A few years ago I remember writing that you try in vain for years to get government to change policy on empty homes. And then just like waiting for the bus three announcements come along at once. Well it’s happened again. But this is where the bus analogy falls apart. Only one of the three buses are any use to you, but the three announcements made by the government this week are so important because when considered together they add up to something highly significant. So here they are:
Firstly last month in the Comprehensive spending review the government made £100 million available to bring empty homes into use. It will be part of the HCA’s affordability program. So it’s largely capital for renovating and bringing empty homes into affordable housing. Yes, we won’t actually see it until 2012, and yes I know it’s considerably less than the £2.5billion proposed by the Liberal Democrats in their election manifesto. But it’s a great deal more than the £3mllion spent nationally last year on empty homes. From schools to aircraft carriers I can see no other area of public spending which has received such an increase.
Secondly this week the government has proposed rewards (through the New Homes Bonus scheme) for local authorities to get empty homes into use. The mechanisms are still being worked out, and indeed this week’s announcement is a consultation paper. But take note; that the empty homes element is specifically referred to in the ministerial foreword. It even says that this could provide a way to fund the vital work councils do to get empty property into use. But the true significance comes when you see the third proposal.
The government proposed this week that empty homes returned to use should count towards housing supply targets (or aspirations as we should now call them!) in the same way as new homes. The notion might seem blindingly obvious, but previous governments have resisted it. The effect has been that work to bring homes into use has been regarded as of secondary importance to building new homes by many councils.
These proposals would mean that councils would have to consider empty homes and getting new homes built together. A good idea in itself; what’s the point of building new homes if there are already homes lying empty? You might ask. Certainly we’ve been asking that question for years. Now we have an answer. Not everybody will like this, but if councils get this wrong it will hit them in the wallet. For example under this proposal a council that gets a hundred new homes built, but also sees a hundred homes becoming empty will get no New Homes Bonus reward. A council that gets a hundred empty homes into use will earn lots of New Homes Bonus even if no new homes are built. This is a clever idea, it will mean councils will have to look at their existing housing stock instead of just trying to get more homes built. And when they need work out to get more homes they will find that housing associations are funded not just to build new homes, but they have £100million fund to apply to get empty homes into use too.
So this isn't really three seprate announcements, it adds up to something much more a real policy. Now they really don't come around very often.