Tuesday, February 06, 2007

The Daily Express has got it's sums wrong

The Daily Express has returned to its theme of bashing EDMOs this week. In one of its better articles it reported the first EDMO in Oxfordshire yesterday under the heading. “Alarm over council seizing Britain’s first empty home”. Amongst the coverage. It trotted out again two glaring errors which it has made before:
There is no appeal against an EDMO and there are 400,000 empty council houses.

The truth is there is an appeal. In fact there are lots of appeal provisions. To say otherwise is simply wrong. I’ve pointed this out to the Express before, but they have either made an error or perhaps the facts don’t suit their argument.

The figure of 400,000 empty council houses is interesting. The true figure is 43,000. Still too many incidentally, but a long way from 400,000. I think I know where they’ve gone wrong. According to last years figures there were a total of 680,000 empty homes in England. Of these 280,000 were long term privately owned empty homes. I think the Express has taken one figure away from the other and assumed the resulting figure must be the number of empty council houses. Wrong. In fact it is mainly made up of private homes empty for less then 6 months. It’s a forgivable error, but it serves to mislead giving the impression that the problem is really one of council empty homes which are being ignored whereas legislation is introduced to tackle the (in their view) smaller problem of privately owned empty homes- giving legitimacy to their argument that EDMOs are unfair.

The point is there is already legislation to deal with empty council (and other publicly owned) homes –PRODs. EDMO balance up the whole picture ensuring there is legislation available to deal with all empty homes where the owner won’t deal with them themselves.

I’ve offered to write a comment piece for the Express to make these points, but as yet I haven’t had a decision. I also sent in a letter for their letters page yesterday, but I see that they have decided to print a letter on the subject from a Mr Cartwright of Essex instead. Mr Cartwright claims the EDMO in Oxfordshire is evidence that we live in police state. If my only information about EDMOs came from the Daily Express I might well conclude the same.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Another first - A blogger who likes EDMOs

My thanks to Craig Knott, who is, I think, the first blogger (apart from me) ever to write in favour of EDMOs. OK it was last year and his readers don’t seem to agree with him. But I’ll take allies wherever I find them.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Forget Buy To Let - Now it's Buy To Sit

Those of you who read “Inside Housing” will no doubt be following the developing story of newly built but empty flats in many of the city centres in this country. The story is that many of the new developments that have sprung up in our city and town centres are being left empty by developers who are more interested in the capital value than any potential rental income. The London Evening Standard this week gave a name to the phenomenon – Buy to Sit.

Leeds was highlighted as a particular case in point by Inside Housing. Apparently 50% of new flats there were empty. Salford was not much better with 40% empty. Anybody who has visited Leeds in recent years cannot fail to have noticed the rapidly changing skyline as new apartment blocks spring up like mushrooms in an Autumn field. The centres of Manchester, Liverpool, and Birmingham as well as the river frontage in London are experiencing much the same. What ever you might think of them (and some of the architecture in my view is pretty unimaginative) there is no doubt that these new developments are increasing housing supply. What’s more it’s an increase in the high-density small household housing that we are told the country desperately needs.

It’s this point that makes this story so interesting and potentially worrying. If the housing that is being built is half empty it’s only meeting housing needs by half the amount that planners and housing strategists had anticipated. At this rate the country will need twice the projected growth in housing. It’s a potentially huge issue and I’m grateful to Inside Housing for raising it. At this point however I remain still to be convinced of the scale of the problem. I have no doubt it’s happening, but all of the evidence I have seen is anecdotal and we have yet to see a survey that really answers the question of how big a problem this is.

Whatever the extent there can be no doubt that we are seeing a new type of empty housing. We are used to the idea of old shabby houses being empty. They’re easy to spot and because their vacancy is usually as a result of neglect or failure it’s usually pretty easy to work out what the solution should be. Giving local authorities the job of helping with repairs, letting and leasing options all seems pretty sensible. Most people will accept the notion that local authorities should take enforcement action where all else fails to deal with a long-term empty run down house. But how does a local authority approach pristine vacant flats in modern blocks deliberately left empty by their owners. They’re not shabby, they’re not affecting neighbours, and there is no failure or neglect on behalf of the owner. It’s deliberate. Most of the existing tools local authorities use to bring empty homes back into use are likely to be ineffective or politically difficult in these circumstances. So what do we do? Should local authorities be involved at all? I’m afraid I don’t have the answers at the moment, but we may be on the threshold of a new type of empty homes issue that needs new thinking and new approaches. I'm open to your ideas.

The First Ever Empty Dwelling Management Order

This week sees the confirmation of the first ever Empty Dwelling Management Order The order confirmed by the Residential Property Tribunal will allow South Oxfordshire District Council to take over management control of a two-bedroom house in the village of Berinsfield that has been empty for more than 10 years. Coming more than 6 months since the introduction of the legislation the scenario of a “mass house grab” by local authorities predicated by the Daily Express amongst others has, it appears, not materialised. If anything this case seems to be evidence that local authorities are taking quite a sensible approach to this legislation. This appears to be a pretty clear-cut case of abandonment by the owner and the council concluded that after months of trying to engage the owner in a discussion about the property that an EDMO was the best approach to getting this home back into use.

Although this is the first, there are other EDMOs in the pipeline Norwich City Council announced last week that they were on the verge of applying for one, and half a dozen or so other councils across the country are in a similar position.

This is welcome news, but of course the real indicator of success is not how many EDMO s are made but how many empty homes come into use as a result. The impact of legislation can and should be much wider than the amount of enforcement activity. How many empty home owners decide to bring their property back into use to avoid being caught. We may never know the whole answer. But one intriguing piece of information came out of a trip I made to Manchester late last year. Manchester City Council has started using the new legislation on fifteen occasions since last July. But each time the owner has either sold or let the property.