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.