James Evans highlights the need to make better use of Britain’s empty homes.
Houses are central to our lives and to the economy. The vast majority of UK households are fixed lumps of real estate. Those which are not can often be regarded as unwanted additions to the community: witness the long-running legal dispute over Dale Farm or ̶ closer to my home ̶ Shurlock Road in Waltham St Lawrence. As well as living in houses, people also invest heavily in the housing market. Buy-to-let guides and buy-to-let entrepreneurs are ubiquitous.
Low interest rates and rising house prices represent very favourable circumstances for many people. The government has also hailed the success of its ‘Help to Buy’ scheme (launched in April this year) which has attracted 10,000 first time buyers: notwithstanding the risk that such a stimulus packages could create a new housing bubble. From the perspective of a neutral observer, it is too early to judge; rising prices may prevent first-time buyers from getting onto the housing ladder. Since the credit crunch, it is the problems of the young in attaining a stable lifestyle that has become a political focus.
Even supposing that the government is right however, they are conveniently ignoring one of the biggest problems in the current housing market: empty homes. Hundreds of thousands of new homes are needed. Government rhetoric suggests that it is doing its part to release surplus estate for new development. But the talk is always of ‘new build’ never of ‘old build’. As communities fight to preserve their precious green-belt land against unwanted development, politicians and landowners have a moral duty to try to bring empty sites back into habitable use.
…the talk is always of ‘new build’ never of ‘old build’.
Houses are left empty for a variety of reasons. In Space’s ‘Neighbourhood’, House 999 is ‘always empty ‘cause they’re all doing time’! Some houses really are left empty because the owners encounter legal problems relating to immigration or crime. This often creates problems for councils trying to chase phantom householders for their Council Tax. Others houses are left empty because developers are waiting to buy more land, obtain planning permission, or see what will happen with development in the surrounding area. Two town centre terraces in great locations near me have been largely or wholly unoccupied since before 2007!
The effect of this on the local community is often very negative. Empty properties often attract vermin or squatters. If anything happens to the redundant utilities, it is unlikely to be repaired quickly. The threat is to neighbours as well as to the empty properties themselves. On 7th May 2013, a blaze at an empty property in Park Street, Windsor required a massive fire-fighting effort, and the damage forced 12 nearby residents into temporary accommodation. The fire erupted when the property was undergoing renovation, but no one was living there, and of course no one was at the property to detect or prevent the fire…
Bringing empty homes back into use would be an enormous community benefit. But without the co-operation of landlords, it is very difficult for councils to do this. Councils are understandably reluctant to compulsorily purchase land, which involves significant outlays of time, expense and lawyers. Banks often take years to foreclose on those empty houses that are mortgaged. So it’s crunch time; legislation or co-operation is needed to make an empty house a home.