Blog: 4 July 2016Empty Homes: the elephant in the room?

Jenni Montgomery

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Jenni Montgomery

Business Development Director

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On Friday an infographic previously published in The Guardian flashed up on the Barton Willmore twitter stream, highlighting the 2014 Europe-wide empty homes statistics. As I was on my way to join Shelter (our new charity partner) for a roundtable focusing on this very topic, it was interesting to note how the UK faired.

With some 700,000 empty homes quoted in their 2014 report (that’s 11 per 1,000 of population) we do not by any means have the scale of problem many of our European neighbours’ face. However, these statistics still fuel a long running debate around the volume of empty homes across the UK and the degree to which they could, if brought back to market, offset our current housing crisis.

In my role as BD Director for Barton Willmore, I frequently assist our teams here in understanding how we as a consultancy can respond to the ever shifting UK housing crisis, be this in terms of driving for legislation change or discussing the best solutions. New settlements, urban intensification, green belt land release or diversity of tenure are all responses the property industry recognises as potentially significant contributors to solving our housing crisis, but when it comes to empty homes, I think there is a frequent lack of understanding as to scale, challenges or indeed solutions.

In Liverpool last week, Shelter’s roundtable talked through a number of the challenges and approaches tested over the years and numerous resultant frustrations as budgets were cut, or directions of travel changed. The attendees reflected an understandably strong public sector and not-for-profit bias, to the extent that I was the only person from the private sector in the room, only further emphasising the fact that this is perceived as a public sector problem, despite the fact that of those empty homes, only some 20% across the UK are in public sector ownership.

The other 80% is predominantly owned by small scale property investors or private, one-off landlords, a number of whom are even classed as ‘accidental’ landlords; people who have inherited or ended up with a property due to a change in circumstances, but for whatever reason have sought to keep it/been unable to sell it.

The Government, Local Authorities, George Clarke (the Empty Homes Advisor appointed by the Coalition Government back in 2012) and charities such as Empty Homes have long struggled with ways and means to influence these isolated individuals and small scale property moguls, but it’s not an easy task. In 2014 the coalition Government introduced powers to increase Council Tax on properties left vacant, and although this did have some impact, the application of powers was onerous, and still requires the property to be empty for at least 2 years, before it was applicable.

The Shelter led discussion was intentionally focused on the North West, where they feel the empty homes challenge is particularly acute, but even looking at this specific region it was clear that the challenge and therefore solution may well vary, even across a specific region. There is no magic bullet, but one first step a number of people felt may help was support resources to help and encourage these ‘accidental’ landlords. Many had come across landlords who really didn’t know how to go about securing a tenant, refurbishing their property, securing grant funding to do the latter, etc. It was felt that many landlords harbour unrealistic expectations as to the opportunity property presents, and in a country where so much emphasis is placed upon homeownership as an investment class and constant media coverage on the rising house prices across the south east, this is hardly surprising.

In the North West, and particularly in the areas of empty homes concentrations, property is not about to turn a fortune for landlords and nor will it if empty homes continue to blight an area, even in a recovering market. A programme of support and education could help landlords understand the opportunity their property presents and provide them with wider information and support to get it back to the market.

I also wonder if in the longer term, empty homes can take some pointers from the successful practices employed in estate regeneration in recent years. In particular, the influence of social pressure, on landlords, when an area begins to improve. Empty homes blight a neighbourhood, but if we could seek to drive improvement through education, skills and community within an area, we can realise improvements in a sense of place, pride and responsibility amongst communities. If delivered, might this help to persuade a landlord to refurb their properties and feed in to a growing, resilient community that will also deliver longer reliable income and occupants who are proud of their home and neighbourhood?

It doesn’t happen overnight but it has been delivered in estate regeneration, and it can be delivered across multiple ownership… it’s just not easy to coordinate. Local Authorities are battling with the here and now, immediate problems that need immediate solutions. They are not able to tackle the slow burn long game, either with human or monetary resources.

At this stage, I’m not sure how the private property industry can help, but we’re a resourceful bunch and we must keep looking and talking.

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Empty Homes, Housing Crisis, Shelter