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.

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