Over the last 15 years, Freshwater has worked with house builders, housing associations and local authorities on projects across the UK, helping them to secure planning permissions, communicate with tenants, kick-start regeneration projects and promote new developments. Over that time, we have seen the thorny issue of ‘empty homes’ creeping up the agenda.
This week marks the national awareness-raising initiative, Empty Homes Week. Backed by over a hundred councils, it is designed to shine a spotlight on what many see as the ‘wasted resource’ of thousands of potentially habitable dwellings lying unused and empty, while individuals and families sit on ever-growing local authority and housing association waiting lists.
How many unoccupied homes are there in the UK?
To the outside observer, some of the empty home statistics look frightening. In England, there are believed to be more than 600,000 homes lying empty, around a third of which have been uninhabited for more than six years. The figure is rising too – more than 11,000 properties were newly categorised as empty homes in 2018, a rise that was double that of the previous year.
In Wales, where housing policy is devolved, the key players may be different but the pattern is similar. According to homelessness charity Shelter Cymru, there are more than 27,000 empty homes across the country, a figure that has increased by 40% since 2010.
Politicians from all parties are acutely aware of the challenge and the opportunity presented by the current situation – 86% of MPs recently told a ComRes poll that more emphasis needs to be put on tackling empty homes, while 68% also believe that private landlords of homes that have been empty for more than 12 months should be required to bring them back into use. The Welsh Government recently allocated £40m to help Wales’s 22 local authorities tackle the empty homes issue, as well as introducing a mandatory register for private landlords.
Tackling the empty homes crisis
The arguments for tackling the issue of empty homes are strong – not only would it lead to direct savings in housing benefit payments and the provision of temporary accommodation, but research also suggests the potential for associated benefits in areas such as health and wellbeing, crime and antisocial behaviour. So, despite the political will and multiple benefits, why are the numbers still moving in the wrong direction?
According to Action on Empty Homes – the organisation behind Empty Homes Week – the issue demands a consistent, three-pronged approach. First of all, it is calling for action from national government, in the form of investment programmes targeting areas with high proportions of empty homes, with funding made accessible to a wider range of organisations, including those not currently registered as housing providers.
Secondly, it suggests investment in empty home prevention schemes that support refurbishment of properties before they become inhabitable, as well as a legal review into the powers given to local authorities to repossess long-term empty properties.
Finally, it is calling on local authorities to develop strategic plans and re-energise focused initiatives to urgently address the issue of empty homes in their areas. Shelter feels that many authorities are failing to use the powers they have to bring privately-owned properties back into use for fear of ‘getting it wrong’, while others feel that more emphasis needs to be placed on investing in the skills required to make these initiatives successful.
The final piece in the empty homes jigsaw
Although local and national government clearly have a role to play, the final piece of the jigsaw lies in the empowerment of communities themselves.
Across England and Wales there are some great examples of community initiatives resulting in homes being brought back into use for local people, but it needs to go much further.
Just like many other areas of public policy, communities can act as a catalyst for real change; educating landlords, encouraging businesses to support local regeneration schemes and persuading politicians to implement and drive through the policies and investment needed.
With affordable housing already moving up the rankings as an issue for voters, the sooner the spotlight can be thrown on the issue of empty homes in the heart of our communities, the sooner they can become part of the solution to the wider housing crisis.