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?