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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.