Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Flying a Kite

Ok guys I get the message. Local authorities don’t want to give out lists of empty homes to developers. As far as I understand it your arguments are

  • It’s going to create more work for you
  • You’re going to get the blame if the property gets squatted

Well Okay both are possible, but in all of this debate nobody has challenged my view that giving out the information is likely to result in more empty homes coming back into use.

So how about this as a suggestion? You provide information on homes you know to be long-term empty to the Empty Homes Agency and we disclose it to developers, potential homeowners or anybody else who asks for it. That way if anybody asks you for a list you can refer them to us, and if there’s any blame to be had we’ll take it. Oh and as an aside we are not a public body so we are not subject to the Freedom of Information act.


  1. I do a blog about garden grabbing. Garden grabbing is the newest biggest threat to Welsh and indeed all over the uk, domestic gardens. A developer buys a site and applies to knock the house down to put several new homes on the plot. Local authorities can do virtually nothing to stop these applications because the land qualifies as "brownfield" - previously developed - and is favoured in planning guidance. If councils turn applications down, developers are likely to win appeals and councils will have to pay costs. Garden Grabbing is A Garden Organic Campaign

    Someone commented .. I'm trying to work out what the beef is here. I can see why many of these new developments are bad.. but are they worse than the next generation being condemned to a life of renting and no ability to invest in their homes? This all reeks of a baby-boomer conspiracy to keep a hold on their property values, rather than increase housing stocks as we need to do to benefit the generations below us.

    What's the alternative to higher density suburbs? Building on green field land. Personally I'm strongly in support of this, but professionals will be living on the streets before any British government agrees to this on the necessary scale..

    The people building many of the developments you're highlighting might be selfish, but their selfishness is, at least, increasing the housing stock, something desperately needed in this country.. except by NIMBYs who already own their own place (and for what it's worth, the place I'm buying has had similar developments behind and to the side, and I'm okay with that.. people gotta live somewhere, no?)

    However I think that these properties are being built in the welathist areas of cardiff and are not solving any housing crisis as they are unaffordable. We are talking £350,000/£650,000. I was trying to find stats for Wales and empty properties. Is there a simiar camapign to yours in wales?
    I was tlod that the Malaysian Government takes the same approach to empty dwellings as the Norwegian Government. In Norway and Malaysia the governments see little sense in building more dwellings when there are enough already so instead laws have been passed requiring owners to live in their houses. Isn't that a brilliant idea and so simple! Leave homes empty for too long and they are forfeited.

    The result? Not irate homeowners but cheap rents for people who live and work in the countryside and in remote fishing villages beloved by Oslo’s urban elite. Nobody wants to lose their house so reliable house sitters are at a premium.

    If New Labour were not in the pockets of the House Builders and Property Developers similar laws would have been introduced here nine years ago. But instead it is garden grabbing, green belt encroachment, building on flood plains and political corruption as land companies and commercial operators do what is necessary to squeeze money out of undeveloped land so their shareholders can lay claim to the windfall gains that accrue when planning permission is granted.

    Garden grabbing illustrates the problem and now accounts for 15% of all new houses…up from 11% when New Labour took office in 1997. Ever more lawns are being seized for development with the government complicit in this Garden Grabbing by decreeing that any back garden longer than 100 feet is prime land for housing.

  2. As Empty Property Officer for my Local Authority, I put up information on our website several months ago that we were prepared to send out a list of empty property addresses. There were no takers until suddenly, this week, I've had three requests, two from locals, one from further afield. I've sent out the lists but am feeling slightly nervous. Firstly, am I the only EPO in the UK to be doing this? And secondly, why the sudden interest - it seems unlikely to be mere coincidence... But maybe these three requests are just a flash in the pan and it'll all go quiet again. Not sure whether to hope that it does or it doesn't!

  3. Good idea - Do it

  4. Interesting points Theoretician. As somebody who’s garden is so small I can only just fit a bird box in it I don’t feel personally threatened by the garden grabbers. But there aren’t enough houses in the UK. I guess we can all comfortably agree on that. That’s easy, but the hard bit is how do you resolve it. Build on agricultural land and open countryside, there are good arguments why we should but many are opposed, build on unused brownfield land, makes even more sense but conversationalists will tell you that it has more biodiversity than greenfield land. Whatever you do you are going to upset somebody. The one thing most people can agree on is that bringing empty homes back into use is a good idea, surely it should have a high priority in any policy of increasing housing supply. The problem is how. You can see from this blog how something as apparently straightforward as telling developers where the empty homes are gets local authorities in a stew.

    The Welsh assembly don’t publish data on empty homes for some reason, but the latest estimate I have seen is that there are 50,000 in Wales. I’m in Swansea at Shelter Cymru conference on 30th June if you want to pop along and continue this debate.

    Anon, I don't know why developers are taking an interest in your list all of a sudden, but surely it's a good thing. Well done for having the confidence to do something about it.

  5. Annonymous. You are not alone! I've been giving out my list for years

  6. I would definately like to challenge David's view "that giving out the information is likely to result in more empty homes coming back into use".

    I would argue that this view represents a mis-understanding of why homes are empty in the first place.

    In areas of low demand, yes, we should be seeking to work in partnership with developers and think outside the box about how to regenerate these communities.

    However, most cities seem to be experiencing high demand for properties, not low demand. I work in a large authority and even in our most deprived areas, demand for housing is high. Even properties in the worst areas sell if put on the market at a reasonable price.

    I have spent many hours trying to persuade owners to sell their houses, and worked with partners who have offered to buy at good prices. And no-one will sell.

    Which brings me back to why owners leave homes empty - because they choose to do so. Many of the people who are rich enough to own an empty house are also rich enough to not care about losing the rental income it could generate. Many of them expect the house prices to rise even more so don't want to sell. Many are emotionally attached to houses - they are kept as shrines to dead relatives or they started work on the house and lack the money or skill to complete it but are sure they will one day. Also (and there is a deafening lack of work on this), many I come across have mental health issues and do not/will not sell.

    To put it simply, if you've left a house empty for years, you have a reason, however irrational.

    This is further evidenced by the need for CPO and EDMO, and the fact that many facing a CPO will fight it to leave the house empty, and will not sell at the voluntary acquisition phase.

    Therefore, in high demand areas, I don't think releasing a list of empties will do anything more than frustrate people looking to buy a house to do it up.

    All the phonecalls I get about this are from people who are trying to persuade someone to sell and failing. I haven't met one person who has succeeded yet.

    Furthermore, the myth about not being able to sell empty homes makes people think that they will be able to buy a cheap home and do it up. This is simply not true. These houses do not sell cheaply, and often the people who buy them then lack the funds to do them up, resulting in them remaining empty! We are selling people false hope of a cheap house by propagating this myth. Unless you can buy everything at trade prices and do the work yourself, the difference in price between buying a run-down and good condition house will not fund the required renovations.

    We've been offering our list for over a year, and have had 3 requests. So for all the time and print spent on this (and I apologise for the length of this post, but feel everyone thinks this but no-one says it) it doesn't seem like many people actually care too much...

    Finally, I think we should consideing welcome a squatters' charter - if squatters moved in and claimed rights, owners may just be encouraged to do something with their empty houses - and far quicker than using CPO or EDMOs...

    Perhaps we should all start attaching advice sheets on how to legally squat (including sample notices and a padlock) when we give out our FOI lists...

  7. I have been trying to buy a home for my faamily (me, my partner and three young children) for the last three years and i am really at the end of my tether. I have been gazumped no less than four times, spent over £3400 on wasted legal fees, conveyanceing, mortage brokers fees and petrol money going up and down viewing houses that are so riduculoulsy overpriced. I am a teacher, my partner is self-employed builder. If we can't buy a decent home for our family then who on earth can?
    I have now come across this empty homes idea and i have found two empty homes but can't seem to trace the owners.

    Shall i just do it up and move in?
    Sometimes i think that might be the only solution left when i can't sleep at night having a two year old crawl all over me and the one year old (in the same room) waking up for the fourth time and then the seven year old moaning because she hasn't got anywhere to play or put her things away.

    I am feeling so frustrated when i look at these homes so derelict and the garden - like a jungle. I imagine how they would be if we could get the chance to bring them back to life.
    That sounds really corny!

    Anyway, people, HELP, what should i do?

  8. I really welcome your post Farida, your story is sadly not unique and it is because so many people are in your situation that this issue matters. For me housing need is the single most compelling reason for getting homes back into use. This idea (making information about them public) is one way which makes it more likely that some will be returned to use.

    Anonymous, many of your points are well made and I take the point about offering false hope of buying cheap homes for those in need. I have consciously avoided doing this, but you're right, it could be implied. At the EHA we have lobbied hard for the introduction of EDMOs and we support local authorities with the use of enforcement. But enforcement is only ever going to be useful where all else has failed and at best is only going to directly deal with a few hundred homes a year. I honestly believe that the housing market is able to deal with empty homes much more effectively than it does now. Everything I have seen suggests that a lack information on the whereabouts of empty homes is one of the major obstacles to more market activity. Making information public does work, the same principle works for the buildings at risk register and the register of abandoned land. We need the market to work effectively and enforcement to clear up the cases where it doesn’t. It’s both, not either/or.