Monday, April 19, 2010

Simon Hughes on empty homes

"If any issue affects communites and makes people feel uncomfortable and neglected, it is seeing places empty when they know their children have nowhere to live." Simon Hughes the Lib Dem Energy spokesman earlier this morning.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Empty Homes and Manifestos

In the midst of manifesto week it might be good to look at what the main parties standing in the general election have said so far about empty homes.

Labour: no specific policy commitments

Conservatives: nothing in the manifesto, but policy on empty homes set out in 2009 housing green paper and 2009 empty property policy paper

Liberal Democrats: Costed manifesto commitment to bring 250,000 empty homes into use through grants and loans

Green Party: manifesto to be published tomorrow, but the party have already said that it will commit to halve the number of empty homes.

UKIP: Policy commitment to give greater compulsory purchase powers to local authorities to tackle empty homes

Plaid Cymru: Stated commitment to reducing empty home numbers and to reduce VAT to 5% on home refurbishment

SNP: no specific policy commitments

It’s good, in a curates egg sort of way, but I would of course, like to have seen more. This time next month at least one, and possibly more, of these parties will form the UK government and will be responsible for our county’s housing policy. Whoever that is will be faced with ensuring that the people of this country have somewhere decent to call home. For many years now, we have comforted ourselves that the house building industry will dutifully churn out new homes to match our demand for housing. All government had to do was fix the rules to make sure that the builders built a proportion that people on low incomes could afford.

But as with so many things the last couple of years have proved that systems that rely on perpetual growth don’t work when the economy turns down. What worked last decade probably won’t work in this one, that’s why we need new ideas and new ways to provide homes. Ideas like making the best use of the housing stock we have got, giving people the metaphorical and literal tools to create homes for themselves, creating new tenures of housing enabling people to rent and own homes in more flexible ways. The ideas are out there and have been adopted by many political parties. The next four weeks will see whether we will get a government with the imagination to introduce them.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

more vacancy, but 3 ways to resolve it

Yesterday the Guardian reported that the housing vacancy rate is an enormous 25% higher than previously thought. That means that across the UK there may be 450,000 long-term empty homes. As they correctly point out this is enough to house a quarter of the families on housing waiting lists in this country. Now I know there are people that will say this is an oversimplification and Shelter will go on about needing to build new houses. Well are both are true but that doesn’t take away the significance of these findings.

Just imagine for a moment what would happen if a government introduced measures that really dealt with the problem. What would that do? Well, allowing for the difference between UK and England data , 450,000 homes would house 1.1 million people. As this graph shows, that’s enough to re-house every overcrowded household in England, everybody in temporary accommodation and every single homeless person. No mean feat!

Now, some will say, it’s just a one-off – homeless households just keep forming. Well true enough, but bringing empty homes back into use can carry on too. Once the 450,000 are back into use, there would no doubt be a whole load more homes that had become long –term empty. Getting those back into use would continue to address new housing need. Eventually of course the numbers of empty homes would run right down and as a source of new housing. But that’s a good thing. It would mean that the country was using it’s housing stock at optimum efficiency, which would in itself reduce the numbers of people falling into housing need, and massively reduce expenditure in dealing with the effects of the problem.

So what would a government have to do to really make an impact? We think just three actions would do it:

  1. Offer a financial stimulus to the building industry by redirecting part of the national affordable housing programme towards refurbishment of empty homes. The Liberal Democrats estimate that £3.3bn (out of a £17bn programme) would bring 250,000 homes into use.
  2. Encourage councils and public sector landlords to hand over surplus properties to local communities for them to bring back into use. And encourage them to help owners get their homes into use.
  3. Give home owners incentive to refurbish their own empty homes by reducing VAT rates on refurbishment to 5% - The FMB estimates that this would have a net cost of £102m-£550m

It’s not difficult or unaffordable. Indeed all of the costs would offset other costs elsewhere. And it’s not politically unrealistic either. Between them the three main political parties endorse all of these proposals. We just have to hold them to it and encourage whoever forms the next government to introduce all three.