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.