Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Want to know where all the empty homes are? You can't

Imagine for a moment that there is a map of the whole country that shows where every empty home is, how long it has been empty, and who owns it. Imagine too that it is published on-line by the government, it is continually updated and is free to use. Wouldn’t that be amazing for organisations that refurb homes and create affordable housing?

Putting aside the privacy issues for a moment, who should be allowed to use this map? Should it be freely available to everybody?

If not, who?

Imagine no longer. The map actually exists as I described. It’s called the Empty Homes GIS Toolkit and is published by the Homes and Communities Agency. They, in conjunction with Ordnance Survey, who actually own the maps, decided, probably wisely, that access should be restricted. Unless you have signed something called the Public Sector Mapping Agreement you aren’t allowed to see the map.

Who is allowed to sign this agreement? Not, me, and not you, unless you work for what is considered to be a public sector body. This leaves the rather bizarre situation that:

Housing Associations
Housing cooperatives
Housing Charities
Universities …are banned from seeing the map

But Government departments, and local councils, and others including
Royal National Lifeboats
Mountain rescue services
Cancer registries
Areas of Outstanding National Beauty … are allowed full access

Now let's come back to those privacy issues. You wouldn’t want details of empty houses being broadcast to everybody would you? So the line has to be drawn somewhere. That somewhere appears to be between government and non- government organisations. The implication being only government organisations can be trusted with keeping information about property secure.  But a quick look at the list of signatories shows that the UK’s biggest broadcaster, the BBC has full access to the map.

So here is a goldmine of information that could be invaluable to housing associations and other affordable housing providers and help get empty homes back into use. That is hampered by a set of rules that prevent those that could use it actually seeing it. If ever there was a case of nonsensical bureaucratic rules that needed changing it is surely this.


  1. I would have thought that the best people to have access, outside those already mentioned, would be citizens advice.

  2. This could be very useful for estate agents Birmingham, as it's good to see where there are some opportunities to buy houses at auction.

  3. I'd support this being public once the legislation on squatting in Residential property is on the books.

    Until then, I'd support the orgs you mention, but not the public, having access.

    (Writing as a private LL interested in policy)

  4. Very interesting article - Have you thought about making a request for such information under the Freedom of Information Act - recent decision suggests that such info is disclosable - see my blog post : http://informationlaw.org.uk/page8.htm

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