Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Access Denied

The Empty Homes Agency has had lots of feedback from people who have made requests to local authorities for a list of empty properties. In the main they are from people who want to buy a house and see the opputrunity in rescuing an empty one. Step one is to find potential properties, you could just walk the streets but why waste your time when somebody already has a list. That somebody is the council who are able to run off a list of empty properties from thier council tax register. The Freedom of Information Act has given people the right to request the list. Many have tried but very few have had any success. Whilst there are some honourable exceptions most local authorities it appears generally refuse all requests. Here is a selection of some of the reasons given for refusal.
· The information is exempt because disclosing it may prejudice the commercial interests of owners of empty properties.
· The information is exempt because disclosing it may encourage people to enter empty properties. Some of them are derelict buildings which may be in a state of disrepair endangering the physical or mental health of the individuals concerned.
· The local authority declines to release the information because to do so would prejudice the local authorities commercial interests in managing its interests in public housing.
· The information is exempt because it is personal data and releasing it would be in breach of the Data Protection Act 1998.
· We cannot release the information because the local authority does not have sufficient resources to process the request.
· The information is exempt because the information is already reasonably accessible by other means. For example information on council voids has been reported in the local newspaper.
· The Council does not have a complete list of empty properties as requested and the only appropriate source within the Council where such information could be collated is the council tax database. This is often seen as a good source of acquiring information to fulfil other functions, but the consensus of legal opinion is that the Local Government Finance Act 1992 prohibits the use of council tax data for secondary purposes.
· We can not provide the addresses of these properties as it is exempt as we are protecting our commercial interests by not disclosing and listing these addresses for the public to know as it would leave the Council's properties vulnerable to squatters.
· The information is exempt because releasing it would prejudice the prevention or detection of crime. Namely that releasing information about empty properties into the public domain would increase the risk of vandalism, burglary and arson.
· The local authority refuses your request because disclosing the information would prejudice the prevention or detection of crime by increasing the risk of properties being illegally squatted.
· The request is refused because interrogation of computer records would further process the original data.
· The council cannot release the information because they do not have records of empty properties.
· The request is refused because it is exempt under the Freedom of Information Act.
· The Council takes the view, having regard to the circumstances of this case, the public interest in maintaining the exemption outweighs any interest in disclosing the information to you.

These extracts have been sent to us by recipients of the refusal letters. In some cases the text has been edited and some are a summary of two or more similar extracts. If you have any others please let me know


  1. I get a lot of land sharks looking for something for nothing; especially since How to Rescue a House. They see the bit on the BBC web site which says local authorities must give them a list (thank you David!) and they ring up demanding it. Well I'm sorry, but they have to pass my "attitude test" first, and give me some kind of proof of who they are. Have you not seen the squatters estate agency?

  2. Thank you Sherlock, yes I have seen the squatters estate agency. I have also spoken to many developers and many individuals who are really looking to buy an empty home to renovate. I'm intruiged by your "attitude test" (not sure I saw any mention of that in the Freedom of Information Act) But does it encourage those who are aiming to return empty homes to use?

  3. Sherlock raises an important concern. How to Rescuse a Home might have raised the profile of the issue of empty homes but it has resulted in a lot of unecessary work for local authorities having to respond to requests from people asking for lists of empty properties. We stil get them and they often cite the BBC website as the authority that they are entitled to the information.

  4. I think Sherlock should ditch his 'attitude test' in favour of a more proactive appraoch to solving the problem of empty homes.
    Ok fair point about the squatters - I think it would be quite reasonable for people to identify themselves if they want to see the list of empty property - but frankly I don't see why you have a problem with people getting access to potentially cheaper housing - after all you only get what you pay for - if you buy an empty house then OK it might be cheap but it will still cost to renovate it - so who loses out exactly?
    If councils are really that worried about protecting the identity of owners of empty properties, then why not try this idea?
    Collect 'expressions of interest' from would be buyers, and pass the details on to owners of suitable empty housing, then it would be up to them to contact buyers if they want to.
    Hey sherlock it dosn't take that much of an effort to come up with a few ideas does it??