Friday, March 30, 2007

101,000 Empty Homes In Scotland - or may be 76,000

The General Registry Office for Scotland released it's "Household Estimates for Scotland" report yesterday apparently showing 101,000 empty homes in Scotland, 4.2% of the total housing stock. In fact the data also includes second homes and holiday homes which they were not able to disaggregate. Comparable data for England and Wales is disaggregated and shows 3.2% of the housing stock is empty and 0.7% is used as holiday homes and second homes, a total of 3.9% . If the same same proportions existed in Scotland it would mean that there are 76,000 empty homes.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Save BVPI 64

For those looking for a cheerful start to the week The TV series “The Trap: What Happened to our Dreams Of Freedom” (BBC2 Sundays in March) was not it. It did however contain a fascinating insight into the target culture that has pervaded over the last 10 years. Introduced by the government with the intention of freeing up public services from diktat, targets and performance indicators, the programme explained, ended up doing the exact opposite. The problem was, human nature being what it is public servants devised ways of meeting the target without actually achieving the outcome the government wanted. So for example; faced with targets for reducing patients on trolleys, hospitals unscrewed the wheels and called them beds. Government responded by providing guidance, more detailed targets and then measuring performance with more and more detailed performance indicators. A new layer of bureaucracy was born.

What the programme didn’t say is that government is beginning to acknowledge that target and performance indicator culture has gone too far. It has commissioned the “Lifting the Burdens Task Force “ to look into the work placed on local authorities by these targets and indicators. It’s first report published a couple of weeks ago looks at housing and planning and has made recommendations that a large number of indicators and targets are scrapped. BVPI 64 amongst them.

BVPI 64 is the government’s national indicator for empty homes brought back into use by local authorties. And yes some local authorities have devised way of clocking up high returns without really achieving the outcome the government wanted. As some of you may have read Inside Housing reported on this in February. The trick has been to count properties brought into council leasing schemes as brought back into use. Not all of them will have been empty in the sense the government understood, but of course all will have been unoccupied for a few days or perhaps even just overnight as the property changed hands. Crafty eh! Not quite as cynical as unscrewing hospital trolley wheels perhaps, but devious none the less.

In response to tricky reporting, the government introduced two new performance indicators under the CPA (Comprehensive Performance Assessment) regime to provide more information on the number of empty homes that are actually empty in each council area. Local authorities quite reasonably complained that it was all getting too much and collating the figures took so long they had no time left to actually deal with the empty homes. Lifting the Burdens Task Force has recommended scrapping one of the CPA indicators too.

Is this good news? Well partly yes, reducing the number of performance indicators is in principle a good idea. But we think the task force has picked the wrong ones to scrap when it comes to empty homes. BVPI 64 is far from perfect and yes it’s open to creative reporting but most local authorities are honest and it still gives a good indication of performance. Every year since its introduction the total number of empty homes in England has dropped. Whilst clearly there are other factors at work, we believe the performance indicator has made a significant contribution to this reduction.

Many local authority empty property officers have reported to us that the only reason they are in post is because there is a national performance indicator measuring what they do. Others have said that the funding for their work is only made available to ensure good performance against BV64. Of course it’s much better if local authorities tackle empty homes because they know it’s important for their community. A number do this very effectively. But others don’t and take their lead from what they are measured on. There is a real danger that scrapping BV64 will be seen as a signal that government is no longer concerned whether local authorities perform in this area, and many will stop. Of course we will never know, because there will be no means of finding out what the local authorities have done.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Touching Altruism From Greenbelt Landowners

The Guardian reports today that 10,000 acres of greenbelt land are under threat from some of the most unfashionable companies and institutions in the country: The Crown, BP, Oxford university colleges, British Aerospace, and private land speculators. All it seems are ready to cash in their countryside land on the massive potential increase in land value that may be realised if ideas in the forthcoming planning white paper become law.

If you believe the article Hertfordshire will practically cease to exist and instead become a suburb. The article says that 92,000 new homes may be built in the county.

All quite possibly true, and it’s fair to assume that altruistic concerns about housing need are not the main drivers here. What baffles me about this issue is how some consider greenbelt land a first and not a last resort when it comes to meeting housing need.

There are well over 300, 000 long term empty homes in public and private ownership. Some of these will and all should be reused to provide new housing supply. But the government does not take their potential into account when calculating the need for new homes. It seems to me as if the government has a blind spot on this issue it can only see new housing supply in terms of new houses; the big house builders are of course only too happy to concur. But if you stop to think there are huge benefits from creating as much new supply from existing buildings as possible. Most empty homes are in existing neighborhoods meaning big savings in infrastructure costs (About £35,000 per property according to an estimate last year) and reusing building structures saves huge quantities of embodied energy (and hence carbon emissions) over new build. That's all to say nothing of the improvements to those existing neighborhoods by improving run down vacant buildings.

Of course this can only be a small contribution to the huge need for new housing. Most will need to be met by building new houses and some I fear will have to be on the green belt. But there are for example 4000 empty homes in Hertfordshire that could be used to meet housing supply needs. Surely, with apologies to the accountants at Crown estates, BP et al we should be looking at these first and the greenbelt last.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Pathfinders - Plenty of pain, let's wait and see about the gain

A new and highly analytical report National Evaluation - Baseline Report prepared for the government by consultants Ecotec gives us the best information yet on the impact of the 9 housing market renewal pathfinders. The Pathfinder programme started in 2003 and was envisaged to last for 10 to 15 years with the aim of transforming the housing market in 9 of the most depressed areas in the country.

You have to hand it Ecotec this really is a fantastic report it provides a huge amount of data and carefully analyses it against national trends. Everybody knows that the housing market in the country as a whole has changed in the last three years, the question is have the markets in the pathfinders been catching up, keeping up of falling behind ? The original target set by the government was that they should close the gap by one third by 2010.

Two of the most important indicators are house prices and vacancy rates.
House prices have most certainly risen and in most cases above the regional average area. This is evidence that the market is catching up, but as the report acknowledges the reality of this change is that house prices are becoming unaffordable for residents who are generally on low incomes. How much of the increase in prices is down to speculators buying up properties in the expectation of price rises? The report doesn’t say.

Vacancy rates are the indicator which as you might expect interest me the most. The government’s press release claims that vacancy rates have dropped. This is not a lie, but it’s pushing the boundaries of the truth a bit. The overall percentage of empty homes in pathfinder areas has indeed gone down but not by as much as in non-pathfinder areas. But of course this only tells part of the story, the real indicator of the problem is long-term empty homes. They’ve gone up in every one of the pathfinder areas except South Yorkshire. This is the table from the report on long-term empty homes.

To give the pathfinders the benefit of the doubt these high vacancy rates may be an inevitable stage of renewing the housing market. It is certainly true that councils and pathfinders have been buying up homes either for demolition or refurbishment. Many of them are standing vacant waiting for something to happen. It may be a case of no gain without pain but at the moment we’ve got the pain we’ll have to wait and see whether there is any gain.