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.