Tuesday, April 04, 2006
A Brief History of Empty Dwellings Management Orders
On the eve of the introduction of empty dwelling management orders I am going to indulge myself with a short retrospective of the rather amazing story of how we got to this point.
Back in 2000 I was enjoying a Dutch beer with a Dutch friend and the conversation got onto the issue of empty homes. He explained why there were hardly any empty homes in the Netherlands. “The government banned them,” he said. He then went on to describe what sounded like a brilliant piece of legislation that enabled local authorities to deal with privately owned empty homes.
Over the next few weeks I mulled the idea over and sketched out an idea of how similar legislation might be drawn up for the UK. I called it compulsory leasing. I discussed it with colleagues and housing professionals. To my surprise everybody liked the idea.
In November 2001 I got the opportunity to go public with the idea. What was then called the DTLR select committee on empty homes called various witnesses, amongst them the Local Government Association for whom I was an advisor. The select committee were interested in the concept and in their report published in March 2002 they suggested that a pilot compulsory leasing scheme should be undertaken
The government’s response was warm but guarded. "The government is attracted by the recommendation for a compulsory leasing scheme for long term empty properties where the owner has refused all approaches by the local authority to bring the property back into use voluntarily…. Given that primary legislation would be required, it would not be possible to pilot arrangements on empty homes prior to enactment of any legislation. However, careful consideration would always be given to how the proposal might be rolled out to local authorities, including whether this might be on the basis of pilots in a number of areas.”
Privately government was saying that primary legislation was unlikely. But compulsory leasing had by then become an Empty Homes Agency campaign. We put together a diverse and formidable coalition of partners from RICS, the British Property Federation, through to the Crisis, Homeless Link, Housing Justice, Shelter and the TGWU. Local authority supporters included Hammersmith and Fulham, Harrow, Gateshead, Middlesborough, Salford, Sheffield, South Oxfordshire, and Southampton. All of whom supported the introduction of new legislation.
The Empty Homes Agency raised the issue compulsory leasing with then housing minister Lord Falconer at their meeting in March 2002 and with Lord Rooker at a meeting in September 2002 and Keith Hill in December 2003. The government was at that stage putting together the housing bill that would eventually become the Housing Act 2004. Weighted down with manifesto commitments on the right to buy, sellers packs, licensing of houses on multiple occupation and, technical changes to housing standards, there appeared to be no room for compulsory leasing in the bill, but ministers showed enthusiasm for exploring the idea in the long term. In February 2003 the government launched its Sustainable Communities Plan and within it there was a promise to consult on compulsory leasing
In the summer of 2003 the ODPM launched a consultation paper at the Empty Homes Agency’s joint conference with the Social Market Foundation. on what it called “Empty Homes Management Orders” (Compulsory Leasing wasn’t a very new Labour phrase. The name was to change again later to empty dwellings management order when somebody noticed that the bill already included reference to HMOs and EHOs – EHMOS was surely an acronymic recipe for confusion). The response to the consultation was largely favourable but government appeared to be in no hurry.
In May 2004 Labour backbencher David Kidney MP tabled an amendment to include Empty homes management orders in the bill. See here And in the Parliamentary debate on the housing bill both main opposition parties tabled amendments in support of including empty homes management orders.
On 19th May 2004 the Housing Minister, Keith Hill MP, announced that the Government wanted to introduce their own amendment to include empty homes management orders in the bill. Telegraph opinion here The bill was passed and became the Housing Act 2004 when it received royal assent in November 2005. Secondary legislation which enabled the power come into force on April 6 2006.
Meeting my Dutch friend again recently I realised that the Netherlands hadn’t banned empty homes; surely an impossible legal feat anyway. But neither, in fact, did they have any legislation that is anything like Empty Dwellings Management Orders. Something had obviously got lost in translation or may be it was the Dutch beer. Either way for what started out as getting the wrong end of the stick it turned out to be quite a productive journey.