Monday, July 05, 2010

This could really make things better

It doesn’t happen that often, but there are moments when it is possible to really change things for the better. In amongst the bleak public spending news, it may surprise you to hear that one such moment is upon us. Before the politicians go home for the summer we are calling on the government to say what it is going to do to fulfil its commitment on empty homes. And we’re asking you to say what you think too.
In May the coalition government said "We will explore a range of measures to bring empty homes into use."
We know that the work is underway. Officials are exploring measures now. What they conclude and what the government decides will either be the most significant moment for years, or a squandered opportunity for helping create homes out of empty property. Of course we want it to be the former. In a dream scenario here’s what could happen:

  • The Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) changes grant rules giving housing associations a real incentive to buy and refurbish empty homes. 
  • The government confirms funding, and for the first time in years housing associations en-masse start purchase and repair and rehab schemes creating new affordable homes out of empty property.
  • The HCA gives greater flexibility so that homelessness charities and other community groups can refurbish empty homes too. Hundreds of new not-for- profit schemes start
  • The Government helps local authorities to act by rewarding them for getting long-term empty homes returned to use. Councils start realising the true value of reusing vacant homes and increase the help they offer to property owners.
  • The Government and public sector landlords open up their records on vacant property and agree to transfer their own surplus vacant properties to local communities for them to bring back into use. They give powers to the public to force the sale where the public sector drags its feet.
These actions would make a stunning difference enabling new homes to spring up out of empty buildings. It’s achievable and it’s affordable. But we need the government to act.
Next week you can have your say. The HCA debate “how do we maximise the use of empty homes?” starts on 12th July. Please take part. Watch the videos, and leave your comments and ideas here. It could really help make things better.

Friday, July 02, 2010

Information on empty homes - It's bad for your mental health

The government is, according to Eric Pickles “committed to transparency”. Good! It has not always been so. Back when we I started this blog in 2006 access to information about vacant property was an issue I wrote about frequently because I thought it was being handled so badly. In one bizarre case we dealt with, a local authority denied a man information about empty homes because they thought, to give it to him, would affect his mental health! Judging by his reaction I think denying it to him had a worse effect.

We no longer seem to have ludicrous cases like that, but the problem is not resolved. Here’s why it matters:
We know central and local government have detailed data on all the vacant properties in this country. They know where they are, how long they have been empty,  and who owns them. We also know that there are many resourceful people who can make use of those properties, by buying, renting, or developing them. It is surely obvious that if the resourceful people know where the properties are they are more likely to be able to do something about them. This principle is not novel or new it already happens for big development sites. Just look at the Surplus Land register, and the National Land Use database. These databases encourage big developers to make use of both public and privately owned vacant land by publishing details about it.

It works. So why not apply the same principle to vacant homes? Back in 2007 I spent a day in the Information Tribunal giving evidence on a case that involved this principle. The local government answer given in that case seemed to be people can’t be trusted. The thinking might be summarised as: telling big developers about vacant property is fine, but ordinary people? No way! They might do bad things like smash the house up, set fire to it, or fill it full of rowdy squatters. Best to be cautious and not tell anybody.

Of course there are some risks and some legal issues to disclosing information, but these can be managed, and indeed already are for the vacant land databases.

The trouble is, trustworthy or not, big developers are no longer buying land, and it is becoming obvious that if housing development is going to continue we will need many more small developments on small sites carried out by small developers and resourceful people.
 It’s time to look at this again. Let’s be transparent about empty homes and give resourceful people what they need to turn the vacant properties back into homes.