Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The Great British Property Scandal

Tonight Channel 4 will broadcast a new Great British Property Scandal TV programme. It follows the progress that has been made over the last eleven months since the original series was broadcast and investigates new scandals that it has uncovered of properties left empty when people need homes. 

These TV shows matter. Even the English housing minister admitted it: “we’re in a housing crisis”. Simply put, there are more people who need homes than homes available to live in. Yet fewer homes are being built at any time since 1928.
The Great British Property Scandal TV series could not have come at a more important time. By late 2011 there was consensus that British housing supply was in a mess, and calls for building more homes were sounding increasingly hollow. But one idea was gaining momentum: if we can’t build enough houses, why not get Britain’s million empty homes back into use? It was not a new idea, my own organisation has been campaigning on this issue for 20 years with some success, but never before had the idea been put so forcibly to the British public, and so publicly to the government.

George Clarke was the man to do it, and over the course of a week in December last year he told the scandalous story of how 1 million homes were lying empty when so many people were left without a decent home at all.

The scandal George exposed was not just that homes were left unoccupied, but that public money was being used to systematically empty and demolish perfectly good houses. Standing in a wasteland that had previously been a street of houses, George berated the system that has left us with 2 million households in housing need and a million homes lying empty.

Of course government policy was never intended to create the housing problems we now face, but there is no escaping the fact that some government housing policy has failed. The Housing Market Renewal Programme started in 2002 aimed to clear streets of old houses in areas where the housing market had collapsed. The aim was that the cleared land would attract developers who would build new homes. Perhaps predictably the cure turned out to be worse than the disease. The acquisition and demolition programme blighted already troubled areas, and the 2008 economic downturn caused developers to lose interest in building replacement houses. With thousands of houses emptied and many more flattened, government funding for the programme was withdrawn last year. Many cities in Northern England are left with a patchwork of derelict land and empty houses.

The scale of the problem should not be doubted. If building new houses was proving difficult this would be no easy fix either. But George’s campaign has attracted huge public support and triggered off action in government too.

In the year since the first Great British Property Scandal series was broadcast, the government has introduced an empty homes grants programme and has helped us set up the National Empty Homes Loans Fund. Low interest loans to help get empty homes back into use in an affordable way will be available, through us, early next year. In the last year similar funds have opened in Wales, Scotland and there will soon be a fund in Northern Ireland too. Councils are being encouraged to charge higher council tax on empty homes to incentivise owners to get them back into use - and councils themselves are being rewarded when they get empties back into use.

Most important of all, other new empty home refurbishment programmes are starting to spring up. The grants and loans programmes are making it possible for long term empty homes to be brought back to life, providing affordable homes for those in need.
The new housing minister has yet to say it, but there can be little doubt that we are still in a housing crisis. Nevertheless the progress on this one issue over the last year has been nothing short of remarkable.