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 The truth is they are looking distinctly out of date, geared as they are towards housing associations acquiring newly built property from developers.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.

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