a very Happy New Year.