Friday, February 12, 2010

Tories to Scrap EDMOs

Grant Shapps made an entirely reasonable point yesterday that empty privately owned and empty publicly owned buildings are treated unequally. There are indeed powers for councils to bring privately owned homes into use, and the powers that people have to challenge empty publicly owned property are indeed weak. But to suggest, as he did yesterday, that the answer is to level the playing field by abolishing council powers seems to utterly miss the point. The problem isn’t that powers are unequal it is that not enough is done to address wasted publicly owned buildings. In fact the Conservatives have already proposed a much better answer to this problem. Last year in their housing green paper they proposed beefing up “PROD” powers to give the public the right to request the disposal of empty publicly owned buildings – and very welcome it was too. So let’s not have equally rubbish policies for tackling empty homes, Let’s try and have equally effective policies for getting all wasted properties back into use.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Sorry we took your house, do you want it back?

Those who followed the extraordinary 40 year saga of the 80 empty homes on the North Circular Road in London may have a sense of de ja vous. This time the story is Armitage Gardens in Luton. The Highways Agency tasked with widening the M1 started buying up properties that seemed to be in the way. Over a period of fifteen years between 1993 and 2008 seventy-three houses were bought and boarded up for future demolition. Then, with motorway costs spiralling out of control, the government decided on a different approach. Instead of widening the road they’d let people drive on the hard shoulder instead. Neat idea! But then what happens to the 73 houses. Why not offer them back to the original owners? Under an old ruling called the Crichel Down Rules that is indeed exactly what has to happen.

But who or what is Crichel Down? Well it turns out that it’s an area of farmland in Dorset. It was requisitioned by the government for bombing practice at the beginning of World War 2 . Winston Churchil gave an undertaking at the time, that all requisitioned land would be given back after the war. It wasn’t, and indeed parts of Salisbury plain including the whole village of Imber remain in government ownership for military use today. Crichel down had another fate, after the war ownership was handed over to the ministry of agriculture who the leased it out at vast profit. The original owners were understandably cheesed off with this arrangement, and began campaigning for the return of their land. After many years they were successful, an enquiry was launched which ultimately ended in the resignation of a cabinet minister and the establishment of rules (the Crichel Down Rules) that are still in use today.

The pity is that the Luton homes were boarded up and not temporarily let. Had they been rented out they would be in habitable condition today and would have provided homes for seventy three households who currently have no home. The Luton case is not a happy one, taking property off people never is. But at least the prospect of a happy ending is possible, and in rather shorter timescale than it took on the North Circular Road.

Monday, February 08, 2010

18 Empty Homes Announcements in a Year

Last week saw a significant announcement by the government that will see it invest £1million to develop schemes to bring empty homes into use in 17 areas of the country. It also sets up a national training programme to help councils across the country develop skills in bringing empty homes into use. It took six months of encouragement, lobbying and campaigning by us with help from the Chartered Institute of Housing, the HCA academy and officials at the CLG, and it’s great news.

But, I suspect, unless you’re directly affected, announcements like this probably just come and go. If they do, consider this, this is the eighteenth major announcement on the issue in the last twelve months. Look at them together and I think that cumulatively it’s beginning to add up to something much larger. There is an emerging consensus that the job of ensuring that everybody gets a decent home is not just about building new homes. We can’t afford to build them all, and it’s better for communities if we keep people living in them.

If the last 18 announcements just came and went for you, here they all are:

1. Greater Flexibility on HCA funding to allow housing associations to buy empty homes – Party leader David Cameron launches Conservatives Empty Property Rescue Plan with Empty Homes Agency February 2009

2. More funding to assist housing associations renovate empty homes – New Conservative policy launched in Empty Property Rescue Plan February 2009

3. Allow non-priority need homeless people to self renovate empty homes with the possibility of equity stake reward. – New Conservative policy launched in Empty Property Rescue Plan February 2009

4. Equalise VAT rates on new build homes and costs of renovating empty homes –New Liberal Democrat policy launched in speech by shadow chancellor Vince Cable with Empty Homes Agency February 19 2009

5. Amend commercial property rate relief rules to allow owners of empty commercial property used temporarily as housing to continue to claim rate relief- New Liberal Democrat policy launched in speech by shadow chancellor Vince Cable February 2009

6. 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. New Liberal Democrat policy launched in speech by shadow chancellor Vince Cable February 2009

7. Allow housing associations and local authorities to use funding from the Homes and Communities Agency to refurbish newly purchased private empty homes; Liberal Democrats- New Liberal Democrat policy launched in speech by shadow chancellor Vince Cable February 2009

8. Make £40m available in HCA grant for short-life (‘property guardian’) housing. Liberal Democrats- New Liberal Democrat policy launched in speech by Vince Cable February 2009

9. Announcement of greater support for local authorities to help get empty homes into use – CLG press release quoting then housing minister Margaret Beckett – March 2009

10. Announcement that funding would be made available from National Affordable Housing Programme would be made available for schemes to bring empty homes into use Speech by Trevor Beattie Director of Policy and Strategy Homes and Communities Agency at Empty Homes Agency Conference – March 2009

11. Equal funding available for housing associations to renovate empty homes as for new build schemes. Policy announcement by Sir Bob Kerslake Chief Executive of Homes and Communities Agency appearing on BBC Breakfast TV with The Empty Homes Agency. – March 2009

12. Requirement for all government bodies and agencies to publish details of empty properties they own. – New Conservative policy launched in Conservatives housing green paper June 2009

13. An extension of the PROD powers allowing the public to request the disposal of empty property owned by councils government departments and quangos New Conservative policy launched in Conservatives housing green paper June 2009

14. Sequential approach for creating homes giving priority for reusing empty homes – new Green party policy in speech by party leader Caroline Lucas July 2009

15. Self Start Housing allowing low income families to self renovate empty homes where regeneration schemes have stalled - New Liberal Democrat policy launched by shadow housing minister Sarah Teather in conference speech September 2009

16. North Circular Road investment scheme announced by Mayor of London Boris Johnson. £57 million pledged for 80 empty homes to be bought and renovated for social housing – September 2009

17. Commitment to invest £1.4billion to bring 250,000 empty homes back into use New Liberal Democrat policy launched by party leader Nick Clegg with Empty Homes Agency January 2010

18. Government Pledges £1million investment in seventeen councils to help bring empty homes back into use. Announcement by housing minister John Healey. February 2010

Friday, February 05, 2010

New £1million empty homes fund

If you can buy a house for a pound, what could you do with a million? It’s question worth asking if you live in Torbay, St Helens, Ipswich, Mansfield ,Bolsover, Luton, Bolton, Liverpool, Doncaster, Corby, East Northamptonshire, South Northamptonshire, Milton Keynes, Durham, Cornwall, or Warwick. Because housing minister John Healey announced that those councils are today being granted a £1 million between them to tackle the particular empty homes problems that affect those places. In Doncaster and Stoke it is tackling a problem of declining demand, In St Helen’s and Ipswich it is newly built flats that remain empty, in Nottinghamshire it is tackling the legacy of empty homes left by the closure of the coal board’s housing. It’s taken a lot of persueding for the government to agree to this package but that makes it no less welcome.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

House for a pound

The story of houses being sold for a pound in Newcastle on Tyne has become almost legendry. I couldn’t count the number of people who have asked me whether you can still buy one. You can’t! Or the number of TV producers who think it would make a great subject for a TV programme. It would! So I’m almost ashamed to say that it wasn’t until last week that I actually went to see them. The picture is Mr Naeem the proud owner of one of the houses. Mr Naeem in fact bought two Tyneside flats for 50p each six years ago and knocked them into one house, as did his five nearest neighbours. The result is remarkable. In 2004 Mr Naeem’s road in North Benwell was struggling. There had been riots, there was a worryingly high vacancy rate, and many other indicators that people had lost confidence in the area.

Selling the ten flats was an inspired idea. Mr Naeem and his neighbours signed up to stay in the area for five years and help get the property into good condition. The ethos of these new residents was the reverse of what was happening to the area. They had a stake and a hope that the area was going to get better. The remarkable result appears to be that when enough people think like this it becomes self-fulfilling. North Benwell today is not an area without problems, but it is a normal functioning residential area in one of the UK’s finest cities. There are no riots, crime has dropped dramatically, and the vacancy rate is no worse than any normal city suburb. Of course many other things have been done to help, not least a city warden service that looks out for people and sorts small problems out quickly. But there are plenty of other similar places where these services don’t work. Selling houses for a pound was a brave move by the property owner – local housing association Home housing But the results have paid off handsomely. What they have bought for their investment is hope and confidence the two most valuable assets in regeneration.

Tower Block of Commons

The sight of poor Iain Duncan Smith being asked by a group of girls on an East London estate whether he had ever been “pleasured” was almost too much to watch. But that was the point. Four MPs were set the challenge of living on tough council estates for a week in Tower Block of Commons on channel 4 last night. Inevitably the huge mismatch in cultures gave the MPs plenty of opportunities for social faux pas. Tim Loughton trying in vain to buy copy of the Daily Telegraph, Austin Mitchell seemingly amazed that drug use actually happened on council estates, and Mark Oaten stereotypically predicting that he would be “Eating lots of McDonald's and watching Coronation Street". But to give these guys credit at least they had agreed to take part.

What it also showed was how cheap to build tower blocks, take their toll out of the people who live there. Cathy from Dagenham showed how getting through the security measures needed to get in and out of her estate was like escaping from prison. After years of trying she seemed to have resigned herself to staying in, a clearly intelligent woman sitting bored in front of the telly. The cheap fabric of the buildings was costing people too. Damp walls covered in mould were apparently dismissed by the council as merely condensation. Of course it’s condensation – the building is too poorly insulated and ventilated to stop it. A shocked Mark Oaten resorted to something he felt he could do to help and started a campaign for getting the blocks demolished. Probably a good start, but only helpful if the residents are given the opportunity to live somewhere better.