Friday, December 01, 2006

The First EDMO

The first application to a residential property tribunal for an interim empty dwelling management order has been made. Not as you might expect in an urban metropolitan borough or in an area with a pressing empty homes problem, but in South Oxfordshire. I'll let you know when I hear more

Friday, November 24, 2006

Wasted Publicly Owned Homes

I’ve rather neglected this blog in recent weeks, but I’m back and I’m reenergized. Up till now much of the material in this blog has been about the 85% of the empty homes in this country that are privately owned. But there is something particularly galling about the other 15%. Property, provided for those in need, subsidized by us, left empty.

This month I have visited two of the worst examples. Houses owned by Liverpool Council in Newsham park and a string of empty homes and derelict land belonging to Transport for London along the North Circular Road in North London. What struck me was how numbers on a table tell you very little. Here in total were 85 empty homes (79 in London and 6 in Liverpool); a mere drop in the ocean of the 780,000 still empty in England. But the impacts were awful. Newsham Park, a beautiful Victorian open space in the heart of a great city, is scarred by the derelict shells of once grand houses that sit on its southern perimeter. Knee high in dumped rubbish, ravaged by vandals and looted of their architectural features they cause your spirits to drop. Walk across the park and almost identical houses stand proud having been maintained and restored by their owners. The difference, the only difference I could see, is that the properties in good condition are privately owned and the derelict buildings belong to the council.

In North London a mile stretch of residential road has been left on proverbial death row for 35 years while public authorities try to make their mind up whether to widen the road. The impact has been appalling, with continual uncertainty the public authorities have not thought it worthwhile to properly maintain the houses. Some are bricked up, some are boarded up and many have been demolished leaving large tracts of vacant land. But as in Liverpool, neglect has encouraged petty and not so petty crime. Residents report a never-ending supply of fly tipping, and vandalism. At least three of the houses have been set fire to one killing a squatter earlier this year. And there are reports that some of the occupied houses are used as brothels and drug factories.

Most public landlords do a good job, manage their properties well, and provide an invaluable service. But those who fail often do so spectacularly; not just neglecting their own property but dragging the whole neighbourhood down with them. Local residents often feel powerless to deal with what has happened to their area. But there is sometimes a ray of hope. I’ve mentioned PRODs before on this blog and earlier this year a local a campaign group has used one successfully to force a rethink over the houses in Newsham Park.

PRODs date back to legislation introduced in 1980 - the Local Government Planning and Land Act. But look through the act and you will see no mention of them. What you will find is a section setting up a register of unused and underused public land and a power for the secretary of State to dispose of any land or property on the register. Four years after its introduction the government was frustrated by the lack of property and land on the register. Public authorities it seems were keeping quiet about what they owned. So the Secretary of State Patrick Jenkin set up a scheme to enlist public help. The Scheme was the Public Request Ordering Disposal scheme or PROD for short. Report a publicly owned empty property and the secretary of state will review it and sell it if there was no good reason for keeping it empty.

The register finally took off and eventually became the National Land Use Database, and PRODs were quietly forgotten. Forgotten but not gone, the scheme and the powers still exists and as the case in Liverpool has shown can have a real impact in addressing what otherwise appear intractable problems of empty homes.
All this week and last week the You and Yours programme on BBC Radio 4 has been covering the issue and promoting PRODs as a solution to wasted publicly owned homes. If you know about publicly owned empty homes why not give them a PROD; here’s how.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Houses on Death Row

A little remembered fact is when Britain had the death penalty there was an automatic reprieve if the sentence hadn’t been carried out within 90 days. Consequently we had no death row. By contrast the average time on death row for inmates in the United States currently stands at about 12 years.

Mercifully we abolished capital punishment many years ago, but we seem to have created death row for houses instead. See this from Sunderland Today

I quite accept that many houses are beyond hope and need to be demolished, but having made the decision, for goodness sake get on with it. Leaving properties boarded up for years or knocking them down and leaving rubble-strewn wasteland creates more problems than the houses did in the first place.

Monday, October 09, 2006

Could Do Better

Local authorities are now judged on their effectiveness at getting empty homes back into use. Many of them are very good at it and deserve praise. Others aren’t. A few months ago I published a list of some of the poorest performing local authorities. Here is the latest list. This time I have added some local authorities that brought properties back into use but in my view not enough to make much of an impact. Bringing 4 properties back into use would be quite good if the local authority only had 25 empty properties in it’s area, but it’s not so impressive if they have 3,000. Some local authorities did not report the numbers of long term empty homes in their area. In these cases I have added the figure from other sources of data but have preceded it with the word “about”. Between the 60 of them these local authorities brought 25 properties back into use out of a total of 31,000 long-term empty homes

I wrote to the Director of Housing in all of these local authorities back in August and asked if I could help. Only four of them replied, all said they were intending to improve this year. Good for them. Let’s hope the other 54 follow suit.

The first number is the number of long term private empty homes in the council's area, the second is the number they brought back into use last year :

Arun, 840, 2
Barrow-in-Furness, 500, 0
Berwick, about 200, 0
Blaby, about 262, 0
Boston, 500, 0
Bracknell Forest, 335, 0
Caradon, 504, 0
Castle Morpeth, 475, 0
Castle Point, 529, 0
Chester-Le-Street, 236, 0
Copeland, 998, 0
Craven, 227, 0
Daventry, 139, 0
East Dorset, 140, 0
Epping, 917, 0
Gedling, 895, 0
Gloucester, 804, 0
Harlow, about 405, 0
Hart, 150, 0
Havant, 100, 0
Havering, 1,079, 1
Kings Lynn, 1,324, 2
Maldon, 360, 0
Malvern Hills, 314, 0
Mid Sussex, 511, 1
Newark and Sherwood, 740, 1
North Cornwall, 186, 0
North Dorset, 664, 1
North Kesteven, 700, 0
North Warwickshire, 412, 0
Oswestry, 244, 0
Oxford, 138, 0
Pendle, 1,752, 5
Purbeck, 72, 0
Reading, 806, 0
Richmondshire, 287, 0
Rochford, 456, 0
Rushcliffe, 327, 0
Ryedale, 269, 1
Rutland, 96, 0
Sefton, 2,898, 4
South Cambridgeshire, 507, 0
Stafford, 437, 0
Surrey Heath, 186, 0
Tandridge, 523, 0
Tendring, 928, 3
Teesdale, 241, 0
Torbay, 99, 0
Tynedale, 350, 0
Uttlesford, 475, 0
Wansbeck, 590, 0
Warwick, 1,250, 3
Waveney, 962, 0
Wealden, 563, 0
Welwyn, 328, 0
West Berkshire, 561, 0
West Devon, 290, 1
West Oxfordshire, 218, 0
West Somerset, 194, 0
Winchester, 425, 0
Wokingham, 475, 0

Friday, October 06, 2006

EDMO debate

Environmental Health News printed a couple of articles on empty homes last week here and here. Jake from Westminster City Council, who I happen to have a lot of time for, responded and over the last few days we have had interesting to and fro correspondence. Environmental Health News is printing some of this in their letters page. But unless you are a member of the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health you won’t otherwise see it, so here it is:

I write in response to the article in EHN on the 22nd September in which it was said that David Ireland of the Empty Homes Agency knew of around 10 councils including Westminster that had been put off using the new measures (Empty Dwelling Management Orders) because of the coverage in the press over the summer.

The City of Westminster uses compulsory purchase powers as a matter of routine practice to bring empty private sector dwellings back into use. However, Westminster has 'been put off' using the new measures but the decision to not proactively use these powers was taken many months before the adverse publicity. The publicity has had no bearing on the decision. The reason for not using the powers relates to the details of the procedure. The risk of financial loss is high. An interested party can challenge the local authority’s management scheme for the dwelling at any time during the course of what may be a 7 year period of management. Local authorities need surety at the start of the term that their management scheme assumptions relating to rent levels, void rates, repairs costs etc. are accepted by the Residential Property Tribunal. The process does not provide for this. Local authorities must also be allowed to make a reasonable surplus on an individual dwelling to allow for those cases where losses are made. Westminster accepts that an authority should not be allowed to make a profit on its EDMO portfolio. There should therefore be a requirement for a ring-fenced account for EDMOs.

Westminster made representation to the former ODPM during the consultation process to the effect that local authorities had suffered major financial losses in respect of the 'control order’ procedure in respect of HMOs under the Housing Act 1985 and that the EDMO procedure should not replicate the fundamentals of this procedure. Instead, there should be a fairer balance of risk as between the dispossessed parties and the local authority. This plea fell on deaf ears.

Sadly, the legislation was introduced at the 11th hour during the Parliamentary process and we were not able to make these points to the legislators.

It's quite ironic that certain parts of the press have become so exercised about EDMOs. If I was a landlord I might be tempted to buy an empty property in a local authority with a proactive EDMO policy - sit back whilst the local authority takes action and collect my guaranteed market rent. I would bide my time waiting for a few years to elapse after when, staff changes have taken place; paperwork might have been mislaid; memories fade as to the details. Then I would appeal. Many readers involved in HMO enforcement will be familiar with this scenario.

Jake Mathias
Private Sector and Energy Manager
Housing Partnerships
City of Westminster

Dear Jake,

I didn’t want to imply that Westminster City Council had been frightened off EDMOs by the press. Their position on EDMOs has been very clear for a long time, they don't like them; other local authorities do. Fine with me, EDMOs are a discretionary power and it's entirely appropriate for local authorities to make policy decisions like this. But Jake, I can’t let your points about risk and cost go unanswered.

Risky? The risk of financial loss is only high if the local authority chooses the wrong properties to use an EDMO on. You can estimate likely costs, you can calculate the likely rent, if A is bigger than B don't use an EDMO.

Financial Loss? If an owner asks for an EDMO to be revoked they can apply to the RPT, if it is revoked the owner will need to refund all the local authorities outstanding costs.

Costly? EDMOs are the only method of tackling empty homes that enable the local authority to recover their costs. I was in Newham a couple of weeks ago and they told me an average CPO costs them £13,000. Many council’s happily give out grants of £20,000, and a recent benchmarking exercise I saw showed informal approaches to get empty homes back into use cost around £2,500. Use EDMOs properly and they are free.

The Daily Express has promoted enough misinformation about EDMOs lets not create any more.

Best Wishes



I accept your points about the relative cost-effectiveness of grants (dependant on the details - our policy until recently was to balance the grant level with our savings from the nomination rights) but not CPOs. We have not lost a penny in CPO enforcement in living memory. True - there are the costs of officer time but there would be such unrecoverable costs under the EDMO procedure.

I stand by what I say about the financial risks of the process - many years down the line the owner can argue that the rent charged was too low; the cost of refurbishment was too high; the works carried out were unnecessary etc. We've seen it all before on control orders. Critically local authorities housing management process aren’t geared up to account for a profit and loss account relating to one dwelling. Things get subsumed and details lost. Alternatively, if a property is micro-managed and bespoke accounting systems put in place the high costs of doing so are open to challenge.

Your response about risk solely addresses the scenario where a local authority chooses a dwelling where the costs of refurbishment are so high they are unrecoverable over a 7 year period. I agree with you, if there are major works involved an LA need to allow a generous safety margin for unforeseen works and ensure that the initial survey is accurate. You have not addressed my substantive points.

Let me give you a hypothetical but realistic example about rent. We take possession of a 2-bed flat in a reasonable part of Westminster. We believe a reasonable market rent is £450 p.w. Six years into the EDMO the owner goes to the RPT claiming we were out by about 10% - should have been £500. Wins the argument. Cost to the LA - £15,600 (ignoring interest and RPI uplifts). Why not have this thrashed out at the start?

So I stand by my main points.

1. The LA needs to be able to go to the RPT at the start of the Final EDMO process to get the management scheme rubber-stamped.

2. They need to be able to make a surplus on an individual dwelling.

Not too much to ask.

Jake Mathias

Dear Jake,

I suspect we agree on more than we like to admit. EDMOs like all housing enforcement measures are likely to be difficult and time consuming. I'm not encouraging anybody to use them. I'd far rather they got results through voluntary agreements with property owners. However, where all else fails, EDMOs are I think a useful enforcement tool. Not totally without risk, nothing is, but if managed properly the risks are, I would suggest, small and no greater than any other similar enforcement measure. If local authorities mess it up by loosing their records or not keeping proper accounts you can hardly blame the legislation.

EDMOs are not the same as control orders, whilst there are wide ranging appeal provisions for the owner, it’s not a free for all. The owner can appeal against the rent and other details in the management plan, but only for 28 days after the management order has been served. Thereafter the owner can only appeal against the council for not sticking to the management plan, (and a few other special circumstances around the end of the final management order). Therefore your hypothetical example could not arise.

You can, of course, make a surplus on an individual EDMO. The question that arises is what do you do with it. The guidance says pay it to the owner, I agree. What else could a reasonable council do? Using it to subsidise a loss on another EDMO would be grossly unfair to the first owner.

Best Wishes



I've now had a closer look at the legislation and I now see there is a 28 day appeal period after which in theory at least the order and by implication the management scheme is determined to be final and conclusive. Sadly, I was relying on someone else's interpretation of the statute and believed that there wasn't an appeal period at this stage of the process. The position is not therefore as bad as I painted. However, there remains the latitude for the RPT to waive the 28 day appeal period - but presumably this has to be a reasonable extension - not months or years.

More importantly there is the on-going right to appeal against a decision by a LA to refuse to vary a final EDMO. There is therefore an on-going right to challenge the management scheme. However, overall, the position is not as bleak as I first thought. But the risk of losses remains unnecessarily high in my opinion and I would still urge local authorities to use CPO powers rather than EDMO powers particularly given that LAs are charged with disposing of their leased units in order to meet the target of reducing by half the amount of temporary accommodation.

Jake Mathias

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Appealing Decisions

Earlier today I spoke to Colin England. Not a name you may know, but he was the guy who appealed against Bexley council’s refusal to issue a list of empty homes. The case, which we reported here, seems to have created a few waves with a dozen local authorities contacting us asking what they should do now. Release the Information is our advice. Kent local authorities have got the message as this page on their excellent new website shows. Predictably Bexley council have appealed against the information commissioner’s decision, but interestingly so has Mr England. It doesn’t go far enough in his view, he wants the list of owner’s addresses too. If recent cases are anything to go by we might have to wait quite a while for a decision on the appeals.

Friday, September 29, 2006

Public Interest

Inside Housing have done a great job covering the Freedom of Information issue on Empty Homes and were kind enough to publish my article in today’s edition.

Monday, September 25, 2006

More Empty Homes = More Murder

The link between empty homes and crime has often been made. Graffiti, fly tipping and vandalism are all common in empty homes. But this from a publication in Jacksonville reports something more sinister. A study in Chicago claims to show a link between increases in empty homes and increases in violent crimes including murder. The report they refer to is actually a year old and can be found here. For those with a strong interest in statistics it may make interesting reading. For me the one interesting fact I gleaned out of it was that the study found a 1% increase in foreclosures (homes empty because of repossession)was accompanied by a 2.23% increase in violent crime. There are no firm conclusions as to why this link exists but perhaps the answer lies in the zero tolerance theory – abandoned homes in the minds of petty criminals give the green light to vandalism, which itself makes more and more serious crime acceptable in the minds of criminals.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

You can't have the information we want it for ourselves

A few weeks ago we reported an important development in the ongoing saga of whether information on the whereabouts of empty homes should be made public. The information commissioner ruled that Bexley Council should release the information they had denied to a developer. Bexley ’s reasoning was that releasing the information may lead to an increase in crime. At least one council The Royal Borough of Kennsington and Chelsea have changed their policy as a result of the information commissioner’s decision and are now providing lists of empty homes on request. Others it seems have simply found new reasons not to give out the information. The most extraordinary is this one reported in Inside Housing. Camden Council’s standard line is currently this:

“If this information was released into the public domain, we feel that the ability of the Council to negotiate favourable prices with property owners would be affected. The Council would have to compete with property developers whose primary motivation is to make profit.

The public interest arguments for releasing this information are as follows
To assist in work to redevelop vacant and uncared for properties, which would improve the quality of the surrounding area

The public interest arguments for withholding the information are as follows:
It is a key national target to increase the number of affordable homes available; releasing the information will affect the Council’s ability to do this.
The cost to the Council in buying properties would increase, we do not feel that it is in the public interest to spend more public funds than necessary.

On balance we feel the public interest is better served by withholding this information.”

You have to commend them for their honesty, but this is incredible. The local authority is suggesting that it wants to buy the empty properties itself, and is using the Freedom of Information act to try and achieve commercial advantage by excluding the competition. There are currently 3,576 empty homes in Camden, surely enough for everybody.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Government's Back Garden Snatch Plans?

Opposite my children’s school there was a large (I would guess five bedroom) house that had been empty for a couple of years. Last year it was sold to a developer who by converting and extending it turned it into four flats. This year the developer turned his attention to the large garden. He chopped it in half and in one half built two new houses. In total one unoccupied dwelling has been turned into six occupied ones. No doubt this has all been very profitable for the developer, but I think most people would agree that this sort of development has benefits for the community too. This is in inner London where there is overall shortage of housing and very few sites with the potential for building new houses.

However this approach has its detractors as discussed in this post from May. The Conservative party don’t like classifying gardens as brownfield sites. And have recently announced their policy on back gardens. Part of their objection is the “thin end of the wedge argument” that they used as part of their objection to empty dwelling management orders. First the government confiscate unused houses, could unused back gardens be next?

"Across the country, there is growing concern about how John Prescott's planning rules are leading to leafy gardens being dug up and replaced with soulless and ugly blocks of flats," "Worse could be to come, with even harsher planning regulations on the way and the prospect of compulsory purchase of gardens for 'social' purposes. And if they're not going to build over your garden, Gordon Brown will tax it instead under his plans for a delayed, but still forthcoming, council tax revaluation." Say the Conservatives

Not so say the government :draft planning advice makes clear that while residential gardens are defined as brownfield land, "this does not necessarily mean that they are suitable for development".

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Art of Regeneration - Japanese Style

An interesting Japanese approach to resolving the problem of empty property was reported in last week’s Japan Times . The unlikely saviour is public art in the countryside. A few hours north of Tokyo lies the rural region of Echigo-Tsumari. It is according to the Japan Times a beautiful but "rugged, isolated, aging and economically stagnant place." It has for the past few years been the host to the world’s largest outdoor art exhibition: the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial.

"The most interesting initiative of this year's triennial is the "House-Museum Project," or "Akiya Project" in Japanese, which literally translates as "Empty House Project," for which more than 40 vacant homes and school buildings have been renovated and converted into art spaces. The basic idea has been that organizers and artists work hand in hand with local communities to identify vacant homes and schools, which, due to the depopulation of the region are in great abundance, do extensive renovation work and place within them site-specific works of art. Efforts are then made to sell or rent the houses to outsiders who might have an interest in owning a second home in the region."

This year the organisers of the event expect a quarter of a million visitors. A boost to an economically stagnant region in itself, but with the added possibility that some visitors will invest in the empty buildings and help bring them back to life.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Whatever Happened to Adverse Possession?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on claiming free properties. I said that it doesn't happen. Well I was wrong, a reader made the very reasonable point yesterday that it is possible to acquire properties free through adverse possession.

The law of adverse possession (or squatters rights) is an ancient one. Occupy a property for 12 years and it’s yours. Well not quite anymore I’m afraid. The Land Registration Act 2002 imposed a new regime. Whilst it retains the principle it adds an important new twist, the adverse possessor (squatter) now needs to ask the owner’s permission after 10 years. Only if the owner agrees or fails to respond can the adverse possessor take ownership.

Property Law has a good explanation here

A further twist was recently played out in the European Court of Human Rights . The case JA Pye (Oxford) ltd v Graham revolved around a piece of grazing land near Heathrow airport. Graham successfully took possession of the land from Pye. Pye appealed. The case was held under the pre Land registration Act regime so no permission was required, but the court’s comments were very interesting. They concluded that the legislation infringed Pye's human rights. They said it was disproportionate and because no compensation was payable to the landowner, it could not be justified. They conceded that the changes introduced by the Land Registration Act 2002 go some way to addressing these deficiencies. But held up the possibility that if the law remained unchanged the government may have to pay compensation to owner’s whose land is adversely possessed. Surely an invitation to the government to make more changes, or possibly remove the law altogether.

Adverse possession does still exist, but only just.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Access No Longer Denied

During the early days of this blog one of the hot topics was whether the Freedom of Information Act gave people the right to see council’s lists of empty homes. Developers and aspirant homeowners wanting to find a wreck to do up thought it did and local authorities, in the main, thought it didn’t. See this post from March

With very few exceptions local authorities took the view that requests to see lists of empty homes should be turned down. The most common reason cited was that putting the information in the public domain may lead to an increase in crime. Although as you will see from March’s post there were a number of other creative reasons given as well. I was never persueded of this line of arguement and argued in favour of local authorities making the information available.

One individual who was unhappy with the response he got from from the London Borough of Bexley appealed. Eventually the appeal ended up with the Information Commissioner who has just released his decision on the case.

The commissioner has found in the individual’s favour. The decision deals pretty comprehensively with the issue and in the paragraph that really destroys the council’s case says, “The commissioner accepts that empty properties may be the target of crime. He does not accept, though, that disclosure of a list of empty properties would lead to more crime being committed or to more of it going undetected. In fact one could just as easily conclude that because empty properties may attract crime, the availability of a list of such properties that could be used for the purposes of local regeneration and to facilitate the reoccupation of empty properties could, in fact, help reduce local crime levels.”

Monday, August 07, 2006

No End in Sight for Empty Homes in Scotland

A blog comment from a few weeks ago suggested that property owners who want to leave their properties empty should invest in Scotland to escape empty dwelling management orders. For anybody who’s tempted, bad news I’m afraid. This from the Herald last week suggests the Scots are thinking about introducing EDMOS there too.

But hold on a minute, I’m not sure the Scottish Executive will be so keen. From my dealings with them they have tended to take a very hands-off approach to the issue of empty homes. I have heard them say that empty homes are less of a problem in Scotland then in England (not actually true 3.7% of Scottish homes are empty compared to 3.2% in England) And their view on intervention seems to be if Scottish local authorities see empty homes as a local issue it’s up to them to do something about it. This approach may have had some merit in the past. The Scottish Executive used to operate a scheme called the Empty Homes Initiative. Scottish local authorities were invited to competitively bid for funds to help private empty home owners renovate derelict homes. The scheme was by all accounts a success with 1400 empty homes being returned to use between 1999 and 2002. But after 2002 the scheme was dropped. Scottish local authorities are now expected to fund empty homes work from their own resources. Most don’t.

An indication of the Scottish Executive’s current thinking on the issue can be found here in Homes for Scotland’s People: A Scottish Housing Policy Statement “In Scotland there is no indication that empty homes are a problem in the private sector in areas of housing shortage.” It says. The implication of that thinking is that if there is no housing shortage empty homes don’t matter. This is short sighted. Empty homes are least likely to be found where there is a housing shortage and most likely to be found in large numbers where there is an oversupply of housing. With little encouragement from the Scottish Executive and no money for local authorities it is hard to see how the problem is going to be resolved. May be they do need EDMOs up there.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Odd Couple

The Campaign to Protect Rural England and the National Housing Federation have got together in what even they are describing as a surprising and unexpected alliance to call for action on rural housing affordablity. I can't really see what's so surprising about it. Rural house prices have been a growing issue for years and these two orgainisations have got a direct interest.
One of the items on their campaign agenda is Better use of existing buildings "affordable housing supply could be increased through a targeted programme to reduce empty property in rural areas, reducing VAT on refurbishment work from 17.5% to the 5% level applied to new build." The new build level is actually 0% not 5% at the moment, but I agree with the principle. The problem with VAT on building works is not how much it is set at but the differential rates. If you want to create a home and are faced with a VAT on building costs at 0% or VAT at 17.5% your decision is likely to be swayed. It's artificialifical skewing of the market in favour of new build.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Too Many Posh Flats?

Every day there are stories in the US property press about what is going to happen when the property price bubble bursts. On the whole I don’t find them very interesting, but perhaps this one reported by First Rung is different. First Rung’s analysis implies that parallels can be drawn with the UK housing market. Its suggestion that half of all private rented properties are empty at any one time is incorrect. There are approximately 2.3 million private rented homes in England and only 700,000 empty homes. Nevertheless their theory that new homes are remaining empty because they are being marketed at unrealistically high prices may have a ring of truth. Anecdotes about new city centre developments such as prestige flats in Birmingham, Manchester and new waterside developments in London remaining unsold are becoming more common. The theory is that dropping prices to a level at which they will sell easily will put them into the reach of people who may tarnish the “upmarket” image of these developments. The owners consider it better to leave them empty and hold out for high prices. I’ve never seen any research on this theory, but surely like all devices that try to buck the market this is ultimately doomed to failure. Better surely to accept that their target market is over-catered-for and remarket to a different group of buyers.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Land Value Tax - The Final Answer to Empty Homes?

Land Value Tax is not a new concept it has been around since at least the nineteenth centaury. But thanks to the influential think tank the Bow Group it’s back on the agenda. Their proposal is that four separate taxes council tax, inheritance tax, capital gains tax on property sales and the TV licence fee be scrapped and a new single rate property levy introduced.

This from yesterday’s Times:
“Under the “land value tax” wealthy homeowners in London and the South East would see their annual bills rise, and would pay more than the rest of the country. But the authors of the report say that it would remove the one-off burden of inheritance tax now faced by thousands of middle-income families in the South East.
The cheapest 20 per cent of properties, worth £70,000 or less, would be exempt from the tax entirely, meaning that thousands of low-income homeowners would pay no levy.
According to the Land Registry, the average house price in London is about £307,000 while in the North of England it is £129,000. The average land value tax on a residential property in London would be £2,370 per year, slightly more than the current council tax bill plus TV licence fee, but only £590 per year in the North, a significant reduction. The tax on a £1m property would be £9,300.”

Land value tax has many attractive advantages. It is simple, and arguably fair; it taxes the most important form of wealth: property. But perhaps it’s greatest advantage is that it encourages efficient use of land and property. Author of the report Mark Wadsworth says that it would encourage older couples and single pensioners living in large homes to move into smaller properties, freeing up larger homes for young families. What he proposes is technically a property rather than a land tax, and some argue that what we really need is a tax that encourages better use of land. But either way It would also surely create a huge incentive for owners to make use of empty property.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Whatever happened to the Empty Homes Principle?

In December last year the government made an important announcement about empty homes. Empty homes returned to use would be treated the same as new build properties in terms of housing supply they said. We thought and still think it’s a hugely important policy shift and we reported it with great enthusiasm. A few months later however, there are signs that the government may be losing its nerve.

December’s announcement resulted from Kate Barker’s review of housing supply. You may remember she was asked by the government to examine the supply of county’s housing and concluded that there wasn’t enough of it. Her most widely reported recommendation was that there should be a step change in house building. Our response at the time was that we agreed. We think we do need more houses, but surely some of them can be provided from bringing empty property back into use. Kate Barker was silent on this in her report. We were disappointed but we lobbied government and were delighted when the Treasury and ODPM issued their official response to Kate Barker’s review.

“The Government believes that in addition to a step change in new provision, it must also make effective use of existing stock. One way of achieving this is to bring more empty property back to the market. Bringing empty properties back into use has fewer environmental impacts than building new homes as such properties will also be located near to existing facilities and infrastructure.“ (Treasury/ODPM Response to Barker Review December 2005)

But what does this mean in practice? We believe that it means that bringing empty homes back into use should be given equal status to housebuilding. Where local authorities have helped bring empty homes back into use they have helped increase housing supply in the same way as where local authorities have facilitated new build housing.

One place that we would like to see this equality is in planning delivery grant. And as it happens the government has just announced a review of the system and is inviting views. See the press release here and download the consultation paper here

Planning Delivery Grant is not new, it is a system that has been around for years. Currently it rewards local authorities for having efficient planning systems. But the proposed system is much broader it’s aim is to incentivise local authorities to help get more housing built. Essentially the proposal would give local authorities a sum of money for each new house that was built in their area. This is not intended to be a subsidy for infrastructure that the local authority would need to build, the government will provide that money elsewhere.

Worryingly there is no mention of empty property in this doccuemt. But don’t forget this is still just consultation on a proposal. What I would like to see is the government stick to the equality principle that they set out in their response to the Barker review. What I suggest this would mean is Housing and Planning Delivery Grant being awarded to local authorities for bringing empty homes back into use as well as facilitating new build homes. I would go further. Empty homes usually don’t need new infrastructure. They are usually on an existing road, they usually have water and sewage pipes in place and local services like public transport, schools and health services don’t need to be built or even changed because a few empty homes have been reoccupied. In other words they are much cheaper for central and local government than building new homes. Shouldn’t local authorities be rewarded double for bringing empty homes back into use as a reward for providing new homes at such reasonable cost?

May be you think differently, but what ever you think I would urge you to respond to this consultation paper (here) and give your views about empty property in answer to question 1 on the questionnaire. We will be responding too but without your views an important source of funding for empty property work and the principle of equal treatment of empty homes and new build could be lost.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

An Ill Wind

The media interest that accompanied the introduction of empty dwelling management orders earlier this month was fairly unanimous in its verdict: EDMOS are a bad thing. As we pointed out in posts on this blog and in our EDMO leaflet many of the views expressed were based on incorrect information. But nevertheless there wasn’t a huge clamour of support in favour of EDMOs either. That doesn’t mean to say that support doesn’t exist. Nobody has done a survey recently (well apart from the Daily Express who’s readers unsurprisingly polled 96% against) But there was a survey a few years ago. Back in 2003 Halifax carried out a survey of public opinion and found 82% support amongst the public for the concept that was then called compulsory leasing. It’s possible of course that opinion may have changed, but there is lots of anecdotal evidence that the recent media interest has caused a lot of people affected by empty homes to lobby their council to use EDMOs. People like Mohammed Usman reported in the Bradford Telegraph and Argus yesterday. People like the woman in Halifax I spoke to yesterday who has lived next door to a derelict empty home for 30 years. People like the couple in London I spoke to a few days ago who have been unable to sell their first floor conversion flat for over a year because the owner of the ground floor flat has decided to leave it empty and let it go to rack and ruin.

Its possible that the media coverage that so opposed EDMOS may actually have indirectly put pressure on local authorities to use the powers. It’s an ill wind.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Hot Summer Day

The last time I mentioned climate change it was an unseasonably cold spring day which barely registered 0°C in London. Today it's 32°C Admittedly little if any of the difference is due to global warming. But this hot summer is a reminder of what is happening to our climate and a good point to consider what impact housing is making.

Last Friday I was privileged to be invited to speak at the Sustainable Development Commission's launch of it's excellent new report Stock Take: Delivering improvements in existing housing The UK has committed to reduce its CO2 emissions by 60% by 2050, with significant progress by 2020. Housing currently contributes 27% of UK's emissions and is arguably easier to improve than other sectors such as industry and transport. How are we getting on? Well not great so far. The last few years have actually seen emissions rise. The great fallacy in reducing emissions from housing is to presume that improved standards in new build housing are going to achieve the results. As this exert shows, this is not only wrong it's financially inefficient:

"The existing stock makes up 99% of all homes at any given time. Even with high projections of house building and demolition rates, an estimated 70% of the stock that will be inhabited in 2050 already exists. There is no option but to make the best use of these existing homes, to make them cost effective, healthy and comfortable to live in, and minimise their damage to the environment. We can significantly reduce the carbon impact of the 21 million existing homes currently 27% of all emissions. It is relatively low-cost to refurbish existing homes to high environmental standards, between a tenth and a quarter of the cost of new build (Cambridge Architectural Research 2003). Homes need constant reinvestment and modernisation refurbishing every 20-30 years, years; requiring about 1% of capital value at current market levels each year to be spent. "

Improving maintaining and renovating old housing may not be glamorous or sexy but for the sake of the planet we've got to do it.

Friday, July 14, 2006

A Cure For Empty Homes

This week we launched a new publication “A Cure for Empty Homes“. Published by the I&DeA It’s aimed at local authorities and sets out the wide range of different approaches that have been successfully used to help get empty homes back into use. From grants and loans to tenant finding services and working with auctioneers; EDMOs are just one of more than 20 options available to local authorities. A copy is going to be sent to every local authority in England and Wales. You can download it here free or we have a limited number of printed copies available at the Empty Homes Agency .

More on the "crusade"

It’s not my job to defend Tony Blair but I couldn’t help but smile at the Daily Express’ latest exclusive on EDMOs. “Untouchable - Tony Blair’s property is exempt” “the prime minister and other ministers will escape the sinister new powers which were unveiled this week on a carefully worded technicality”
Want to know what this devious technicality is? Mr Blair has rented his house out; it’s not empty.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

A Response to the Daily Express' "crusade" against EDMOs

If my only information about EDMOs had come from the Daily Express I would be up in arms, aghast at the draconian new powers that had been given to local authorities. Horrified that councils could break in and steal family heirlooms and worried that my home was next.

Let me reassure you nobody is going to come and snatch your home. These powers are not there to help councils acquire property; they are there to help alleviate the problems of abandoned homes owned by people who don’t care. Not people who find them selves in the unfortunate position of having a temporarily vacant home. They are there to help deal with the problems of run down property, eyesores that attract petty crime, vandalism, graffiti, and arson. They are there to help the people who live next to these abandoned houses and are currently powerless to act.

The exemptions cover every other eventuality. If the owner is away for work or travelling however long that might be EDMOs do not apply, if the property is empty because the owner is away in hospital or caring for somebody else, if the property is a second home, a holiday home, EDMOs do not apply. If the home for sale or to let EDMOs do not apply. If the owner has plans for bringing the property back into use an EDMO won’t be made. If the property is in probate following the death of the owner EDMOs do not apply. What other reasons are there for a property being empty?

There are 300,000 long-term empty homes in England, 85% of them are privately owned. Yes publicly owned empty homes are a scandal too but there are already powers to deal with them (PRODS) and their numbers have come down dramatically. Every empty home means another new house has to be built often on greenfield land to house our growing population. Reduce the numbers of empty homes and we reduce the need to build so many new homes.

Let’s also look at some of the other myth that have been peddled by the Express:

Family heirlooms cannot be snatched. This is a misreading of a clause that actually requires local authorities to look after any contents in a house to which an EMO applies. If the owner doesn’t want the contents the local authority can’t just throw them away they have to store them safely until the owner says they want them back.

There are several; rights of appeal. In fact it’s hard to find a piece of legislation with more appeal opportunities for the property owner. The owner can appeal against the decision to make an EDMO, they can also appeal at any time during an EDMOs duration if the think the local authority is not managing the property efficiently. They can also appeal to have the order revoked if they have new plans to manage the property themselves.

Owners are not locked into an EDMO. Once it is made the owner can still sell the property at any time, and indeed if they want to manage it themselves they can apply to have the order revoked.

Council’s do have to obtain a market rent for the property. If they let it at below market rent they have to compensate the owner with the difference.

Lastly there is no programme to seize thousands of empty homes. The power is a discretionary one, local authorities make their own decision of whether to use it. I can’t guarantee that all of them will use it sensibly, but I believe the vast majority will. It is one of many different approaches that local authorities can take. Many already give grants and loans to help empty home owners with repairs, some offer tenant finding schemes, some help owners sell and market their homes. Only when these sorts of services have been offered and have failed should EDMOs even enter local authorities minds. I predict a small number of EDMOs actually being used but if it helps turn abandoned homes back into places that people want to live in and live next door to it will have been a success

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

New EDMO guidance and Conservatives response

The Government have today released guidance to local authorities on using empty dwelling management orders. And the Conservatives have responded with a new press release entitled "Prescott's home grab laws seize furniture & heirlooms of the dead" (it’s not on their website) Again there are some misleading comments and inaccuracies that need to be cleared up:

They say: Furniture snatched: The state has the right to possess furniture, fixtures and fittings, when the home is seized, including if the property is grabbed because the owner is dead.

This is misleading. What the power does is put the responsibility of looking after any contents in a property where an EDMO has been made onto the local authority. They have to give it back to the owner if the owner requests it.

They say: Seized for seven years: Under the Orders a private home can be seized for up to seven years; 28 days after an Order is granted, there is no right of appeal.

There is a right of appeal like all legislation there is an appeal period in this case it is 28 days

They say: Homes in good condition seized: A home does not have to be blighted or boarded up to be seized, merely empty for six months - including homes of the recently deceased.

There is an exemption for properties of the recently deceased that covers the whole period of probate however long that lasts and for a further 6 months after that

They say: Confiscated for asking too much: Homes already on the property market can be seized if a council thinks the asking price is 'unrealistic'.

Arguably true, but the point is there is a test of whether properties are genuinely for sale. It is the RPT not the council who decide.

They say: Owners can be charged for having their home seized: Once seized, there is no obligation to obtain a market rent, and social tenants can be housed in the property. The owner can even be charged and billed for their property being seized, if service/standing charges are greater than the rent, after the council deducts its "expenses".

The only circumstances in which owners can be charged is if they want to sell before the end of the management order term or if there is any outstanding service charges and there are still outstanding costs

They say: The council is not obliged to obtain a market rent, but can take any of the rent to meet its costs This is likely to leave little money left in compensation for the owner. The council is also able to deduct from the rent any expenses it has incurred.

There is and if a local authority doesn't, they have to pay the difference to the owner.

Swapped: a Paperclip for a House

A year ago Kyle McDonald embarked on one of those bizarre quests that only the internet can make possible. He started with one paper clip and claimed that within a year he was going to trade it up for a house. Exactly one year and 14 trades later he has done it. His first trade was a swap for a pen, by September he had traded up to an old van, and by earlier this summer he had traded up (or down depending on your view) to an afternoon with Alice Cooper. Tomorrow he completes the transaction that sees him acquire a house (a swap for a role in a movie) in the town of Kipling in the central Canadian state of Saskatchewan.

Who on earth would swap a house for a role in a movie? Well it turns out that Kipling is suffering from a problem we in the UK know about very well. Housing oversupply. There are more houses in Kipling than households who want to live in them resulting in lots of empty homes. What the town council has done is effectively give a way a house in order to attract new residents into the town. It’s a technique that some council’s and housing associations have used here too. We call it homesteading and it can work very well. Declining areas of Sheffield, Newcastle and Blackburn have been turned round. I wrote about it in the Observer last year you can read the article here. What the town of Kipling is going to do with the role in the movie is not recorded.

Monday, July 10, 2006

One in Five Homes in Ireland are Empty

The number of empty homes in Ireland has always been a bit of a mystery. There are no official figures and estimates from local authorities and commentators tended to be so absurdly high or so absurdly low that nobody believed them. Well the truth is out. There are 300,000. A staggering 20% of the country’s housing stock. The absurdly high figures were right all along!

This story from the Irish Independent tells how the number was uncovered by people working on the national census underway in Ireland at the moment
Enumerators delivering and collecting the census forms were unable to contact the inhabitants.
Following inquiries among neighbours, postmen and women and apartment block management companies, the vast majority of those dwellings - some 275,000 - were identified as being vacant. In a further 30,000 cases, there was nobody at home when census officials called on various occasions.”

Thursday, July 06, 2006

Today is the Day

Today is the day that Empty Dwelling Management Orders become effective. Either the end of the civilised world as we know it, or a useful contribution to the campaign to bring empty homes back into use, depending on your opinion. The government’s press release is here.

What this means is that from today Residential Property Tribunals will be able to hear applications from local authorities for interim EDMOs. The tribunals will make a judgement on whether the local authority has made reasonable efforts to assist the owner in finding a voluntary solution to the empty property. It will decide whether there is a reasonable prospect of the property being brought back into use without an EDMO and whether there is a reasonable chance of the local authority bringing it back into use if an EDMO is granted.

A number of local authorities have said claimed that they are going to be the first to use the power, a race to use a new piece of legislation? A slightly worrying thought! To help local authorities make sensible judgements two pieces of guidance will be launched this week. The first a DCLG guidance note on EDMOs provides technical gdance on how the legislation works. The second “A Cure of Empty Homes” is guidance that I have written in a joint Empty Homes Agency I&DeA publication. The purpose of this is guidance is to show the broad range of approaches that local authorities can take to bring empty homes back into use. There are over 20 different approaches explained here. EDMOs are just one of them. If there is a race it should be for a local authority to provide the widest and most comprehensive service to assist owners get homes back into use. Hopefully this guidance will help.
To support the launch of the guidance we a re running four regional seminars with I&DeA. The first was on Tuesday in Birmingham there is also a seminar in Bristol on 12th July, London 18th July and Leeds on 19th July. There are still one or two places available see here for booking information.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Kevin McLeod on EDMOs

I like Kevin Mcleod. He is an “A” list TV presenter and his shows are amongst the best property shows on television. But in his regular column in the Sunday Times yesterday he was not on top form.

"On a Friday teatime, when everybody in Westminster was already on the train home and everyone else was watching the World Cup" Friday 16th June - it was Angola v Mexico on at the time
"Kelly’s department quietly outlined details of a strategy, dreamed up by John Prescott in 2004, that allows local authorities to seize houses lying empty.”


So if, for example, you’re in the unhappy position of having lost an elderly relative and are in the process of dividing up the estate, the chances are that, if you don’t get a move on, you might find your relative’s house suddenly occupied by a family from the social housing list.”


Or there again, if your auntie dies in September and you think you would like to wait for the spring upturn in the housing market before selling her place, I’d think again.”

These examples like every other one I have seen thought up by newspaper columnists these last couple of weeks actually prove the opposite of what they are trying to say. Both these cases would actually be exempt from EDMOs. In the case of the bereavements the property would be exempt whilst probate is sorted out (however long that took) and for a further 6 months after that. So no need to hurry up. In the second case the property would be exempt for the probate plus 6months and then if the owner was intending to sell exempt again. Admittedly Mcleod acknowledges the blight caused by empty homes and concedes that that “The intention behind the scheme is admirable.” But unfortunately like many other columnists on this issue he has merely recycled inaccurate reports from other newspapers.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Writing Wrongs

The Daily Express became the latest daily newspaper to run a story critical of empty dwelling management orders on Wednesday. Like others it took the line that EDMOs were likely to be used to take homes away from the relatives of recently deceased people. The difference was this one claimed to have proof. A letter from a local authority that appeared to wave the threat of EDMOs to a couple who’s relative had recently died.

The Express do not have an on-line edition so no link I’m afraid. But I have seen the letter, and I know its author. I happen to like him so have no intention of giving him any more grief over this story. From what I have seen his letter was no worse and no better than majority sent out by local authorities on this subject. He just happened to be unlucky.

But this begs the wider question. If the average local authority letter is bad enough to cause offence on a national news scale is there something wrong? Well yes I think there is. There is a local authority style of writing which although improving is still like something out of a Victorian book of rules and regulations: Phrases like these are common:

The below signed officer

I refer to the above matter

It is the intention of this authority to…

The local authority’s policy on these matters is…

Should this not happen the local authority will have no option but to…

All written in the passive tense and the third person this style of writing sounds cold and impersonal and there is a hint of this is not me personally saying this it’s the local authority so don’t blame me if it all goes wrong. People don’t talk like this so it looks alien when they see it written. The effect is firstly people don’t understand what the local authority is saying and secondly the reader is immediately put on the defensive. Hardly the best start when trying to address a delicate issue like the future of an empty house.

To be fair some local authorities letter writing style is excellent and many try to communicate with their customers in other more modern ways, but for those still in the Victorian age you are making life unnecessarily difficult for yourselves.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

What is a PROD?

It’s a question nobody has asked for about five years, but after last week’s decision by Ruth Kelly to force Liverpool council to sell some of it’s empty homes, it’s being asked again What is a PROD?

A PROD (Public Request Ordering Disposal) is a power available to anybody to request that publicly owned property is sold. The little known section originates from The Housing and Planning ACT 1980. It was allegedly passed to prevent councils from keeping properties boarded up to avoid having to sell them under “right to buy”

The power applies to most publicy owned property unfortunately properties owned by the NHS and the Ministry of Defence are exempt but property owned by the following landowners is covered:
Government Bodies, Local and Regional Authorities, and other departments owning Crown land. The Commission for the New Towns and the Housing Corporation.
The British Coal Corporation, Civil Aviation Authority, and the Post Office.
British Broadcasting Corporation and Independent Broadcasting Authority.
British Waterways Board and National Rivers Authority.
British Rail, London Regional Transport, and Passenger Transport Executives.
Some of these organisations have merged, been privatised, or simply ceased to exist since the legislation was drawn up so a degree of interpretation is needed. But if you come across publicly owned empty homes you can use a PROD yourself to try and force it back into use or onto the market.

If you want to do a PROD you need to write to the Director of Planning for your regional Government Office and tell them about the property that is empty. They will investigate and find out why it is empty. If there is no valid reason , the secretary of state has the power to order sale of the property. The process works like this:
The Government Office will contact the owner. They will find out as much as possible about the property and the owner's reasons for keeping it empty.
The Secretary of State will decide whether the site should just be entered onto the Land Registers or whether an Order of Disposal should be made.
If disposal is decided on, the owner will be given 42 days in which to make representations before a decision is made.
Sale is usually on the open market - by auction, tender, or private treaty.You will be kept informed of the outcome.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Welcome New Readers

Judging by recent comments we appear to have a new group of readers. Welcome. It’s good to have some different views expressed here. I’m not quite sure I follow the logic of all of your arguments but you certainly seem to hold them quite strongly. In the last few days I have been called an idiot, a tosser and one charming gentleman here advocated stringing me up for my part in the development of Empty Dwellings Management Orders.

Why all the anger? Are these worried owners of empty homes? Perhaps, but I suspect not. What I take from this is that they hold a belief that the introduction of EDMOs has somehow crossed a sacrosanct line in this county’s unwritten constitution. The implication ; property is sacred and it should not be taken away. A reasonable view to hold but there are two problems with their arguments

Firstly it is a false premise. The state has always had limited powers to take property away. Courts can order properties be sold to recover debt, Central and local government can compulsorily purchase property for a variety of reasons (including the fact that they are abandoned), control orders give local authorities the right to take over the management of mismanaged private rented housing. And management orders can be used by local authorities to deal with unlicensed houses in multiple occupation. So there never was a sacrosanct line.

Secondly some comments suggest that the writers have misunderstood the purpose and the workings of EDMOs. EDMOs are not there to procure social housing, or to provide housing for scrotes as one gentleman so delicately put it. EDMOs are one of a range of measures that local authorities can use to help get empty homes back into use. Most other measures are non statutory including for example giving grants to assist with renovation costs, helping owners find tenants, or helping find buyers. EDMOs are a measure of last resort where help and assistance have not been taken up and the owner chooses to keep their property empty.

There are two types of EDMO the first; an interim EDMO can be obtained by a local authority by application to an independent tribunal. The tribunal will hear the local authority’s and the owner’s case and make a decision as to whether an EDMO is appropriate. If they grant it, the interim EDMO can last for up to a year. During this time the local authority cannot put tenants in the property unless the owner agrees. If at any time the owner agrees to sell, let or in any other way cause the property to be reoccupied the order should be revoked. Only if the owner still wants the property to remain empty will the local authority consider serving the final EDMO. This lasts up to seven years and gives the local authority management control over the property. The owner is entitled to appeal to the tribunal at any point if they feel the property is not being looked after properly, inefficiently or indeed if they consider they are being treated unfairly.
So new readers you are welcome, carry on reading and you may find that this is not quite the issue you first thought.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Prodded into Action

At Monday’s Downing Street press briefing the Prime Minister’s spokesman fielded the inevitable question linking Empty Dwelling Management Orders to John Prescott’s presumably now vacant grace and favour home Dorneywood. Slightly mischievous of course, but the question built on points raised elsewhere this week that publicly owned empty homes are exempt from the new legislation. The reason they are exempt is because you can’t have the public sector taking action against itself. But that’s not to say that nothing should be done about publicly owned empty homes. There are about 140,000 of them up and down that country, and that’s too many. This story in today’s Telegraph shows what can be achieved. The ironically named Prescot Villas in the Newsham Park district of Liverpool are owned by Liverpool City Council and local Housing Associations but had been left empty for years. The council wanted to demolish them but local residents objected and used the PROD power forcing government to review the case. In a letter to the council, the Government Office for the North West's Director of Planning Jo Lappin says: "It appears that the land is not being used by the city council for the performance of their functions.” It says Ms Kelly "is not so far satisfied that the city council has any firm plans to sell, develop or bring the land into use within a reasonable timescale." The notice means that Liverpool council will be forced to sell the properties unless they bring them back into use.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Chinese whispers

The story started with a Conservative party press release last Friday about Empty Dwellings Management Orders, it was published as a story in the Saturday versions of the Telegraph, the Daily Mail and the BBC’s website, picked up by Wales on Sunday each time getting further from the truth. By the time that it ended up on the American news website Free Market News yesterday the story had become
while the nation's attention is focused on England's fortunes in World Cup soccer, the government has allegedly made plans to seize a number of recently deceased citizens' homes before their heirs can claim them”
It would have been a good story unfortunately it is not true. Empty Dwellings Management orders, which become fully operational in July, give local authorities powers to take management control of long-term empty homes. There are a number of exemptions and special provisions limiting the power. Amongst them is a provision relating to properties that are empty because the owner has died. This provision means that the local authority will not be able to use the power while probate is being resolved and for a further 6 months after probate is complete.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Burying Bad News?

I had been wondering how I was going to make a link between the World Cup and empty homes. I need wonder no longer; the Conservative party have done it for me. Their press release over the weekend spawned a number of articles in the weekend press. The most entertaining although least accurate was this in the Daily Mail. To be fair to the Mail most of the errors about EDMOs were from the press release. So for accuracy’s sake I thought I ought to point them out.

The Order seizing the property can last for up to seven years. – True

The home does not have to be run down or uninhabitable to be seized, merely empty for six months. –true
Labour previously claimed they would only be used for blighted properties. Possibly true

Homes of the recently deceased can be confiscated, even if inheritance issues are not yet finalised. This could be within as little as six months of the death of the owner. -Untrue inherited properties are exempt from the orders for 6 months after probate has been resolved

The state collective taking over the property can house any type of tenant in the building without the consent of the owner, including those with a record of anti-social behaviour. - True

They are not obliged to obtain a market rent, but can still deduct all their running costs from the rent; owners are therefore likely to receive little compensation back. Untrue- If local authorities charge a below market rent they must compensate the owner with the difference between the rent they charge and the market rent

Tenants in the home will still have contractual and legal rights of occupancy, making it more difficult to return the property to the owner if the Order is revoked. Untrue

The new rules will not apply to empty homes or properties owned by incompetent or inefficient public sector bodies, nor empty ministerial residences like Dorneywood. - True

I’m not sure about burying bad news. I don’t know about you but I wasn’t exactly in such a head spin of delirium that I couldn’t listen to the news after last Thursday's match. May be it will get better.

More on Freedom to Leave You House Empty

Liberty is a great concept, but it has flaws. Allowing one set of people to do as they please can be the cause of great pain to another group. We can all identify the restrictions on our own freedoms but are often slow to identify how our actions restrict the freedoms of others.

Jonathan’s post last week discussed how owners of empty homes can sometimes fall victim to this form of myopia. I have had two phonecalls today that illustrate the point. Firstly a property owner from the West Midlands who like Jonathan’s caller last week insisted that as the owner of a house it was his right to do what ever he wanted with it including leaving it empty. I took another call earlier from somebody who lives next to an empty house and has had to put up with damp coming through the wall, rampant weeds spilling over the fence into her garden and a dislodged slate from the empty house falling into her garden near to where her daughter plays.

This may be a bit philosophical for a Monday morning but I can’t help but refer to the great 19th Century British thinker John Stuart Mill who’s work “On Liberty" discussed the limits of power that the state can have over the individual. His brilliant concept was the harm principle. Briefly it said that people should be free to engage in whatever behavior they wish as long as it does not harm others.
Seen through this principle the owner of the empty home of course has rights but not unlimited rights. Once it starts harming others whether that be though restricting housing to those that need it, spoiling the appearance of a street or loose slates falling onto playing children the state should and does have the right to intervene.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

It is my right to do what I want with my property

Last week was London Week of Action of empty homes and we did a fair bit of TV and radio work on the issue of empty homes in London: there are still over 33,000 privately owned homes empty for more than six months.

I then took a call from a very irate member of the public. He had heard a piece about how the London borough of Newham was using compulsory purchase as a way of tackling long-term private empty property. Our caller was incensed - it is my right, he claimed, to do whatever I want with my property. If I want to leave it empty, he insisted, I have the perfect right to do so and no charity or council has any right to tell me any differently!

What do you think - did our caller have a point? Should the freedom to keep a property empty be stronger than any other freedom? Or should the rights of neighbours not to have to live next to an empty property be considered? Or what of the rights of the thousands of homeless families in London to live in a decent home? What do you think?

Friday, June 09, 2006

Zero Tolerance to Empty Homes

In the late 1990's the then mayor of New York Rudi Giuliani put a new phrase into the English language: zero tolerance. He used it to describe the non-discriminatory method of policing that took action against small things like street begging and graffitii. The belief was that putting a stop to petty crime would take away the environment in which more serious crime developed. It worked. And since then, the term has been applied to almost every aspect of law enforcement in every part of the globe.

In fact the idea predated Giuliani The architects were university professorss James Wilson and George Kelling who wrote this now famous quote nearly a quarter of a centaury ago "Consider a building with a few broken windows If the windows are not repaired, the tendency is for vandals to break a few more windows. Eventually, they may even break into the building, and if it's unoccupied, perhaps become squatters or light fires inside"

This week is London week of action on empty homes. I have just come back from a TV studio to talk about Zero tolerance towards empty homes. London borough of Newham is using the phrase to describe their latest push to compulsory purchase long-term empty homes. It's extraordinary to see the phrase come back to where it first began - empty property.

For what it's worth I think zero tolerance has its place in tackling empty homes, but only where everything else has failed. Owners of empty homes are not the same as petty criminal who vandalise them. Homes can become empty because the owner is unable to afford repairs, can't find anybody to sell it to or anybody to rent it to. These are things that the community and local authorities can help with. Only where that help has been spurned should we start to think about zero tolerance.

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

VAT for DIYers

I had a troubling call from North Wales yesterday. The caller had just completed the restoration of a derelict cottage. It had been empty for seven years. As is his right, and as I have been advocating, he put in a claim to the local Customs and Excise office to reclaim his VAT under the VAT refund scheme.

The general and rather strange rule on VAT on restorations is that all building costs (materials and labour) are liable for VAT at 17.5%. New build properties however, are zero-rated.
This gives a perverse incentive to build new houses when restoring existing ones may make more sense. The VAT rules on empty homes were changed in 2000 to try to overcome this. They partly succeeded. Put simply, restoration of homes that have been empty for less than 3 years VAT is charged at the full 17.5%. Homes empty for between 3 and 10 years VAT charges are 5%, and for homes empty for more than 10 years VAT is zero-rated. Details are set out in HM Customs and Excise Notice 708

My Welsh caller had carried out all the work himself and so had incurred no labour costs his claim was for 12.5% of the material costs (17.5% - 5%). To his (and my) surprise Customs and Excise said that he was a DIY builder and could only claim under the DIY builders and converters scheme. This scheme is essentially there to enable self-builders to be able to reclaim VAT for new build. Details are set out under Notice 719. The notice makes no mention of properties empty for between 3 and 10 years and so my caller’s claim was rejected.

This case may have been a one-off or a mistake. I sincerely hope so. If not it appears that there is now one rule for developers and another for DIY builders. Lots of homes have been empty for between 3 and 10 years and there are many budding DIYers out there who are trying to rescue them. They should be given every encouragement we can give them.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

The Day of the Triffids - Japanese Knotweed in Empty Property

In the 1960s a hugely successful science fiction book “The Day of The Triffids” got us all worried about the country being taken over by a plague of fast growing plants. If you are in the business of redeveloping empty property you may be forgiven for thinking that reality has caught up with fiction. Japanese knotweed has been in the UK for over a hundred yeas but it’s spread particularly around abandoned land and property has grown to problematic proportions in recent years

Japanese knotweed is a quite extraordinary plant, It is one of the most invasive plants you will come across and the hardest to get rid of. It grows through tarmac, concrete and has even been known to grow through the floorboards of houses. It grows to a height of up to 4 meters, with bamboo like stems, arching branches and clusters of white flowers appearing in the late summer. The dead woody stems stay throughout the winter and new shoots appear each spring, they grow at an incredible rate producing impenetrable thickets within a few weeks. The dead stems and leaf litter decompose very slowly and form a thick layer that prevent other plants from growing. Once present, Japanese knotweed increases in area very rapidly and takes over completely.

One of the things that makes it so weird is that all the plants in the UK are in reality the same plant. In Japan there are male and female plants that reproduce to form seeds that germinate to form new plants. But in Europe and North America we get only female plants. All are genetically identical clones of one original female plant that got imported into Europe in the nineteenth century. Over the years bits of plant have got broken off and grown into new plants in new locations. If you consider all the plants collectively to be one organism, it has a claim to be the largest single living thing on earth!

Japanese knotweed regenerates vegetatively. This means tiny fragments of the root or the stem can grow and form new plants. So you need to be incredibly careful when you are handling it. Causing it to spread into the wild is a criminal offence in the UK under the 1981 Wildlife and Countryside Act. And carelessly disposing of it or chopping it down with a strimmer would probably be considered offences. The plants are considered to be pollutants and you can’t just sling them in the skip. You will need special permission to dispose of them. If you have it in the garden you need to take special precautions when you have building work carried out. The requirements are set out in the Environment Agency’s website.

You can get special permission to use some horrendous herbicides on Japanese knotweed, but recent research indicates that herbicide treatment may be ineffective. It just knocks it back for a little while only for it to come back again stronger than before. The best method of disposal is physical removal. To do this you need to dispose of all the above ground bits of the plant, then dig and remove all the soil that contains the roots (rhizomes). You will be amazed how much soil you need to remove; several tons, even in a small garden. When you think that even a piece of rhizome as small as a gram can form a new plant, you can see how meticulous you need to be. In reality you won’t get rid of it all and you will need to deal with new plants as they appear each spring. You can remove these individually digging out as much rhizome as you can find, or apply a herbicide. Effective herbicides include triclopyr, picloram and impazapyr but these are nasty chemicals and will prevent you from growing anything else for some time.

I have yet to hear about a practical environmentally sensitive way of getting rid of this plant. One positive thought though; in Japan where the plant originates from natural controls (fungi, and insects) keep the plant under control and it is not a problem. CABI scientists are investigating using these natural predators as controls in the UK so a cure could be just around the corner.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Curtains for Empty Homes

Reducing council tax discounts on empty and second homes was always likely to have some odd consequences. A caller this morning told me how he has bought and put up thick curtains at the windows of his empty property so that the council couldn’t “snoop in and see whether the house was furnished” The reason for his apparent paranoia is that in many council areas there is a larger discount for unfurnished empty homes. He directed me to this rather interesting bulletin board which gives disgruntled empty home owners the opportunity to have a whinge.

The other consequence is that the new council tax rules mean that it is often cheaper to live in the property than to leave it empty. No doubt this is annoying if you happen to own an empty home, but if it helps encourage owners to bring them back into use that must be a good thing. If not at least it might give the curtain industry a minor boost.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Development Rush Goes Wrong

Saranda is a rather unlovely port and would-be holiday resort on the southern Albanian coast. No particular reason for talking about it now other than I happened to be there this time last week and it is one the most extraordinary examples of what happens when speculative building development goes out of control.

The Ionian Sea is arguably the most beautiful part of the Mediterranean and for most of the countries bordering it it has become a tourist money-spinner. Italy, Greece, and Croatia have dotted their coastlines with apartments and hotels. But there is a hundred mile stretch of almost pristine coastline – Albania. The poorest country in Europe with rudimentary infrastructure and until recently a highly isolationist government it has been a no-go for holidaymakers. But things are changing fast and Albania not unreasonably wants some of the action. Saranda is one of the few places on the coast with much infrastructure and developers have seen the opportunity. Concrete shells of apartment blocks, hotels and houses have spread out of the town along the coast. Chunks of hillside blasted out to make room for more and more. Occasionally there is a pile of rubble where the planning authorities have caught up with an illegal development and blown it up. The developers are not deterred and more and more buildings are being started in the belief that the tourists will come soon. But the tourists haven’t come. Much of the construction has been abandoned and Saranda now has an estimated 50% vacancy rate. I suspect it's rather less of a tourist draw than it was before the development rush started.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Claiming Free Properties - It's a Myth

I regret to have to tell you that the concept of the ownerless property does not exist in the UK. There are a number of spam emails going around at the moment and at least two websites that tell you otherwise. Sign up, pay a fee, and they promise to tell you the secret of how you can claim ownerless empty properties up and down the country. Nice idea but I’m afraid it’s a scam. Since 1066 the UK has operated a system called Bona Vacantia. Properties of people who die without a will and without any apparent heirs are transferred to the crown where they are disposed of usually through estate agents or auction houses.

Monday, May 22, 2006

Empty Key Worker Homes

With news that half of all key worker homes were lying empty Inside Housing is reporting that the government has responded and effectively axed the Key Worker Living Programme. Although it will live on in name, all new properties built under the scheme over the next two years will be available for anybody on council housing waiting lists to buy, not just people fitting the key worker criteria. Thus we are perhaps seeing the end of the rather sorry story we reported last month here. Key Worker Living and its predecessors were a worthy attempt to find a solution to the affordability gap which has opened up in house prices for public sector workers. Unfortunately it missed two crucial points, firstly it wasn't only certain designated "key" workers who couldn't afford house prices, it was most of the population who didn't either already own a home or were on a very good income. And secondly people don't want to be labelled and stuck in a ghetto. The result of the scheme was a large number of new homes were built many of which proved to be very hard to sell and were left empty.

Friday, May 19, 2006

Missing a trick on Council Tax 2

According to recent Parliamentary questions asked by David Kidney MP, 186 local authorities (or 53%) have used their discretionary powers to abolish the council tax discount on empty homes.

In 2005/6 this abolition of the empty homes discount raised £72 million, rising from £49 million the year before.

Just think what this money could do if it was directed towards bringing more empty homes back into use to meet housing need.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Missing a trick on Council Tax

Has the Government has missed a trick? From April 1st 2004, local authorities have had the discretionary right to abolish the long-standing discount on council tax for empty property. For too long this discount had acted as a perverse incentive to keep property empty.

While they were allowed to keep the extra income raised from the abolition of the second homes discount, local authorities were not allowed to keep the income raised from the empty homes discount. Last year we highlighted that both the Mayor of London and Kent County Council were urging the Government to allow local authorities to keep this additional income for work on empty homes.

But the Government has refused to budge on this issue. Yet at a time that they are introducing new powers on empty homes for local authorities, wouldn’t it also be a good time to agree to a source of income to encourage local authorities to invest in tackling this issue?
A key issue that I hear as I travel across the country is that the Government’s ambitions for work on empty homes could be undermined by a lack of funding. At a stroke the Government could allow local authorities to retain this council tax income, so ensuring that they have both the tools and the funding – then we could really see some progress on empty homes. What do you think?

Friday, May 12, 2006

How to Find Empty Homes (Part Three Self-Build and Heritage Homes)

With self-build housing becoming increasingly popular a whole industry has grown up to provide information on plots of land for sale. Many of the plots are just that; a plot of open land. But these are becoming increasingly scarce and most plot-finding lists have a large smattering of plots with empty and redundant buildings built on them. Some of these are wrecks that are no good for anything other than demolishing. But you may be surprised how many rescuable empty homes you can find this way. Most plot finding companies will require you to register for a fee and this will allow you to search their database in a few chosen county areas for a set period of time. Most agencies are web based, the main ones are The National Building Plot Register, Property spy, and Plotbrowser. In addition the main self build magazines have listings of available plots, although most of the information on them is sourced from one or other of the agency websites.

Another potential source of empty homes to rescue is the heritage industry (if I can call it that). Several organisations working to save historic buildings publish catalogues of buildings they consider to be at risk, many of which are empty and abandoned. The catalogues make fascinating reading with everything from castles to greenhouses included. ‘At risk’ doesn’t always mean they are on the point of collapse, it can mean that the architectural features are in danger of being lost or damaged, or it can mean that the building’s use has become ambiguous or redundant. That being said the buildings featured have all been neglected by their owner, most are in poor condition and a few are downright derelict. The owners have not necessarily given permission for their property to be featured, and if you are interested in one you will need to find a way of getting the owner to sell it to you. The publishing organisations do not take a fee or commission if you manage to buy the property, but in most cases you will need to buy the register catalogue or a subscription to it for a few pounds. "Heaps of Delight" is the current catalogue published by Save Britain’s Heritage (SAVE). This contains details of hundreds of properties across England and Wales (but not London). You can order of from their website English Heritage’s buildings at risk register includes information on all grade 1 and 2* listed buildings known to English Heritage to be at risk in England and Wales. This is the only catalogue that covers London. You can get a copy of the register from English Heritage or view the whole thing on their website. Buildings at Risk Register For properties in Scotland try For properties in Northern Ireland In the Republic of Ireland the buildings at risk register is operated by An Taisce – the Irish National Trust .

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

China Crisis

If you want to find an example of a rapidly growing and potentially overheating property market there is nowhere on the planet at the moment quite like China. The extraordinary economic growth that China has experienced is translating into a demand for more housing and rapidly escalating house prices (up 17.3% in Beijing in just two months earlier this year)

Construction companies are having a field day according to the People's DailyChina is building more houses every year than the whole of the developed world”. But the Ministry of Construction is getting worried. Does China really need all these new homes? It’s outdated statistic compiling systems don’t really give the answers. It appears to have reached the conclusion that just because it is profitable to build houses it doesn’t follow that they are really needed. So how do you measure need? The Ministry of Construction has reached an interesting conclusion – it’s empty homes. “It has issued an instruction to authorities in 40 major cities to conduct a thorough survey of empty homes before policymakers take any further measures.” The thinking presumably is that if there are lots of empty homes people could live in them rather than building lots of new homes. A conclusion we don’t yet seem to have reached in the UK.