Councils seek further powers to end empty homes epidemic

As statistics reveal that 250,000 new homes would have to be built each year in England to meet housing demand, councils such as Leeds City Council are looking to lobby Central Government for the right to forcibly buy long term empty privately owned properties.

The council have been working to reduce the number of empty properties for a number of years and are increasingly using their powers to buy long term empty properties including two derelict houses in Kirkstall which have stood empty since the 1990s.

Local authorities already have a number of ways they can work with and penalise owners of long term empty properties such as the right to charge increased council tax to landlords of abodes which have been abandoned.  However, Leeds City Council admit that more needs to be done as the city’s increasing population is pushing it on the brink of a serious housing crisis.

“We’ve been working for a number of years to reduce the number of empty properties as this is in the best interest of our communities. Our approach has proven successful as at the end of February 2016 there were 3,000 fewer empty homes in Leeds compared to March 2010. This approach is centred on working proactively with owners.”
 
“The partnerships we’ve established with the third sector and social enterprises – for example funding the Empty Homes Doctor – allows us to target more difficult properties while they find bespoke solution for owners who simply don’t know what to do with or are the end of their tether with an empty property. Getting these homes back on the market for sale or rent is just one part of our strategy to ensure there are quality, affordable homes in Leeds.”
 
“This innovative approach is acknowledged as one of the country’s best and we’re committed to developing these partnerships and networks to get more empties back into use. Only when this approach fails will we use our CPO powers as a last resort.”
 
“I will continue to push central government for greater powers, not only on CPOs, but on ways we can work creatively with landlords to improve properties and bring empty homes back into use.”

It is expected that residents will welcome the council’s proactive approach following the announcement that they have reduced the amount of long term empty homes by just under 3,000 in a six-year period though there are over 3,000 long term empty properties remaining for the city to resolve.

Elsewhere, in London, local authorities have been found to be underutilising their existing powers with the BBC reporting in 2014 that seven of the capital's councils did not charge a single property the extra council tax they are legally able to. This suggests that Leeds City Council’s push for greater powers will need to be supported by other local authorities across the country in both action as well as principle.

A brief look at the statistics highlighting the plight of empty homes in England via a graphic created by Property Rescue highlights the issue at hand as there are the equivalent of 3 empty homes to the number of homeless people in the city, and across England as a whole, this rises to up to 7 homes per homeless person in priority need.

Whilst the wide range of schemes, both handled directly by local authorities and third sector organisations, are certainly having an impact; 100,000 homes were put back into use from 2004 – 2014, local authorities are certainly feeling the pressure to reduce the amount of empty homes further in a shorter time frame.

In addition to the powers to forcibly buy more properties, councils are exploring further options in regards to working creatively with landlords to help them bring properties back into use; this will be particularly pertinent in London where it is expected that the buy-to-let housing stock will be reduced due to a perceived cut in anticipated rental income following the chancellor’s clampdown on buy-to-let stamp duty and tax relief.

As reported earlier this month, up to 71% of ‘accidental’ landlords have a lack of awareness of mortgage legislation and this alongside other factors such as unaffordable repairs and waiting for the market value to increase, is contributing to the large amount of empty homes blighting communities up and down the country.

The housing market will continue to be monitored closely as central government legislation and devolution of powers to local authorities continues to be debated, and considering the data from the last 10 years, it is expected that the number of long term empty homes will continue to fall.  However, the speed in which they come back into use will be what matters to local residents the most.