Monday, December 21, 2009

Christmas, Lego and Building Your Own House

My eight-year-old son announced yesterday that he preferred Lego to God. The dilemma that brought about this announcement was the time clash of the local church carol concert and James May’s TV special on building a real house from Lego. Set against this competition God never stood a chance.
In case you didn’t see it, the programme got thousands of volunteers to build a full size house out of Lego bricks allowing James May to live in it for a day and night. It was a TV triumph and if I’m honest more entertaining than the carol concert (which you may have gathered, I missed as well).

Building a house without complicated building skills or the expense of architects, builders, and without digging big holes or messy mortar sounds a great idea. In fact it’s an idea that predates this TV programme by many years. Architect Walter Segal came up with a similar concept in the 1960s. His system of timber frames and wooden panelling was easy and cheap to put together and allowed anybody to become a hosuebuilder.

Ok the houses look a bit quirky but I’m convinced that there’s something very special in this idea. For most of human history people have built their own homes, and in much of the world people still do today. It’s just us, a few western nations like ours, that have subcontracted this role out to house building companies.
Now that it is obvious that the builders can’t keep up with our demands. And frankly their most recent efforts have shown that they are not building what most of us want. Hasn’t the time come to think about building homes again ourselves. Lego may not prove to be the building material of choice, but if it inspires people to think about whether they really could build a house, then perhaps God may forgive us for missing his carol concert this year.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

700 homes left empty over pricey carpets

Vice Admiral Timothy Lawrence, Chief Executive of Defence Estates recently said he thought he’d made a rod for his own back over his target to reduce vacancy levels in MOD homes from their current incredibly high 17% rate.

So how’s it going? According to this extraordinary story…not well. Amazingly 700 MOD homes have been left empty for five months over a delay in fitting carpets.

To his credit the Vice Admiral describes the fiasco as “totally unacceptable”. But in explanation says rather confusingly “Carpets are a difficult area. There is a risk attached”
He continues: “They were suggesting that we should add a lot of risk factor into the sum; we decided that was not good value for money for the public purse, so we took it out.”So if I understand it right, the carpet fitters were a bit pricey so Defence Estates decided to leave 700 homes empty instead of pay them too much. This ended up costing the tax payer £1.4million in lost rent. Either these were the most expensive carpet fitters in history or the Vice Admiral is right – With decision making like this he really has made a rod for his own back.

EDMOs and Tory councils

Caroline Spellman has been asking a lot of questions about Empty Dwelling Management Orders recently. That’s a good thing, in a few months she could well be the minister responsible for them. I’ve met her a couple of times and talked to her about them. And I have to say that I feel fairly sure that she just doesn’t like them. In fact in her conference speech she compared being served an EDMO to getting fined for leaving your rubbish bin out on the wrong day- in other words - an unnecessary interference by the state. Well, we may just have to agree to disagree on that. But what comes over to me about Caroline Spellman is that she is a thoughtful woman and a pragmatic politician. So hopefully the answer to her latest question will make her think. In total just fifteen councils have used EDMOs. Of those twelve are Conservative controlled councils and just three Labour. Philosophically EDMOs may not be a very Tory idea, but practically they seem to be useful to Tory councils. Pragmatically I hope she sees that the legislation is fine just as it is.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Tackle This Decadence Head-on

Decadence is an unpleasant charge to throw, but I can think of no better word to describe the 21 empty mansions in Mayfair highlighted in Saturday’s Guardian.

Mayfair and its environs have always been a unique property market. It’s location in the heart of London, quality of property, and prestigious neighbours have made it the UK’s premier piece of real estate for years. Its value transcends the normal workings of the property market. Anybody who needs a mortgage can’t afford it anyway. So in troubled times property investors head to Mayfair in much the way commodity investors divert their wealth into gold.

All financial safe havens attract a minority of unsavoury characters, and so it is here. Attracted by the weak pound, money is pouring in from tax havens around the world to buy up property in London’s crock of gold property district. Nothing wrong with that you might say. But the problem is remote absentee owners have little interest in running or managing their property investments as going concerns, they only care about the capital value. Ultimately their self interest begins to degrade the quality of the area. Decline through greed. Decadence if ever I saw it.
And so it is that 21 of London’s most valuable homes have been abandoned and are falling into rack and ruin. Mayfair is not unique, as I reported here recently; parts of Hampstead are suffering a similar fate. It is for exactly these sort of cases that council’s powers to intervene are so needed. Houses in the UK, however posh the address, are for people to live in, not for decadent speculation and abandonment. So power to Paul Palmer and his council colleagues to tackle this head on.

Friday, October 16, 2009

New Empty Homes Figures - Not Good News

Government quietly slipped some new empty homes statistics this morning. They’re still not published on their website, but can be seen here in Barbara Follet’s answer to a parliamentary question from Caroline Spellman. They show (as we anticipated) the numbers of empty homes continues to rise. The total for England now tops 764,000 the third successive annual increase. These figures show an increase of about 3% which if repeated across the whole of the UK would see the total pass 970,000. Given that these figures are a year behind anyway, I take no pleasure in saying that we really must be approaching a million empty homes across the UK.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The government's secret empty homes

This week the US federal government admitted to holding on to 50,000 vacant homes. It was rightly reported as a scandal; but what about the UK? How many empty homes is our government sitting on? By my estimate the problem is proportionately worse here, but the real scandal is we don’t actually know. Data on privately owned empty homes is widely available, But official data on the government’s empty housing stock must count as one of the worst compiled and most obscure sets of statistics available. The official figure says they own 4,802 empty homes. See column “AQ” here if you want the source. What’s wrong with it?

Firstly it’s untrue. Just one government agency (Defence Estates) admits to owning double that number, and there are tens of other property-holding agencies and government departments. And that’s before we have even considered one of the biggest sinners – the NHS.
Secondly it’s complied by people who don’t know. This figure is a sum of what each local authority in England thinks there might be in its area. But they have no real way of knowing. Government who should know the answer, just collates an estimate from other people who don’t know.
Thirdly would you have found the figure buried in an obscure spreadsheet called HSSA with a column entitled “other public”? No. It’s hidden where nobody will find it, and not mentioned anywhere else (until now!).

Government Agencies like the NHS and MOD seem to have a particular problem with empty homes. The MOD has a vacancy rate of 17%, ten times the rate of an average housing association. Of course there are special reasons, but the main one is they are an organisation that does something else- defence. They are not good property managers. And of course they are publicly funded, so management failure just gets absorbed as a cost, with no adverse consequences. The MOD are not alone, it’s what happens with most big organisations that have a bit of residential accommodation on the side. Many government agencies have a historic stock of staff living accommodation that is no longer made available to staff, others like the Department of Transport historically owned hundreds of vacant homes that they held as a land bank for future road expansion.

The first step to tackling any problem is owning up to it in the first place. The government has rightly issued guidance about how others should bring empty properties back into to use, but remains highly secretive about the empty homes it owns itself. Yes there are more privately than publicly owned empty homes, but that doesn’t excuse inaction on the publicly owned ones. The first step is for government to audit it’s own housing stock and publish the list of empty homes they own. It might, like in the States, cause people to say it’s a scandal. But it will be less of a scandal than what we have now- secrecy.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Something Miraculous

In 1970 cars travelling along the A406 in North London would have been Ford Cortinas Hillman Minxs and Morris Minors. Presumably there were too many of them because it was in that year that the Department of Transport decided the road should be widened. In preparation they bought 600 houses on either side through compulsory purchase orders and blight orders… but then nothing. For almost forty years successive government departments and agencies dithered and prevaricated without managing to make any decisions on what, when, how, and even if road widening should take place. Nevertheless the occupants of the 600 houses were moved out and about 200 of the homes were demolished. The other 400 homes descended into an entirely self-created limbo state of vacancy, squatting, arson and dereliction.

This week something miraculous happened. Transport for London, the current owners of the homes, agreed to hand them over to Notting Hill Housing Trust, and the Homes and Communities Agency agreed to pay for their refurbishment. In three years time when the refurbishment is due to be complete, this absurd, painful, and appalling saga should finally be at an end.

Of course this miraculous event didn’t just drop out of the air. Many people have worked incredibly hard to make it happen. Particular credit should go to The Bowes and Telford Community Action group who have proved that communities really can make thing happen.
These houses have been a Bette Noir of the Empty Homes Agency for as long as we have been in existence. It was early last year that we persuaded the then newly selected candidate for London Mayor Boris Johnson to make a manifesto commitment to tackle this long-standing problem. He did, and he and his housing team should also take credit for the best news on this stretch of road for 39 years.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I've Made a Rod For My Own Back - Defence Estates

Defence Estates remains the country’s biggest empty homes sinner. By it’s own figures it has more than 9,000 empty homes 17% of it’s stock. It has always been an impenetrable organisation to deal with. So I was fascinated it to see an interview with chief executive Vice Admiral Tim Lawrence (a.k.a. Mr Princess Anne) in Public Servant magazine this month (sorry no on-line edition) explaining how he is making the organisation leaner and greener.

Feeling the credit crunch bite Tim?
“My philosophy is to get on and spend the money I have now got and I will cope with the situation in the future if my budget is cut”

So no doubt you’re investing in environmental sustainability?
“If a contractor comes to me and says you can have the standard solution for X but if you want a sustainable solution it will cost 20% more I’ll tend to ask him to go and think again and move on to another contractor”

But you’ll be planning for zero carbon homes in 2016?
“I have difficulty with the concept of zero carbon”

So you’ll off set your carbon instead then?
“I’m not a huge fan of carbon offsetting”

Why the scepticism?
“We have to understand that not everybody accepts the climate science”

So the green agenda is a tough one to argue for in the MOD ?
“I don’t find a lot of opposition to initiatives for more sustainable solutions”

So what about those empty homes? 17% of your stock
“..hugely different to the average local authority housing stock”

But you’re committed to the target to reduce them to 10%?
“I’ve made a rod for my own back …I will be heading towards the target”

Thank you Vice Admiral!
(Questions summarised by me!)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Lib Dems back Homesteading

Last month I said that it was time to try homesteading again. Sarah Teather it seems agrees. The Lib Dem shadow housing minister in her conference speech today proposed "self start homes" rescuing empty homes in failed regeneration areas by making them available to people to renovate and live in themselves.

A truely edifying spending cut

Being a property anorak I couldn’t stop myself dragging my family around the Peckham House this weekend. It’s not empty, in fact it was full to bursting with visitors for the London open house weekend. Some of you may remember this remarkable house as one of the stars of the Grand Designs tv series. The extraordinary owners managed to create a house in the most unpromising site imaginable, with planning restrictions that would have lead most to think that there was no chance of being allowed to build anything. But not only did they gain permission, they built a house that is pure joy, for the price of a very ordinary flat.

It is that imaginative thinking and that tenacious determination that we need more of if more homes are going to be created out of empty properties. It is easy to see why it is difficult to return empty homes to use, and easy to see how it would be expensive to try, but with imagination and tenacity almost anything is possible. Today I have ben talking to two great examples of both. Urban Infill’s idea is to fill not just the voids in buildings, but the voids around and above them too. You might think of this as filling the missing teeth in the smile of a streetscape

For sheer tenacity look no further than Phoenix housing cooperative. I’ve written about them before, but their latest project in Bow East London shows how tenacity and hard work can overcome huge financial shortfalls. The four flats that they have asked me to open this Friday had been abandoned buy their owner because they were uneconomic to reuse. But for a sixth of the cost Phoenix have brought them back into use
More imagination and tenacity was called for by the Audit Commission last week. It concluded that councils had become too focussed on building new homes at the expense of reusing old ones. It said that by tackling just 5% of empty homes councils could save a staggering £500billion from their homelessness costs. A rather more edifying public spending cut than some have been suggesting over the last few days

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Taking the Market Out of Irish Housing

We think we’ve got a problem. I’m in Ireland for the national social housing conference and the mood is sombre. The housing market in Ireland overheated to a quite phenomenal degree, and is now in full-scale retreat. The damage it has caused is what I have been asked here to talk about. Estimates vary, but even the most conservative say that 200,000 surplus flats have been built. Added to Ireland’s already sizeable empty homes problem it means there could be anything up to 400,000 homes standing empty. The quite extraordinary plan to be unveiled by the housing minister here in a couple of hours, is for the state to effectively take them over. The government has set up NAMA The National Asset Management Authority. It plans to take on €90 billion of property on 20-year leases and let them to those in housing need. It’s an incredibly bold move. But there are plenty here who also think it’s insane. The opening session of this conference yesterday was entitled "taking the market out of housing" That appears to be exactly what they are planning.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Housing Poverty Trap

It was all going so well. I was being shown around a semi derelict house by a housing association and the local council. It had been empty for twenty years and had recently emerged from behind a thicket of undergrowth that the council had just cleared. Not only could I now see the house, but I could see what was going to happen to it, the council had persuaded the owner to lease it to a housing association who would renovate it and deduct their costs off the rent for a couple of years.

For no cost to the owner and not much cost to the public purse, the house would once again become somebody’s home; and not only that, an affordable home for somebody in housing need. I was feeling good. Then the bombshell; it was just a short remark slipped into a question. “Of course we will have to choose somebody who won’t be seeking work.”
“ Won’t?!”
“ If they find work it will all unravel.”
“ Housing benefit pays far better than they will be able to afford if they get a job”
And there it was, the housing poverty trap. Promise to stay unemployed and you can have a nice roomy newly renovated house, think about getting a job and you’ll have to stay in crappy cheap temporary council housing.

What is happening to the empty house is wonderful, but system it is done within stinks.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Street Level Regeneration

The first week of September still has that back-to-school feel, even though it’s more than twenty years since I had any personal experience. It has at least been back to business this week with meetings with the housing minister and both shadow housing ministers. The word that seems to be on the tip of all of their tongues is localism, although strangely none actually dare utter it.

Type Localism into Google news and it will helpfully flash up a timeline chart showing the occurrence of the word over the last 130 years. Remarkably it was common parlance in the 1880s in New Zealand, but fell away for more than a centaury to suddenly spring back into use in the middle of this decade.

Localism, at its simplest, means political control at the lowest local level. This week Grant Shapps articulated how this concept would work for housing under a Conservative government. Those who had thought localism meant giving power back to councils were in for a shock. He meant more local than that. Indeed the phrase he used was “street level regeneration”

No doubt there will be different ideas of what that means. But this week I have visited a remarkable example in East London. Phoenix housing cooperative have taken on four flats that had effectively been abandoned by their housing association owner. Deemed too expensive to renovate they had been left empty for years. Using a team of local volunteers made up of unemployed and homeless young people supervised and trained by an experienced site manager, Phoenix have managed to get the flats back up to standard at a fifth of the price estimated by the housing association. In a couple of weeks they will become homes again to local people otherwise priced out of the housing market. It’s one remarkable little example, but this is street level regeneration, and if this is localism in action I’m all in favour.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Can I have an Empty Home? Yes You Can!

One of the commonest questions we are asked at the Empty Homes Agency goes something like this “I need a home, but I can’t afford one, can I have an empty one?”

For reasons that are pretty obvious it’s a question we are getting asked more and more often. Our answer I’m pleased to report is the Obama like “Yes you can” In fact even better than that we can sometimes even offer a choice. Our answer goes something like this:

“First of all you can borrow one. The best way to do this is through a shortlife housing cooperative. The cooperative usually takes out a lease on an empty property, puts it into shape and rents it out to its members at low rents. There are lots of cooperatives in London and the south of England such as Westminster Housing Cooperative that operates across London. But shortlife is more sparsely distributed around the midlands and the North of England.

Secondly you can rent an unused property. A similar approach to shortlife has lead to the amazing growth of property guardian schemes. An idea imported for the Netherlands, companies such as Ad Hoc and Camelot have developed it into a flourishing business. Available for employed single people and couples in town and country across the UK and Ireland

Thirdly for a more involved approach there are a number of brilliant self-help housing charities that train homeless people up with building skills and enable them to do up empty properties and create their own homes. The properties are generally surplus social housing. Charities such as Latch and Community Campus 87 lead a growing sector largely based in cities in the North of England.”

Many people are happy with our answer, but many I suspect would like something else. Apparently, even now 90% of us want to be owner-occupiers, and there’s no reason to think that people in housing need don’t have similar aspirations to the rest of the population.

And why not? You should also be able to buy a property cheaply and do it up yourself. In previous recessions “homesteading” has been available to people who would otherwise would be unable to afford homeownership. Councils and Housing Associations disposed of their properties at heavily discounted prices. Newcastle City Council even sold flats for 50p each in the 1990s.

Homesteading schemes helped people with renovating the property sometimes with the help of a grant, sometimes with training. Conditions were normally applied to ensure that only people who intend to become part of the community bought the properties. Speculators were heavily discouraged. This meant that areas with high levels of vacancy and high turnover of residents were stabilised with new long-term occupants who had a strong investment in the community.
Just the ticket for regenerating communities and giving people what they want. It has worked brilliantly in previous recessions, there is no reason why it won’t work in this one. Indeed it could work on privately owned properties acquired especially for the purpose. If you are a council or a property owner who is interested please let me know and let’s make that answer to “can I have an empty home?” even better.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Some good news on reposessions

In yesterday’s post I mentioned some of the victims of the housing market downturn; tenants in buy-to-let properties. Many have found themselves homeless because their landlord has not kept up with mortgage repayments and had their property repossessed. If the cause were the tenant not paying their rent well fair enough perhaps, but all too often it’s no fault of the tenant at all. Most mortgage agreements contain clauses that require the landlord to seek the lenders permission to grant a tenancy. Many landlords don’t realise it’s there and others just ignore it. After all what lender is going to kick up a fuss? Very few probably so long as mortgage payments are kept up.

But here’s the rub. If the landlord doesn’t keep up with payments and gets repossessed, (and there are plenty of buy-to-let investors who geared themselves up too high and find themselves in difficulty), the tenancy is deemed null and void and the tenants kicked out by the lender.
Good news on this today. The government has announced that it is consulting on new rights for tenants to avoid the worst of this. Within their press release a dreadful story showing why action on this needed “A lone parent with two children who had been renting a property for 10 months. She came back from a holiday to find the locks had been changed and there was a notice announcing that a possession order had been made.”

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Unaffordability - the saviour of our housing market

Last week I reported on the truly staggering empty homes problem in the United States. The popular repost is - it could never happen here. Well possibly, but probably not for the reasons you might think

When the property market started falling last year there was much talk of what the graph would look like. Would it be a quick down and up “V”, a slower “U”, a down up down and up “W”, a down and stay down “L”, or my particular favourite analogy a down, stay down, then up “skip shape”.

A year in, with talk of property prices and stock markets rising, and banks back in the black, it is now apparent that the “U”, “L” and “skip” property markets are not on the cards. We may have a quick “V” downturn after all. To many people three months of house price rises have come as something of a surprise. The flood of repossessions was less extensive than feared, and with fewer properties on the market, those that are available have scarcity value. Phew, that wasn’t so bad was it, lets crack open the bubbly.

Well hold on there is still the possibility that this may be the middle up slope of the “W”. Or indeed a shape we haven’t even thought of yet. As I reported here last week the property market in the United States, which started falling six months before ours, has taken a real battering. And although there is no guarantee that ours won’t follow; one little discussed factor may have saved our housing market from meltdown. Ironically it is one that is usually spoken of as its greatest weakness – unaffordability. This problem has resulted in younger people being priced out of owner occupation. Indeed in 2007 the average age of a first time buyer had reached 34, up seven years since 1977. Now as it so happens, it is that same age group that have been hit hardest by the recession. Increases in unemployment have been greatest amongst the young . The older (mortgage holding) work force has been comparatively spared – so far at least. This means that a relatively small number of redundancies have resulted in property repossessions in the UK. The United States on the other hand, with its lower house prices and sub-prime loans, has high owner occupation rates amongst those hit hardest by redundancy. They have been overwhelmed by foreclosures. Some analysts believe there could be 10 million there by 2012.

There are of course many people here whose lives have been devastated by the recession. Not least tenants in buy-to-let properties that find themselves evicted becasue the landlord couldn't keep up with mortgage payments. A further rise in unemployment could well start affecting larger numbers of owner-occupiers as well. In the meantime at least perhaps we should be grateful that millions of us won’t be losing our homes because we couldn’t afford them in the first place.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Enough empty homes to house a whole country!

A truly mind boggling statistic. There are enough empty homes in the USA to house the whole UK population! And in case you thought that was shocking, we have enough empty homes in England alone to house the whole population of the Republic of Ireland.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Silly Walks

It’s usually flattering to be reported abroad. But I’m not so sure about this from Canadian newspaper The National Post “The Empty Homes Agency (stop that thought, you know it's not related to the Department of Silly Walks)“ Apparently the Canadian property market is “hot again” and the concept of people leaving homes empty in London and New York seems to fall somewhere between a curiosity and matter of mild amusement.

Friday, July 17, 2009

It's not squatting, it's much more interesting

I was chairing the CIEH’s excellent empty homes conference yesterday, when at lunchtime I turned on my mobile to be confronted with “you have 16 new messages” all of them it turned out from journalists. ITV had tracked me down and were waiting outside. What on earth had provoked this?

The answer it turns out is this. Squatters in Bishops Avenue.
For those of you not obsessed with the self-absorbed world of London real estate, Bishops Avenue in Hampstead is said to be Britain’s most exclusive address. Houses have changed hands here for £80million. So news that squatters were here got the property correspondent’s pulses racing.

The story it turns out is much more interesting than that. Calim Ciufudean and his colleagues are not squatters at all. They are licensees or as he puts it caretakers. The crucial difference is they are here with the owner’s consent. Their company Prep ltd offers to look after properties that have been abandoned. The concept proved a bit difficult for some newspapers to understand but the Sun got it, so did London Tonight on ITV. Although some of their viewers came out with the old lines “why don’t they get a job and rent” Apart from the fact that Calim and his colleagues do have jobs, the prejudices just don’t work here. Calim is a resourceful man who is sorting out his own housing and preventing a property falling into wrack and ruin.

There really is something new here. As the local estate agent in Hampstead said: "There's squatting on Bishops Avenue in every recession but it's becoming more organised and gentlemanly. It was more anarchic in the 70s when squatters used to take possession. It's now more organised than squatting, it's more like house sitting”

Friday, July 10, 2009


I've had the privilege of visiting number of self help housing projects over the last few years. And I have to say it’s been one of the best bits of this fantastic job I have. There is something that feels very right about enabling people with no home to create one out of one that somebody else abandoned.

Projects like Canopy and Latch in Leeds, advocates for the homeless in London and youthbuild in Harrogate all train young homeless people to renovate empty buildings. Many volunteers end up living in the properties they have renovated and others find work as a result of the skills they have developed. It’s inspiring stuff! There is a growing movement of new schemes starting up all the time. But now for the first time, there is an excellent resource that shows you how to go about it: Whether you want to start a project, want to improve an existing one or are just interested I’d recommend checking it out.

Tuesday, July 07, 2009

CPOs be very afraid

Three years ago the Mail warned us that we should all be afraid because 250,000 “homes of the dead” could be seized by the state under draconian new powers. They were talking about the introduction of empty dwelling management orders (EDMOs). As Mail headlines go I have to admit it is one of their better ones. I remember responding at the time and saying that councils had had compulsory purchase powers for years so why the fuss over EDMOs. The government said at the time that they only expected a few EDMOs to be used. Well I hate to say told you so, but….told you so. Now the Mail is warning us that although very few EDMOS are being used we should be very afraid of compulsory purchase orders. I said to them this time that I doubted more CPOs were being used because in a falling property market there is a greater risk of councils not recovering their purchase costs when selling property on. So if you ask me I wouldn’t be afraid this time either.

Monday, July 06, 2009

Who owns these!

Never mind about the article for the moment or indeed the handsome boy in the foreground of the picture. Just look what’s behind him! -A whole road of empty houses. This is Windsor Walk in Camberwell in London and these houses belong to the NHS or at least we think they do. After five months of discussion, the South London and Maudsley Hospital Trust have, a few days ahead of an important meeting with them, decided that they don’t own them after all or at least they don’t think they do. It’s becoming all too clear how these properties have been allowed to get into this appaling state, and by the way why the Conservatives chose them as an example of what needs to change - to front thier policy on empty property.

National retailers leaving homes empty

Inefficiency in the public sector is always an easy target. Indeed I’m not against having a go about it myself especially when it results in property being needlessly left empty. The target today appears to be quangos. Or should I say QU.A.N.G.O.s (Quasi autonomous non government organisations). The Empty Homes Agency isn’t one in case you were wondering; we are an independent charity with no government funding.

But is inefficiency solely a problem of the public sector? If what I have heard this week is true the answer is no. Several local authorities have told me that a few national retailers have appalling records of leaving residential property they own empty. This seems extraordinary, particularly when these companies are operating in areas with high levels of housing demand, and some of them are struggling to make money from their core business at the moment. I’m amazed not to say dismayed, but the evidence for these accusations appears compelling.

William Hill bookmakers have over 2000 branches nationwide. Many have flats above and many of these are within the ownership or control of the bookmakers. How many are empty? I don’t know but one London borough knows of seventeen just within its own boundary. The smaller Coombe Bookmakers operating in the South East of England seems to have a similar problem. A third bookmaker Coral are apparently very touchy about the subject and threatend one council with court for even raising the matter with them. Since I was told about this I started looking out myself and there appears to be a theme here. All the bookies run by these companies do indeed have what look like empty flats above.

Shell owns over 600 petrol stations in the UK; many of them set amongst houses in towns and villages. A worrying number of neighbouring houses to their stations appear empty. From Hampshire, to Suffolk to Cumbria to London the problem appears the same. On investigation it turns out that many belong to the petrol retailer having been acquired in the past presumably with future expansion in mind. What’s going on I don’t know but at least two (in Guildford and Ipswich) have been empty for more than twenty years.
Is this inefficiency, deliberate policy or merely coincidence? I ‘d be grateful for your own views and reports. Please let us know here, here or leave a comment below

Thursday, July 02, 2009

A failure to tackle empty homes? perhaps, but no lack of ideas

Shadow housing minister Grant Shapps strongly criticised what he called the government's failure to tackle empty homes in Inside Housing this week.
(The government) he said “have utterly failed to tackle the glut of empty homes we have sitting empty while families are desperate for a roof over their heads.” Is he right?

With political parties all furiously putting together their election manifestos this might be a good point to look at what each of the main parties have done and what they promise on empty homes.

First the Government. Since it’s been in power it’s actually done quite a lot.
It amended VAT rules so that works on properties empty for two years or more are charged at a reduced VAT rate.
It introduced the housing market renewal programme that was tasked with reducing vacancy in the most depressed housing markets in the England
It has introduced a capital allowance scheme that allows owners of shops to offset tax on the costs of refurbishing empty flats above.
It introduced flexibility for councils to set their own council tax discount on empty homes.
It introduced empty dwelling management orders allowing councils to take over the management of long term empty homes.
But the success has been mixed. Since they have been in power empty home numbers have reduced significantly, but they have crept up again in the last three years. Take up of tax relief schemes is low, 45% of councils still offer full discounts on empty homes and to date there have only been 24 EDMOs.

What is it saying now? Over the last year the government’s comments on empty homes have been very much geared towards making EDMOs work. It has run a seminar for councils and has endorsed the EHA’s guidance on EDMOs. There have been no new policy promises

The Conservatives haven’t of course been in government for eleven years, but locally Conservative administrations in London Birmingham and Kent have devoted attention and resource to councils to tackle the issue. There’s been significant success in Birmingham and Kent, but it is too early to judge what’s happening in London. In their recent housing green paper the Conservatives promissed two measures to tackle empty homes :
The empty property rescue scheme would divert affordable housing resources to reusing empty homes, and would temporarily reduce requirements to encourage take up.
Extending and reinvigorating the PROD (public request ordering disposal) scheme giving power to people to request the sale of long term empty publicly owned buildings and extending it to all government bodies and quangos.

The Liberal Democrats have set out several measures in recent months to tackle empty homes.
Equalise VAT rates on renovation and new-build.
Amend commercial property rate relief rules to allow owners of empty commercial property used temporarily as housing to continue to claim rate relief.
Introduce a Repair and Renewal loan scheme for owners of empty properties if they agree to lease them for at least five years to housing associations as social housing.
Allow housing associations and local authorities to use funding from the Homes and Communities Agency to refurbish newly purchased private empty homes.
Make £40m available in Homes and Communities Agency grant for short-life housing.

So is Grant Shapps right? Well that’s your call. But the significant thing is that all parties have a lot to say on empty homes. In the run up to the last general election none of the parties even bothered mentioning it. The empty homes problem may be getting worse, but at least, now there is a real debate on how to tackle it.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Neighbours Welcome Squatters

Quote from readers comments in today’s Evening Standard “Well done the squatters for taking advantage of this obvious opportunity to show the gulf between the have and have-nots, for eloquently highlighting the plight of the homeless and the scandal of empty, useable homes. I truly hope this brings about legislation that allows councils to use empty houses, wherever they are, whatever they are worth, for the greater good.”

Squatters in the MP's house

The news just gets worse for MP couple the Keens. Their empty home has at least been reoccupied but not, I suspect, in the manner they would have wished. A group of squatters has taken residence and they don’t appear to feel restrained about telling the world.

This now leaves the Keens with a dilemma. Do they evict them as they can quite easily by getting a court order, or leave them be, and try and reach an accommodation with them?

Eviction is fairly easy to do. They just need to get an order from the court and if the squatters don’t leave they are committing an offence and can be forcibly removed. In most cases this works and the squatters leave quietly. Given that most squatters are looking for somewhere to live it is unlikely they will return. It would probably be a good idea to beef up the security and if the property is going to lie empty for any length of time this could be expensive.

Reaching accommodation with squatters is a pretty pragmatic choice for property owners too. Licences can be drawn up easily which gives both the squatters (now licences) limited right of occupation and gives the owner control of the property. If the property would otherwise stay empty for any length of time this can be quite sensible. With more to loose, most licensees treat the property well and generally the property is less problematic for the owner than if it were empty.

So in most cases my advice would be. If you need the property back soon evict the squatters, but if you don’t, consider reaching agreement with them.
But then this isn’t a normal case. The squatters have a point to make, and what’s more plenty of people will sympathise with it, even if they don’t approve of the method. Evict them and the Keens’ will provide a great media spectacle as squatters are dragged screaming from the house and then have to board the place up like a military installation to prevent more squatters getting in again.
Reaching agreement with them might be counterintuitive, but it would hardly get the Daily Mail off their backs. Hmmm.. such are the dilemmas for those who leave their properties empty.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Birmingham- a real success story

EDMO house - good story but who to hate?

The Daily Telegraph this morning is unsure who to hate most over the Keens’ EDMO threatened house: The government for introducing EDMOs, The council for threatening to use them, or Cameron for not calling for their abolition. The Keens barely get a mention. They must be breathing a sigh of relief.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Fact Follows Fiction - The Unfolding Story of the MPs' Empty House

Fact often follows fiction, and so it is this week with MPs Mr and Mrs Keen and their empty house.
Back in 2005 soon after Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMO) had been introduced Armando Iannucci thought it would make an entertaining topic for the comedy “The Thick of It”. Hapless minister Hugh Abbot digs himself into a hole over his empty flat and just about survives the onslaught of Alistair Campbell clone Malcolm Tucker. This week husband and wife MPs Ann and Alan Keen find themselves in similar difficulty.

It appears the Keens moved to their central London second home in order to renovate their Brentford constituency home. Something clearly went wrong because these photos from the Evening Standard would seem to suggest building works are to put it mildly - stalled.

Hounslow council quite rightly contacted them and asked what they are going to do about their now overgrown and distinctly empty house. They set out the possible consequences of doing nothing including, you’ve guessed it, an EDMO. It’s all over the papers today and having just done two TV interviews, it doesn’t look like the story is going away. I’m sure what Hounslow sent is an early warning letter to the Keens, and I very much doubt the council is on the brink of sending their papers off to the Residential Property Tribunal. But on the facts I have seen there’s nothing to stop them doing so. Mrs Keen says that they are exempt because "owners undertaking renovation work on their homes are not under threat of repossession". Sorry Mrs K but no such exemption exists, but if they get on and get the property reoccupied I’m sure they will have nothing to worry about – well from the council anyway. But in these less than forgiving times for MPs, that, it appears is only the beginning of their worries now.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Oh Goody! Another Government National Register

I’ve just been listening to the government’s response to the Rugg review on the Private Rented Sector. It didn’t leave me enthused. The key proposal is to introduce a national register of every private rented property and landlord in the country funded by a fee to the landlord of around £85. This will sit on top of existing HMO licensing, selective licensing, additional licensing and the myriad of discretionary accreditation schemes.

What the government has done is fall into the research trap. Julie Rugg is fine woman and a highly respected academic. But if you ever give a researcher a job to do, you can be certain that the top recommendation they will come back with is – let’s do more research. On this point Julie Rugg didn’t disappoint. It was the top recommendation of her review. No doubt similar studies got the government thinking that a national ID database was a good idea too.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Rubbish Response to Empty Promise Petition

When think tank Policy Exchange published its Cities Unlimited report last year, advocating abandoning regeneration in much of the north, there was uproar. Even David Cameron who had previously been a committed Policy Exchange fan was forced to call it “barmy”Insane and complete rubbish” John Prescott described it as “the most insulting and ignorant policy I've ever heard”.

So if that idea was so awful, what exactly is the difference with this? Today 10 Downing Street published it’s response to the Inside Housing Empty Promise campaign petition

In response to the general point that the Prime Minister should help reduce the number of empty homes, the government say they agree, but then back-pedal a bit by saying
“Areas with high concentrations of empty homes often do not correspond with areas of high housing need.”

On the need for targeting investment at the problem, the government say they are doing it already but then say:
“this type of approach is not always appropriate as a way of dealing with long-term empty properties in need of repair. Very often it is more expensive to refurbish homes to the standard we expect than to build them from scratch. Homes also have to be of the right type and size and in the right place. The empty homes figures assume that the empty homes are where the need lies, which is not necessarily the case.”

So what should we make of this as a statement of government policy? A summary might be empty homes are only worth reusing if they’re cheaper to refurbish than building new homes, and only worth doing if they’re somewhere with established housing demand.
Not much ambition to regenerate our inner cities in that , not much ambition to help resolve the blight of empty homes in people’s neighbourhoods either, and no apparent regard for the environmental consequences. If Cities Unlimited was rubbish, so I’m afraid, is this.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Something is very wrong

I apologise, the quality of these photographs is awful, but then so is the subject matter. This is the Ocean Estate in Stepney East London. In 2001 Tony Blair visited here to launch a £56million regeneration scheme that promised to transform one of Britain’s worst estates. Built between 1949 and 1975 it is made up of about 40 blocks and some 1700 flats all of which were due to come down to be replaced by a bright new mixed tenure community. But it wasn’t long before things started go wrong. By 2004 costs had spiralled, and several of the organisations involved were facing accusations of fraud.

Eight years on, what has happened? I visited recently. What I saw shocked me. No bright new community, no new buildings, and no demolition. Eight blocks, emptied out at the beginning of the decade remain empty. Amongst them were a handful of squatters and a few forgotten leaseholders who had the terrible misfortune to buy their flats before Tower Hamlets announced the regeneration plans. A vanload of heavies with pit bulls in the car park turned out to be council contractors securing (unsuccessfully it turns out) the estate against squatting.

I was invited in to see the work of some other council contractors. A newly vacated flat had just had the anti-squatting treatment. This it turns out involves taking a sledgehammer to all the windows and doors, smashing all light and electric sockets, pouring concrete down the toilet, then smashing that and the basin too. Finally the walls are sprayed with non drying paint. It doesn’t work, squatters have time and ingenuity on their hands and they move in anyway and repair the damage. Allegedly sometimes assisted by council contractors who have lost faith in the futility of their task.

If this were an isolated example it would be bad enough, but this is what I am seeing across the country. The Ferrier Estate in Greenwich, Woodberry down in Hackney, Wood End in Coventry to say nothing of the many stalled regeneration plans involving privately owned homes in the nine pathfinder regions in the north of England. Houses being smashed up to prevent them being used whilst waiting for regeneration schemes that are looking increasingly unlikely to come off. Something is very wrong. These grainy images were all my cameraphone could pick up, but they do perhaps pick up the darkness of what is going on here.

Tuesday, June 09, 2009

What's all the fuss about

Of all the reasons to be fed up with the BNP’s electoral success, this was admittedly not the worst. But none the less I was pretty cheesed off to be last-minute bumped off the agenda of the Jeremy Vine show on Monday for a discussion about the merits or otherwise of messers Griffin and Brons.

What I was going to talk about was nonetheless controversial. Or at least the Daily Telegraph thought so, as many of you will know is a website we launched six months ago. Numbers of empty homes are increasing significantly at the moment. We estimate that sometime this year the numbers in the UK will rise above a million. With record number of people in housing need (1.8 million families on housing waiting lists) and house-building at an eighty year low. We believe it has never been more important to ensure empty homes are returned to use. The purpose of the website is to help do this. It helps people affected by abandoned and empty homes get a remedy by getting the problem straight to the people who can deal with it - council empty property officers. Since its November launch there have been about a 1000 reports, reporting about 2000 empty homes. 27 have already been returned to use. We think this is a great result in such a short time and bodes well for the website's continued success. I want to thank the councils who have responded to it so well.

Do Burglars really use
There are nonetheless voices that don’t agree. Saturday’s Telegraph condemned the website as a burglar’s charter . It sounds a reasonable point to make and one we take very seriously, but not one that I think stands up to scrutiny.
Do burglars really look through websites and plan their attacks? The police say not. The Home Secretary even said so a few weeks ago “Most burglars are opportunistic” she said in February.
Do burglars target empty homes? Logic says they target properties full of possessions when nobody is at home. Empty homes tend to be just that, empty, offering poor pickings for burglars.
Do empty homes attract petty crime? Yes of course they do. Fly tipping vandalism, even arson are all common consequences of homes being empty. But the way to deal with all of this is to get the properties back into use. Exactly what aims to help happen.
Do Burglars really use there is absolutely no evidence that they do.

Change it
Several people have suggested changes to the website, we are grateful to them for thier ideas, and we are taking them into account to see how we can improve. But some suggestions are frankly pretty daft. Privacy International advised councils to withdraw cooperation. Withdraw cooperation from whom? The requests for action they would then be ignoring are from their constituents requesting help.

One council said to us that they would not deal with referrals through the site until we changed them so they fit the criteria of their standard council complaint form.

Anonymise the whole thing say others. But what would this do? Make it a pretty boring website for one. Councils in Hampshire have taken this aprroach, but how does it help the user? Tim Morely compares the two approaches here
No, making small improvements in apparent security have big impacts on usability. This website is working well. Let’s not loose that.

Buckingham Palace
The Website has a clear abuse reporting facility. Anybody, including owners can report unsuitable content. This is sent to a moderator. Until Saturday we had had only one notification of misuse. In fact this turned out to be a typo in the address line inadvertently suggesting a different property was empty. The content was suspended immediately and was later reinstated when it had been corrected. All reports of misuse are reported to a moderator. Moderators also review the site content regularly. They had plenty to do over the weekend when a number of Telegraph reading wags tried to enter nonsense reports of properties like 10 Downing Street and a series of medieval castles. One should have read my blog, Buckingham palace was actually a good call. . It didn’t work. They were all removed immediately.

It seems we have two choices. We either work together with this website and other means to respond to people’s valid concerns about empty homes, or we just keep quiet about it for fear we might upset somebody. I’m afraid I’m not in a mood for keeping quiet.

What’s Happened to Iain Wright?

No not the ex footballer. Iain Wright the junior housing minister, undoubtedly one of the good guys in the DCLG, has been conspicuous by his absence in recent days. I for one was surprised to see John Healy apparently leapfrog him to replace Margaret Beckett as the new housing minister. But in all the lists of new ministers Iain Wright’s name was absent. I am getting the distinct impression that no news is bad news for him. Speculation is rife that he has left the government.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Not another housing minister

With the greatest respect to John Healy – Oh no not another housing minister! That’s 4 in 18 months. The news arrives the very week that I receive a positive letter from his predecessor Margaret Beckett. Let’s hope she’s left him a good handover note.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

The Queen's Wasted Houses

Perhaps relieved to find that somebody else is squandering even more public money than them, the Commons Public Accounts Committee yesterday uncovered a story of quite staggering waste by the royal household. In reviewing the accounts of the Occupied Royal Palaces Estate, which includes Buckingham Palace and Windsor Castle. MPs found 32 empty flats including an apartment last used by the Prince and Princess of Wales.

A witness for the royal household admitted:
“At the time of the PAC Hearing, there were 32 vacant self-contained residential properties, compared with 27 at the time of the NAO Audit at the end of July 2008. Of these 32 properties, 28 are within the secure cordon (25 at the end of July 2008).
Three of the properties outside the secure cordon are being refurbished for commercial letting while the other is being returned to the Crown Estate.
Four of these properties have been mothballed because the costs of refurbishment are too high. 17 of the 28 vacant properties within the secure cordon were yet to be allocated at the time of the hearing.
10 of these were also unallocated at the end of July 2008, but three of these have now been allocated to staff. Six properties (three inside, three outside the secure cordon) have been vacated by pensioners since the end of July 2008, all of which were previously occupied rent-free.”

Eight years ago the committe, reviewing the same issue, reccomended that the royal household move staff into the vacant flats inside the secure area and let-out the flats outside. this sensible advice appears to have been roundly ignored whilst the problem of vacant flats has got worse.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

MP in Empty Homes Scandal

I passed up the opportunity earlier today to comment to a journalist on a member of parliament who had used her expenses to pay for a house that was then left empty. I didn’t do so out of any sense of condoning leaving properties empty or condoning MPs misusing their allowances. But I don’t about you but I’m beginning to get bored by the whole story. Yes the Telegraph have done an admirable job in exposing a scandal. If it results in a new parliamentary expenses system with greater public scrutiny, what they have done will be seen in the best tradition of public service journalism. On the other hand if the result is just a further drop in the esteem in which politicians are held, it won’t have done much good.

Over the last few years I have had the privilege to meet many remarkable MPs. And whether I agreed with them or not, I got the sense from all of them that they there to try and do some good. Some achieve their aim, some don’t. But what I don’t recognise is the “They’re all just in it for the money” accusation that lots of people have thrown around this week. What has been exposed is bad, deceitful even. But it doesn’t mean MP’s are all corrupt. My expereince of working in many differnt organisations is taht most self-policed non-scrutinised systems attract bad smells over time. How many company car mileage schemes would stand up to Telegraph style scrutiny? I’m just looking forward to getting back to talking to MPs about what they are doing about the 1 million empty homes in this country not just the odd one or two they may own themselves.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Late April Fool

In the 1980s the Australian comedian Rod Quantock made a joke about fried mars bars on his TV show. The idea was he cooked things that sounded hideous and then actually ate them. Everybody agreed fried mars bars were just too gross to really eat and found it hilarious. Then something bizarre happened; fish and chip shops in Scotland actually started selling them. They caught on and now even Nigella cooks them.

Now something similar seems to be happening with property guardians in the USA. This radio station decided to do a spoof on April 1st. Actors living in empty houses try and make them look occupied for prospective purchases. Admittedly it was hardly the most sidesplitting April fools joke I’d ever heard. But it seemed to fool the listeners. Then amazingly today comes this. The radio station discovers that actually their joke is quite a neat little business idea and people are really doing it. We’ll we’ve got news for you, there’s an even better idea here. Instead of living in empty homes in order to sell them how about just living in them. Property guardians are a major growth industry here. First Camelot Ad Hoc and Ambika imported their business model from the Netherlands and now hardly a week goes by without another UK based company picking up the idea. It’s really no joke and much better for you than fried mars bars.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Wisdom in the Sun

You can’t always say this about a story, but the most enlightened comments on this can be found in the readers letters pages of the Sun. The story is this one, published in virtually every paper this morning. A squatter requested a list of empty homes from Lambeth Council. The council correctly decided that it was obliged to comply with the request and duly (but reluctantly) responded with a list of 800 empty homes in its borough. The council itself, it appears, own most of the properties on the list. The press has been quick to condemn the council for releasing the information, but no one apart from the Sun’s readers have mentioned the real problem. Why on earth have Lambeth got 800 empty homes? When you hear, as I have, that some of them have been empty since the 1970s, and when you know, as I do, that Lambeth kicked out lots of short-life tenants last year because it wanted vacant possession of its properties, it’s hard to disagree with what these Sun readers say:

“Why have they got empty homes when people are homeless,?”
“Haha good teach the council a lesson”
“They should be fixed up and have tenants move in”“How many families are homeless who can’t have one?”

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Useless government repsonse to useless report

Last month I reported the useless government report on council tax discounts on empty homes. This was the one where after 18 months and allegedly £250,000 of expenditure the report concluded it still didn’t have enough information to make a recommendation on removal of council tax discounts on empty homes.

I said then that I could hardly wait for the government response. Well it came today. Not that you would know unless you were really looking out for it. Asked by Stewart Jackson what the government was going to do about it, John Heally replied “The Government have no plans to review its policy on local authorities' discretionary power to reduce the council tax discount on empty properties”

Well that, they no doubt hope, has kicked the issue into the long grass for another parliament. I’m afraid I don’t feel that compliant. I can assure you that the Empty Homes Agency will continue campaigning on this important issue. And if anybody from government is reading, we are happy to do you some more research, It will be much cheaper and I can promise you much more conclusive.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Preventative Sense

Seeing the LGAs welcome list of banned bad council words and phrases this morning I thought I would see how many I had come across. Frighteningly out of the one hundred I recognised ninety nine. The one I hadn’t seen before was one of the worst “Preventative Services” What on earth are they? Rude council receptionists?
The answer it turns out is even worse. The term is applied to council services to help young people avoid getting involved in crime. Much needed services no doubt. But the word they are looking for is surely “preventive.” Not content to use long words it seems councils are throwing in an extra syllable for the hell of it. The LGA is right to be cracking down on this.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Margaret Beckett on Empty Homes

VAT on Refurbishment- Fantastic News

Why is VAT levied on the maintenance and repair costs of homes, when building new buildings is zero-rated? There can be few more illogical taxes and few that so blatantly promote environmentally damaging behaviour over green behaviour. Hardly anybody even tries to defend it anymore. The government’s traditional response is they’d like to change it but they can’t because of European rules. Well yesterday that excuse disappeared.

ECOFIN TheEuropean Economic and Financial Affairs Council agreed to allow member states to reduce VAT on housing repair and maintenance. The ruling is a triumph for the Cut the VAT campaign lead by the Federation of Master Builders. The Empty Homes Agency is a supporter and active member of the campaign. Reduced VAT would make it more cost effective to bring thousands of empty homes back into use.

With their best excuse gone will the governemnt try and find another one or will they grasp the oppurtunity to reduce VAT? In my view it is the single most importatn thing they could do to tackle our empty homes crisis

Margaret Beckett and Empty Homes

Yesterday’s announcement by Margaret Beckett in which she called for more council action on empty homes was welcome, and not overdue. It’s the first time a government minister has had anything significant to say about councils and empty homes since the government introduced empty dwelling management orders in 2006. The fact that since then councils have used the legislation only seventeen times is hardly praiseworthy and frankly looks pretty feeble. Yes councils can get homes back into use without using the legislation and yes some owners have brought their properties back into use without the council needing to complete the EDMO. But nevertheless, does seventeen EDMOs in two and half years indicate councils are doing all they can? Not to me it doesn’t.

But here’s the rub. Councils have become conditioned to doing what they are told by ministers, and two and a half years of silence has not given the impression ministers think it that important. When EDMOs were introduced government introduced no new funding. Although councils can in theory recover their costs when carrying out an EDMO, there is a big upfront bill (of perhaps £70,000), which can only be fully recovered after seven years. Small councils simply can’t afford this. Government doesn’t have to hand out money to help. Making a fund available that councils can borrow against would make all the difference.
So well done to Margaret Beckett for calling for action and promising to write to all councils, but will you back it up with support and funding to make sure that councils don’t forget it again in a few months time?

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Conservative Empty Homes Crusade

There are plenty of times over the last few years when I wouldn’t have believed it possible, but yesterday’s Financial Times reported the Conservative leader crusading against empty homes. It had strange echoes of the Conservative backed Crusdae against EDMOS two years ago. But with the Conservative empty property rescue plan launched on Friday, I think the party has genuine reason to claim its ideas are now ahead of the government on empty homes.

The issue at stake is the rulebook on grants for housing associations to buy property. The truth is they are looking distinctly out of date, geared as they are towards housing associations acquiring newly built property from developers. Over the last few years most housing associations have acquired housing as part of the planning gain agreements developers have to reach with councils. Developers have had to make 20 –50% of their houses available for affordable housing. Housing associations have been able to claim grants to help them buy. This means most housing associations have only been taking on brand new houses and flats; so nobody really noticed when the Housing Corporation withdrew purchase and repair grants about five years ago. It meant it was that was no longer possible for housing associations to claim grant for repair costs. Buying up and doing up old run down homes was now much more expensive than buying new homes.

Suddenly over the last few months, since the recession hit, new housing developments are being wound up or wound down and that nice source of new affordable housing has gone. Housing associations now have to look elsewhere for new homes. With empty homes increasing it seems obvious to me that this is where they should be looking. I have been calling on the government and the Homes and Communities Agency (HACA) to change the rules to allow housing associations to claim grant for buying and renovating run-down empty homes, so far to no effect. So that is why I welcome the new Conservative policy. They get it, and have proposed a relaxation of grant rules that would address this exact point. Of course this doesn’t add up to a complete policy, but it’s a good start and there are the germs of other good ideas here too.

I was fortunate enough to meet David Cameron on Friday and made this very point to him. I said we needed action on reforming VAT to make refurbishment of empty homes more cost effective and we need more assistance to encourage the proliferation of short life housing schemes. His answer was this announcement was just stage one of the Conservative policy there would be more in stage two. I intend to hold him too it.

Friday, February 06, 2009

Ask a stupid question

This morning Shelagh Fogarty on radio Five Live spoke to the Ramblers Association about how the recent snow has got people out walking. They asked for the Ramblers recommendation for going out in the cold. Sensing it was a dumb question she made a light hearted comment about listeners complaining about being told the bleeding obvious. Her suspicions were proved correct moments later when the Ramblers recommended wearing gloves.

I had similar feelings this afternoon when I read the government’s new research the Application of Discretionary Council Tax Powers for Empty Homes This is the product of a concession the government made to us in the 2007 pre budget report after we had asked why half the councils in the country were still paying council tax discounts to owners of empty homes despite being given the power to remove them. Was it worth the wait? Well here is the sole recommendation:

“Because of limitations to the data and the small scale of the study, a more substantial research study would be required to estimate the precise effects of the decision to retain, reduce or remove the LTE (LTE stands for long term empty home by the way) discount on owner behaviour and how these effects could vary according to circumstances.”

Well in our present empty homes crisis - that’ll help won’t it! Apart from that there is some nicely presented maps and data and lots of explanations as to why properties might be empty and what councils can do about it. Thank you very much. I can hardly wait for the government’s response, next time I think I’ll ask the Ramblers instead.

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Empty Promise

My thanks to Inside Housing Magazine who this week launch their Empty Promise campaign. I urge you all to sign the petition they started today. Give your views at and report those empty homes at

Friday, January 30, 2009

Empty MOD Homes - Still a Scandal

In the early 1990s empty homes owned by the military became a national scandal. Thousands of homes for service people were left empty causing public outrage at a time of record homelessness. To be fair to the military changing defence needs caused by the end of the cold war had caused many properties to become surplus. But the MOD proved ineffective in dealing with them. In one of the Empty Homes Agency’s first campaigns we said that surplus military homes should be used to house those in housing need. The government responded, and in 1996 they took a dramatic step that was supposed to end the problem once for all. They sold nearly 60,000 homes (the majority of the military’s housing stock) to a private company Annington Homes. In one fell swoop Annington homes became, and remains today the largest private landowner in the country. The government’s idea was that Annington would manage refurbish and gradually dispose of the homes onto the private market. With market forces introduced into the stock of housing, the thinking was vacancy rates would drop and the military’s housing stock would better match their housing needs.

Unfortunately the story did not end there. Figures uncovered by the Liberal Democrats today reveal that the military’s housing vacancy rate is as bad as ever. With an estimated 9000 empty homes the military’s vacancy rate is approximately 20%. Seven times the national average and around ten times the rate of an average housing association. The customary response from the MOD to accusations of high vacancy levels is that they are a special case. And indeed they are. The military needs a flexible housing stock to accommodate changing operational needs. Most people would agree that service people returning from a tour of duty abroad need a decent home to return to, and that means keeping a greater vacancy rate than other housing providers.

But what is so significant about these figures is that they don't reppresent pristine properties waiting to welcome new residents. A BBC’s investigation for the Today programme last year knocked the MOD’s argument right off its pedestal. Visiting a selection of empty military homes the BBC discovered that most were in no fit state to house anybody. Left totally unmanaged and, amazingly – unsecured, the homes fell into semi-dereliction. The Military's argument that they are mothballed awaiting a returning battalion from Iraq is rendered absurd and faintly insulting to service men and women. The one empty MOD property I saw last year that was in good condition (with windows open and heating on- presumably to stop condensation rather than heat the atmosphere and attract intruders) ended up a squat .

So what went wrong, and how come the Military still own so much residential property? It turns out that many of these homes are the very same ones that were sold to Annington homes in 1996. Discovering later that they didn’t have enough housing, the MOD leased back many of the homes it sold. Now, saddled with high rents and dilapidation clauses, leaving them empty now is even more wasteful to the MOD than it was in the early 1990s. Can anything be done? I think it can. There are housing providers that are perfectly suited to these circumstances. Shortlife housing providers are very good at making use of the most unpromising buildings. They can help with repairs and renovation and provide what these homes need most – occupants. If military needs change and the MOD need them back, shortlife housing agreements allow for them to be rapidly returned to the owner. The MOD gets residents and a management service to stop the properties from deteriorating, Neighbours loose an eyesore and source of anti social behaviour. Lots of people get homes to live in. We put this to Defence Estates last year and on the Today programme last February and they said that they would do it. So what’s happened in the last year? Nothing. They haven’t put any properties out to shortlife and their vacancy rate has gone up. Shame on them.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Posh Squats

I have been resisting the temptation to post anything about so-called posh squats up until now. They appear to be getting plenty of publicity without my help. Today, however, I have spoken to six journalists about them, including, if she will forgive me for bracketing her in such company, Vanessa Feltz. There is no doubt that this has become a big story.

It started in Brighton, then Upper Grovesnor Street, then Green Park and now Park Lane. Some of the poshest addresses in the UK have become squatted by what appears to be a new breed of lifestyle squatters. In total their number is tiny but the fact that they have infiltrated such prestigious neighbourhoods gives them access to the media in a quite phenomenal way. What amazes me is the uncritical way they have been reported. Both the Telegraph and the Mail managed to print articles on squatting without uttering the words scrounger, freeloader or sponger - unthinkable just a few weeks ago. The recession moves in mysterious ways!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Turning the Place Over

There was one place where culture and empty properties did meet in Liverpool. Artist Richard Wilson created what many called the most daring piece of public art in Britain – Turning the Place Over. It was installed in an empty building in a side street in Liverpool’s city centre. I remember stumbling upon it by accident last year without ever having heard about it before. For sheer surprise value I think it was the best way to see it. Sadly the motor has now been turned off, but it lives on in You Tube.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Liverpool Legacy

Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture ended last week, and there has been much discussion as to what sort of legacy it will leave. It has certainly made a change to have a positive spotlight on what for me is one of this country’s greatest cities.

With the enormous new “Liverpool One” shopping centre taking shape, a revitalised Pier Head and a new cruise liner dock their can be little doubt that the city centre is looking forward with confidence.

A mile or two away however and regeneration of Liverpool’s housing stock looks less rosy. Anfield contains a greater volume of empty homes than anywhere else in the UK. Liverpool’s housing regeneration was based on trying to attract the housing boom into areas of the city with depressed housing markets. Large volumes of homes were bought up and left vacant in the hope that they would appeal as large development sites to big housing developers. Unfortunately it hasn’t worked, and with the housing boom over there is nothing to attract.

Like many other towns and cities Liverpool has it’s fair share of vacant new flats too, but nowhere has the combination of overoptimistic housing developers, and regenerators left so much damage. The legacy of culture for this city is surely bright, but the housing legacy is in need of urgent attention. This superbly edited video speaks a thousand words.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Empty home owners prolonging the recession

I spent part of Christmas in my hometown of Ipswich. Being on holiday I was not on empty homes alert, but I could hardly miss this. When these waterfront homes were first planned a decade ago they were supposed to help turn the town from a working port into an executive service based economic hub. It hasn’t worked. The port has disappeared downstream, but the executives never really materialised. Like almost everywhere else in the UK the population of Ipswich is filled with ordinary people who need homes at ordinary prices. Instead what they’ve got is homes built for a hypothetical population at hypothetical prices. The reason they stay empty is because the owners have not yet accepted that the prices need to drop drastically. Only when they do, and only when people start buying them will we be able to say that housing market has bottomed out.

In the meantime the one thing that could knock some sense into this ludicrous situation is the council using its enforcement powers to force the owners to get then occupied. Councillor Harsant’s comments don’t lead me to think this is imminent. But there’s nothing to stop the council doing this and forcing the owners to accept the true market rental value. It may sound draconian, but to do otherwise is simply storing up a bigger financial hit for the owner later, and putting the prospect of housing market recovery ever further away.

Friday, January 02, 2009

A Happy Activist New Year

2008 was the year the housing industry’s chickens finally came home to roost; the year when people stopped buying shoddy homes thrown up by speculators, and when they said no to ever-rising prices.

But look what we are left with. A housing market so dysfunctional that despite record levels of housing need, we have the retched sight of nearly a million empty homes. And policy so out of touch;that perfectly good homes are being destroyed to make way for regeneration projects that will never happen. It’s time to think again about who controls our housing.

At heart I’m an optimist. What gives me faith is that the skills of finding and building homes lie deep in the DNA of our species. Just a few generations ago we all created our own homes. Much of the world still does. But here those skills are untapped as housing has been commoditised by housebuilders, speculators and governments. Between them they have let us down. Surely the lesson of this year is that we should never again let so few people make decisions about our housing at our expense again.

Now, with little prospect of profit, many speculators are turning their back on housing altogether. This leaves a gap, and I believe a unique opportunity for you to influence future decisions about housing in your area. What better place to start than vacant property that should be homes.

My hope is that in 2009 we all become housing activists. If we do, I think there is every chance that what emerges from the wreckage will be a housing market that serves people over profits and leaves a legacy we can have pride in for a generation.