Friday, May 03, 2013

My Article in this month's RICS magazine MODUS

Whatever else you might heave heard; this much is true; bringing empty homes into use won’t solve the housing supply crisis by itself.  But that’s no reason not do it. It’s equally clear that the current rate of house-building isn’t going to solve it either. So we need to think more broadly about increasing housing supply.
Today there are almost 350,000 long-term empty homes in Britain, (and that’s only the ones we know about). In fact, as a nation, if we could be just a little bit more efficient and make sure no home in Britain stayed empty for more than six months, an additional one million people could be housed before we built any more houses at all.

This isn’t a huge ask, and everybody concerned would better off as a result. Owners will benefit from better use of their property, councils will receive additional income and most importantly thousands of families will get a better place to live. With a new government grant scheme, and the National Empty Homes Loans Scheme about to be launched, there has perhaps never been a better time to make this happen.
So what needs to be done? Here are four simple steps:
Whenever property owners anticipate that their property will be vacant for more than 6 months they should make it available to people as short life housing or let it to property guardian companies. A large range of companies and housing cooperatives provide this service. The government should encourage this by offering incentives through the council tax system.
Property owners should take advantage of the grants and loans and get their empty stock renovated. Housing associations, councils and community groups should offer to help them with renovation and management.

Councils must provide help and encouragement to property owners and where necessary take enforcement action. This happens in many places, but still too many councils don’t give it enough priority.  They can’t afford it you might say. But they can. A proper plan for bringing homes into use is actually an income earning activity for councils in England and Wales through the New Homes Bonus.   If councils reinvest the new homes bonus income they receive for empty homes into measures to bring more homes into use, council’s impact will be transformed.

The government should show leadership and get publicly owned properties (including those owned councils and housing associations) into use. There have been improvements in the vacancy rate of publicly owned homes, but it still isn’t good enough. The problem is that there is little scrutiny on public landlords and no real power for local people to put pressure on them .The one right people have is the toothless Community Right to Reclaim Land. This should be beefed up so that the people have a right to buy or rent publicly owned homes that have been left empty for more than 6 months
These steps would cost little more than the money that has already been committed, and could create thousands more homes with no obvious downside. Of course this won’t solve the housing supply crisis by itself, but it’s not a bad place to start.