Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Government's Back Garden Snatch Plans?

Opposite my children’s school there was a large (I would guess five bedroom) house that had been empty for a couple of years. Last year it was sold to a developer who by converting and extending it turned it into four flats. This year the developer turned his attention to the large garden. He chopped it in half and in one half built two new houses. In total one unoccupied dwelling has been turned into six occupied ones. No doubt this has all been very profitable for the developer, but I think most people would agree that this sort of development has benefits for the community too. This is in inner London where there is overall shortage of housing and very few sites with the potential for building new houses.

However this approach has its detractors as discussed in this post from May. The Conservative party don’t like classifying gardens as brownfield sites. And have recently announced their policy on back gardens. Part of their objection is the “thin end of the wedge argument” that they used as part of their objection to empty dwelling management orders. First the government confiscate unused houses, could unused back gardens be next?

"Across the country, there is growing concern about how John Prescott's planning rules are leading to leafy gardens being dug up and replaced with soulless and ugly blocks of flats," "Worse could be to come, with even harsher planning regulations on the way and the prospect of compulsory purchase of gardens for 'social' purposes. And if they're not going to build over your garden, Gordon Brown will tax it instead under his plans for a delayed, but still forthcoming, council tax revaluation." Say the Conservatives

Not so say the government :draft planning advice makes clear that while residential gardens are defined as brownfield land, "this does not necessarily mean that they are suitable for development".

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Art of Regeneration - Japanese Style

An interesting Japanese approach to resolving the problem of empty property was reported in last week’s Japan Times . The unlikely saviour is public art in the countryside. A few hours north of Tokyo lies the rural region of Echigo-Tsumari. It is according to the Japan Times a beautiful but "rugged, isolated, aging and economically stagnant place." It has for the past few years been the host to the world’s largest outdoor art exhibition: the Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial.

"The most interesting initiative of this year's triennial is the "House-Museum Project," or "Akiya Project" in Japanese, which literally translates as "Empty House Project," for which more than 40 vacant homes and school buildings have been renovated and converted into art spaces. The basic idea has been that organizers and artists work hand in hand with local communities to identify vacant homes and schools, which, due to the depopulation of the region are in great abundance, do extensive renovation work and place within them site-specific works of art. Efforts are then made to sell or rent the houses to outsiders who might have an interest in owning a second home in the region."

This year the organisers of the event expect a quarter of a million visitors. A boost to an economically stagnant region in itself, but with the added possibility that some visitors will invest in the empty buildings and help bring them back to life.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Whatever Happened to Adverse Possession?

A few weeks ago I wrote a post on claiming free properties. I said that it doesn't happen. Well I was wrong, a reader made the very reasonable point yesterday that it is possible to acquire properties free through adverse possession.

The law of adverse possession (or squatters rights) is an ancient one. Occupy a property for 12 years and it’s yours. Well not quite anymore I’m afraid. The Land Registration Act 2002 imposed a new regime. Whilst it retains the principle it adds an important new twist, the adverse possessor (squatter) now needs to ask the owner’s permission after 10 years. Only if the owner agrees or fails to respond can the adverse possessor take ownership.

Property Law has a good explanation here

A further twist was recently played out in the European Court of Human Rights . The case JA Pye (Oxford) ltd v Graham revolved around a piece of grazing land near Heathrow airport. Graham successfully took possession of the land from Pye. Pye appealed. The case was held under the pre Land registration Act regime so no permission was required, but the court’s comments were very interesting. They concluded that the legislation infringed Pye's human rights. They said it was disproportionate and because no compensation was payable to the landowner, it could not be justified. They conceded that the changes introduced by the Land Registration Act 2002 go some way to addressing these deficiencies. But held up the possibility that if the law remained unchanged the government may have to pay compensation to owner’s whose land is adversely possessed. Surely an invitation to the government to make more changes, or possibly remove the law altogether.

Adverse possession does still exist, but only just.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Access No Longer Denied

During the early days of this blog one of the hot topics was whether the Freedom of Information Act gave people the right to see council’s lists of empty homes. Developers and aspirant homeowners wanting to find a wreck to do up thought it did and local authorities, in the main, thought it didn’t. See this post from March

With very few exceptions local authorities took the view that requests to see lists of empty homes should be turned down. The most common reason cited was that putting the information in the public domain may lead to an increase in crime. Although as you will see from March’s post there were a number of other creative reasons given as well. I was never persueded of this line of arguement and argued in favour of local authorities making the information available.

One individual who was unhappy with the response he got from from the London Borough of Bexley appealed. Eventually the appeal ended up with the Information Commissioner who has just released his decision on the case.

The commissioner has found in the individual’s favour. The decision deals pretty comprehensively with the issue and in the paragraph that really destroys the council’s case says, “The commissioner accepts that empty properties may be the target of crime. He does not accept, though, that disclosure of a list of empty properties would lead to more crime being committed or to more of it going undetected. In fact one could just as easily conclude that because empty properties may attract crime, the availability of a list of such properties that could be used for the purposes of local regeneration and to facilitate the reoccupation of empty properties could, in fact, help reduce local crime levels.”

Monday, August 07, 2006

No End in Sight for Empty Homes in Scotland

A blog comment from a few weeks ago suggested that property owners who want to leave their properties empty should invest in Scotland to escape empty dwelling management orders. For anybody who’s tempted, bad news I’m afraid. This from the Herald last week suggests the Scots are thinking about introducing EDMOS there too.

But hold on a minute, I’m not sure the Scottish Executive will be so keen. From my dealings with them they have tended to take a very hands-off approach to the issue of empty homes. I have heard them say that empty homes are less of a problem in Scotland then in England (not actually true 3.7% of Scottish homes are empty compared to 3.2% in England) And their view on intervention seems to be if Scottish local authorities see empty homes as a local issue it’s up to them to do something about it. This approach may have had some merit in the past. The Scottish Executive used to operate a scheme called the Empty Homes Initiative. Scottish local authorities were invited to competitively bid for funds to help private empty home owners renovate derelict homes. The scheme was by all accounts a success with 1400 empty homes being returned to use between 1999 and 2002. But after 2002 the scheme was dropped. Scottish local authorities are now expected to fund empty homes work from their own resources. Most don’t.

An indication of the Scottish Executive’s current thinking on the issue can be found here in Homes for Scotland’s People: A Scottish Housing Policy Statement “In Scotland there is no indication that empty homes are a problem in the private sector in areas of housing shortage.” It says. The implication of that thinking is that if there is no housing shortage empty homes don’t matter. This is short sighted. Empty homes are least likely to be found where there is a housing shortage and most likely to be found in large numbers where there is an oversupply of housing. With little encouragement from the Scottish Executive and no money for local authorities it is hard to see how the problem is going to be resolved. May be they do need EDMOs up there.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

The Odd Couple

The Campaign to Protect Rural England and the National Housing Federation have got together in what even they are describing as a surprising and unexpected alliance to call for action on rural housing affordablity. I can't really see what's so surprising about it. Rural house prices have been a growing issue for years and these two orgainisations have got a direct interest.
One of the items on their campaign agenda is Better use of existing buildings "affordable housing supply could be increased through a targeted programme to reduce empty property in rural areas, reducing VAT on refurbishment work from 17.5% to the 5% level applied to new build." The new build level is actually 0% not 5% at the moment, but I agree with the principle. The problem with VAT on building works is not how much it is set at but the differential rates. If you want to create a home and are faced with a VAT on building costs at 0% or VAT at 17.5% your decision is likely to be swayed. It's artificialifical skewing of the market in favour of new build.