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.