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.