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.