Last summer a local authority officer asked me why the Empty Homes Agency talked so much about marketing and publicity. I was half expecting the supplementary – is it all just an ego trip? But he was much too polite to ask. (The answer would have been – only occasionally - by the way)
An exchange last week provided a better answer to his question than I gave at the time.
Eleanor, a woman from the West Country, contacted me about an empty house opposite where she lived. The house had been empty for several years and had deteriorated, the garden was overgrown, and there had been break ins. Understandably she wanted something done about it. She had tried to contact the owner herself without success so she turned to the council. After several months of discussion and being transferred from one section to another she felt she was getting nowhere and asked for our help. I phoned the council and asked to speak to the person who dealt with privately owned empty homes. The request was met with apparent confusion and over the next 20 minutes I was transferred between the receptionist and three different departments. Here’s a selection of the responses I received when explaining what I wanted.
“We don’t do housing anymore we got rid off all of our houses”
“None of the council’s properties are empty”
“We don’t have a housing department, we transferred our stock”
“Why would the council get involved in privately owned homes?”
“It sounds like a private dispute, we wouldn’t get involved”
“I’ve never heard of anything like this before I think you should get a solicitor”
In the end a very helpful man in the legal section made it his business to find out the answer. A few minutes later I was put through to the Housing department (it does exist) and spoke to an extremely helpful, well-informed and articulate woman who it turns out is the council’s empty property officer. She was able to offer exactly what Eleanor wanted and they are now in touch and on the way to a solution.
From my brief involvement it appears that this is a council that offers a good service to tackle empty homes. But just how on earth is the public supposed to find its way to this service? Dare I say a bit of marketing and publicity might help.