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.

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