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Social Housing Speed Read – Initiatives to tackle empty housing

In this week's speed read, we take a look into a recent House of Commons Library publication regarding empty housing in England, and the powers that local authorities may exercise to tackle this issue.

The briefing can be found here.

Empty housing in England

In a country where the Government has described the housing market as broken, with spiralling and very visible homelessness, the problem of unused empty properties in the private sector needs tackling. In addition to the waste of valuable resources, empty properties can fast become magnets for vandalism, squatters and other forms of anti-social behaviour or blight.

For local authorities, tackling empty housing and bringing empty properties back into use can be difficult. Where owners of empty dwellings fail to engage with a council seeking to bring those properties back into use, local authorities have several different tools available to them. The powers and options available to local authorities are not well used as the law relating to empty dwellings can be confusing and the number of local authorities actively using their powers are low.

The range of powers and incentives available to councils to bring empty homes back into use include (but are not limited to), Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs), Council Tax exemptions and premiums, compulsory purchase, and measures to secure the improvement of empty properties.

Whilst there are many possible reasons for a property being empty, local authorities tread a fine line when considering the exercise of its powers and incentives available to them: it should not be the intention of a council to place pressure upon owners of homes that are empty for a genuine reason.

What’s new?

The Empty Housing (England) Research Briefing document details the range of local authorities’ powers in dealing with empty housing, and provides further information as to other initiatives that may prove an incentive to owners of empty dwellings in bringing their properties back into occupation. The briefing discusses the historical policy developments in respect of empty housing and the current Government’s approach in tackling empty housing in the future.

The House of Commons Library, within their briefing paper, acknowledges that “high levels of empty properties are recognised as having a serious impact on the viability of communities. Consequently, it has been identified that dealing with empty properties can have social, regenerative, financial and strategic benefits”.

Statistics published by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government put the number of empty homes in England in October 2017 at 605,891, and the concentration of these vary amongst local authorities: local authorities with a higher proportion of dwellings recorded long-term empty properties (empty for longer than six months) are often in the North. Nationally, 205,293 were classed as long-term empty properties.

Moving forward, the charity Empty Homes makes several recommendations on how to bring more empty homes back into use, recommending (amongst other suggestions) that:

  • Local authorities should have (or be in the process of implementing) an empty homes strategy;
  • Local authorities and social housing providers should seek funding and allocate resources to buy and refurbish empty properties for people in housing need;
  • Employ dedicated empty homes officers to ensure information is acted upon; and
  • Central Government should adopt an investment programme targeted at areas with high levels of long-term empty homes.

In summary, councils across the country currently offer a variety of incentives used before enforcement actions are considered, and a greater focus on tackling empty homes seems to be on the Government’s agenda for the future.

For local authorities wishing to tackle any issues they may have in respect of empty homes, blight and other anti-social behaviour that can arise when a large concentration of properties are left unoccupied for long periods, our Social Housing Group has experience in advising, creating frameworks and assisting local authorities with implementing their strategy in dealing with empty homes.  Please contact John Murray if you would like to discuss this further.

Please note that this briefing is designed to be informative, not advisory and represents our understanding of English law and practice as at the date indicated. We would always recommend that you should seek specific guidance on any particular legal issue.

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