Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Squatting Your Own House

ITV news last night reported the first UK case of a phenomenon that is taking hold in the USA; squatting your own house. Or perhaps more accurately squatting your ex-house.

The couple from Kent are one of almost 30,000 households who have had their house repossessed this year. This is a dramatic rise from last year when 12,000 were repossessed all year. What the Kent couple found was that once their house was in the hand of their bank nothing more happened. Their ex-house joined the ranks of Britain’s 939,000 empty homes. After a few weeks of looking at it sitting there doing nothing, they thought “what the hell” and broke back in and took up residence. They’ve even put the Christmas decorations up. The bank doesn’t seem to have noticed. Or at least hadn’t until it was broadcast to the nation last night.

The lenders have discovered that repossessing people’s homes is only the start of their problems. Apart from the obvious human misery for the households, and public relations disaster for them, they have found that in a falling housing market they can’t find anybody to buy the repossessed houses. In fact of those 30,000 repossessed homes, the lenders have admitted that at least 6,000 are unsaleable. Given the speed of the current housing market you can be pretty sure that the vast majority of those 30,000 are still empty.

In this context the newly nationalised RBS announcement yesterday that repossessions would not start for six months after households fell into arrears, looks less like altruism and more like cold reality. Bankrupt banks turfing bankrupt households out of their homes into the street in order to leave them empty doesn’t feel like a policy that helps anybody.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Thank You Darling

Amongst all the talk of falling house prices and a collapsing economy another threat to our housing is emerging, - rising vacancy. If trends continue numbers could well pass the million mark next year. Does it matter? You bet it does, in a country bursting at the seams with housing need, the prospect of homes for two million people sitting wasted is nothing less than a scandal. Or if you prefer, think of it this way; statistically speaking you now have a one in twelve chance of living next door to an empty home

So what help did the chancellor offer in yesterday's pre budget report? I'm afraid to say – virtually nothing. There was money for housing associations to build more homes and for them to buy up new flats, but this doesn’t address the problem. Instead this should be the perfect time for housing associations to be buying and renovating run down empty homes. Not only would this help provide the social homes we need, but it would boost employment for builders working on renovation and help regenerate the areas where ordinary people live creating healthy mixed communities.

It may be cheaper to buy up new flats from bankrupt builders, but if the government is spending money it is surely worthwhile investing it where we will reap long-term social benefits.

Bob Lawrence

I have just received the very sad news that Bob Lawrence died earlier today. For those of you didn't know him Bob was the first Chief Executive, and indeed the first employee of the Empty Homes Agency. He led us for seven years before going on to become the director of housing in Montserrat following the volcano disaster. In recent years he has been a homelessness advisor at CLG. He was a passionate larger than life character and without him I very much doubt there would have been an Empty Homes Agency. We will miss him greatly.

Friday, November 21, 2008


It’s not officially launched until next week, but ReportEmptyHomes.com is being used successfully already so what the hell. The simple idea behind this new website is that councils respond their citizens. The cynical may question this, but I think it works and I hope this new website proves it.

Enter a postcode or road and the website takes you to a mini map, click on where the empty property is, fill in a few brief details and send. That’s it. The empty property is reported automatically to the council and it will keep bothering them until they do something about it. Councils have the powers to tackle empty homes and I believe that with this new tool they can direct them to where it is needed most.

Cynics also suggested that councils would ignore the website. But early evidence says not. So far today there are 17 new properties reported on the site and 21 responses from councils. As Victor Keagan pointed out in yesterday’s Guardian if councils embrace websites like this it will probably help everyone. So far at least, it looks as if they are.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Empty Shared Ownership Homes

The Telegraph on Saturday helpfully pointed out that the core of the empty homes problem remains a private sector one. 85% of empty homes are privately owned and that proportion has not changed much despite the overall number going up. That is not, however, the same as saying that it is solely a private sector problem as this shocking report from Inside Housing shows that, according to recent housing corporation figures, not far off 10,000 housing association homes built for shared ownership are standing empty. Given that these figures are from a sample of just 215 housing associations; less than a fifth of the total, I can only speculate what the true total is.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Bank Error?

Halifax bank cheerily announced last week that numbers of empty homes are dropping. Poor old Halifax, they’ve had a torrid time recently and I’m reluctant to pour cold water on one of the few apparently good news stories they’ve got.
But sadly they are wrong. Or at least they have drawn a pretty odd conclusion from the data. I predict that sometime over the next year the numbers of empty homes in the UK is set to pass the million mark. It sounds unbelievable - Just a couple of years ago several people were talking about empty homes as a problem that was close to being solved. After a decade of falling numbers it was easy to draw a straight-line projection down to a number so small that we could talk of the problem being solved. Unfortunately the line has turned out not to be straight but have a very sharp upward curve in it. What has happened?

The straight line started to bend two years ago with the explosion of city centre flat developments. Developers twigged on early that they were selling to a different market. No longer were buyers owner-occupiers, but most were investors, speculators and budding buy-to-let landlords. In 2006 a survey in London found that 70 % of house purchasers were within these groups. What this meant was demand was no longer coming from people who wanted to live in them, but people who wanted to invest in them. An inevitable consequence was that the link between new supply and housing demand was broken. Investors carried on buying past the saturation point of potential occupiers. That point was probably crossed in mid 2007. The result was a large surplus of vacant flats.

One of the main reasons numbers of empty homes reduced over the last decade has been through the activity of small-scale developers. Homes fall empty all the time, often from the bottom end of the private rented market, but if the same numbers are redeveloped the net effect is zero. In the early years of this century the net effect was very definitely positive.

But most developers saw the recession coming and after years of buying up and redeveloping empty homes, most have wound back their activity. Meaning that homes that fall empty are more likely to stay empty. Landlords unable to raise money to refurbish their homes have probably exacerbated the problem.

An acute and painful effect of the recession is the rise in repossessions. In the USA foreclosures rates have been enormous and lead to a huge increase in empty homes. Here the effect is thankfully less acute, but nevertheless RICS predict 45,000 by the end of the year, compared to 10,000 last year.

Call it bad timing, or bad luck, but to all the market driven vacancy we have to add regeneration driven vacancy. Thousands of homes have been vacated over the last few years to make way for future regeneration projects. Several social housing estates stand empty. In Wood End in Coventry hundreds of houses have been left empty for five years awaiting a stalled redevelopment project. The Ferrier Estate in Greenwich has over 1,000 flats empty for more than four years awaiting demolition, and in Hackney the Haggerston Estate the story is similar. Much housing market renewal activity has reached a similar stage. In Liverpool for example over 2,000 homes stand empty in Anfield awaiting the bulldozer. The real worry is that many of these regeneration projects were based on private investment and private developers building new homes when the old ones had been demolished. The viability of many of the projects is very much in the balance.

So how could Halifax interpret this as good news? Their story is based around a drop in empty homes between 20003 and 2007. Statistically they are correct, but their conclusion is I’m afraid two years out of date.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The shame of the Ferrier estate

Greenwich council are not very happy with me for being interviewed for tomorrow’s breakfast TV outside their notorious Ferrier estate.
In the piece to be broadcast on BBC1 tomorrow morning, we discuss the national scandal of empty homes and how councils need to respond faster in a recession, to prevent the problem getting worse. The Ferrier estate, which has over 1000 flats that have been empty for more than four years, to my mind, illustrates the consequences of getting it wrong.

I am all for the regeneration of this estate, and perhaps when it is replaced in ten years time it will all have been worth it. But for now delay upon delay and a poorly handled decanting and compensation scheme have left an appalling mess.

I could understand why Greenwich council would want to keep the cameras out . In a city with vast housing need, the sight of thousands of empty homes should be a matter of deep shame. But it seems they don’t really mind. One part of the estate has been completely decanted and fenced off to allow Nick Love to film his remake of the 1980s violent crime thriller “the Firm” I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t feel ethical to me for the council for to create a ghost town through a bungled preparation for a future estate regeneration scheme and then to profit with a no-doubt lucrative fee

Wednesday, October 15, 2008


There’s always somebody who does well in a recession. This time 1980’s band the Primitives must be looking forward to the next royalty cheque. Their hit song “Crash” has been the backtrack to virtually every news report on the economy this week. Including this cruel but fair ode to TV presenter Kirsty Allsop who allegedly said that she would eat her hat if UK house prices dropped.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Grotty Little Town

Swindon never feels like a place that’s at ease with itself. Even its most famous son Andy Partridge described it as a grotty little town. Ok that was nearly 30 years ago and only a few old codgers like me (fondly) remember XTC anymore.

But today’s big story in the local rag seems to suggest not much has changed. A young family living in an overcrowded Swindon council flat point out, quite reasonably, that whilst they are denied a bigger council flat, thousands of homes lie empty across the town. Instead of debating this obvious injustice, the readers’ comments take a less than charitable view of the families motives.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m very much in favour of linking social housing and employment in a positive way to encourage families back into work. But you can hardly blame this family for the failing social housing allocation system and a dysfunctional housing market. I can’t help feeling that a few CPOs aren’t really going to help much either. Who says the council will be a better landlord than the current private owners -that looks suspiciously like an empty council house in the photo.

Instead of getting all personal and blaming everybody let me suggest something more constructive. In Leeds a self-help housing cooperative called Canopy offers families like this one in Swindon the accommodation they need. But it’s no hand out. To earn a place to live, residents volunteer to renovate empty derelict buildings. The process allows residents to develop new building skills and also to develop their future house in the way they want it. Surely a much more positive solution than anything suggested by the people of Swindon.

Monday, July 14, 2008

What’s The Truth About The £200 million Empty Homes Fund?

Many people seem to be under the impression that the government has launched a fund to enable councils and housing associations to buy up empty homes. Nice idea, but unfortunately untrue. Housing Minister Iain Wright, explained earlier in the week that what had happened was that the Housing Corporation had granted an extra £200 million to help housing associations buy property from developers. Amazingly despite this, two days later we find here the deputy Prime Minister. Standing in for Gordon Brown on Friday coming out with the empty homes fund line again. Although as Vince Cable pointed out on Friday, £200 million wouldn’t make much difference anyway, and he rightly called for a larger fund that would allow housing associations to buy more empty homes. The Times summarised his point with this telling graphic.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Empty Homes Up Again

Last month we reported that numbers of empty homes had gone up for the first time in 9 years. My prediction then was that this was the start of a trend rather than a blip. Some people disagreed. Well sorry to say told you so. But here is the latest information from 6months later released today in a PQ
Number of empty homes in England October 2006: 748,159
Number of empty homes in England October 2007: 762,635The anoraks might spot that both these figures are greater than the 693,000 we reported last month. The reason is these figures are taken directly from council tax records, the 693,000 is a sum of every council’s own figures.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Copper theft from empty homes

Don’t get me wrong I’m all for recycling metals; especially copper. Smelting copper from its raw state requires a horrific amount of energy, more than any other metal. Copper ore it seems is only to be found in beautiful remote parts of Chile, Peru, and Zambia that I’d rather weren’t torn to pieces with open cast mining operations. If that weren’t enough it’s running out anyway This guy reckons there’s only 26 years worth left. So with China’s economic boom demanding huge supplies of the stuff it’s little surprise that it’s trading at record prices; $8,500 a tonne, earlier this month. I was not shocked to hear that the only person with enough money to pay £40 million for a Monet this week was a copper dealer. What’s this got to do with empty homes? Well it seems that, abandoned homes have become the easiest place for the less scrupulous dealers to source the metal. This story is just one of many reporting the problem in the United States, and I’ve heard of cases in the UK too. What this of course does is hugely bump up the costs of refurbishing the property and store up future demand for the metal when all the stolen pipes need to be replaced when the property market turns up again. The moral of the story for property owners is surely don’t allow your property to become empty. Accepting a lower rent may be hard to swallow, but the alternative could be a lot more expensive.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Empty Homes spread West Nile Virus

For years I have been talking about the harmful effects that empty homes have on communities, but I have never thought of this one before. Happily for us West Nile Virus has never been identified in the UK, and in any case I doubt that many empty homes here have swimming pools. If I’m wrong perhaps we will need to start breeding Pac-man fish!

Monday, June 02, 2008


If I was going to choose a media outlet for the virtues of short life housing co-ops The John Gaunt show on Talk Sport radio probably wasn’t it. But that was what I tried to do this week. John Gaunt or “Gaunty” as I was invited to call to him, was, it turns out, not particularly interested in the merits of housing cooperatives. He was rather more exercised by this article in the Daily Mail. “You” he barked “know nothing. Why can’t I buy as many homes as I want and leave them empty without busy bodies like you telling me what to do?”
“You can do what ever you want “ I suggested “ but there are consequences to what you do, leaving a property empty has effects on neighboring property and frankly is a pretty poor business model for investment”
“Consequences!” He yelled “you said consequences, you’re threatening me!” “This is a free country I’ll do whatever I like without communists like you telling me what I can and can’t do!”

I must confess to not being a regular listener to Gaunty’s previous broadcasts. If I had I might have realsied that his particular style was not one for exploring subtleties and weighted arguments.

I checked out the Daily Mail story and found it to be true, at least in the case of Camden. There is a link to the Squatters Advisory Service on their website, and they have been brave enough not to cave in and take it down. I can’t say I feel quite as outraged by this as The Daily Mail, their readers or “Gaunty” It is after all an option open to people looking for housing, even if it is one with rather one-sided benefits.
What does worry me however, is that Camden, like most councils, offer a list of options which are heavy on social housing and very light on any form of self help for people in housing need.

Housing Coops and property guardian companies provide short-term housing out of property that is temporarily empty. They offer an alternative form of housing that does make use of empty property, provide benefits for the owner and provides homes for those in housing need without creating a dependency for social housing. I can’t understand why it is not more widely promoted by councils. Even “Guanty” as he cut me off muttered, “actually I agree with him”

Thursday, January 31, 2008

Empty homes petition

My thanks to Charles Bazlinton for starting the empty homes petition on the No. 10 E-petition site. I’d urge and encourage you to sign up.