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