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Publication - Research Publications

Review of the Private Rented Sector: Volume 4: Bringing Private Sector empty houses into use

Published: 24 Mar 2009
ISBN:
978 0 7559 7467

A review of initiatives to address the problem of empty houses drawn from case studies across the UK.

100 page PDF

598.7kB

100 page PDF

598.7kB

Contents
Review of the Private Rented Sector: Volume 4: Bringing Private Sector empty houses into use
ANNEX 2: SELECTED CASE STUDY SUMMARIES

100 page PDF

598.7kB

ANNEX 2: SELECTED CASE STUDY SUMMARIES

This annex presents summaries of 10 diverse case studies. The selection presented reflects the most interesting and often, the better developed empty home strategies, of all the case studies included in the research. It also emphasises that no two examples of how empty private homes initiatives have been pursued are the same and often there are marked differences in approach across large and small local authorities, between urban and rural local authorities and between authorities operating on their own and in partnerships .

The value of these presentations is to offer a deeper insight into how local authorities and other organisations have responded to problems with empty private homes than is possible within the main report.

The case studies here document two national organisations, five local authority initiatives and three partnership based approaches.

1. The Empty Homes Agency

2. The National Association of Empty Property Practitioners

3. Manchester City Council

4. The Newcastle City Council/Private Renting Service

5. South Oxfordshire Council

6. Hounslow Borough Council

7. Islington Borough Council

8. North London Empty Property Initiative

9. Kent County Council - ' No Use Empty' Initiative

10. Devon Empty Homes Partnership

Case Study 1: The Empty Homes Agency

Background

The national Empty Homes Agency ( EHA) is constituted as an industrial and provident society. It operates as an independent campaigning charity that aims to raise awareness of the potential of empty homes in England to meet housing need and to devise and promote, with others, sustainable solutions that will bring empty homes back into use.

Staffing

The EHA is headed by its Chief Executive, a full-time Policy Advisor and two part-time support positions. Extensive use is made of volunteers (usually part-time) covering mostly administrative tasks. 47 .

Funding

In 2006/7 the EHA's income totalled around £350,000. Around 30% of this came from the Department of Communities and Local Government ( DCLG) with the rest a mix of lottery funding, unrestricted grants and donations, project funding, fees and other earned income. The DCLG grant is due to end in 2009 and the Agency is looking elsewhere to cover its future work which may lead to a re-orientation of its activities, for example toward the environmental advantages of re-using existing buildings and encouraging bottom-up public action and pressure for action on empty homes. Such shifts in direction may also lead to some change in the nature of its major donors.

Core activities

The EHA seeks to achieve its aims by working at both national and local level.

Nationally, it engages with central government to lobby for policies and legislation to improve measures to tackle empty homes. It works with the government by providing information on empty homes and on the development of measures to bring empty homes back into use. Research is commissioned and published; press releases and articles are published, and, seminars, conferences and annual campaigns on empty homes organised.

At local level, it offers advice and support to local authorities (and RSLs and community organisations) to bring empty homes into use. It has had a long-standing campaign to encourage local authorities to either produce a dedicated Empty Homes Strategy supported by an Empty Property Officer where there is a significant problem of empty private homes; or to incorporate a section on empty homes in their Housing Strategies.

Other activities

The EHA engages in a wide range of general and specific other activities:

  • Publishing, and interpreting the annual national empty homes statistics (from DCLG).
  • Holding an annual national Week of Action on empty homes (and sometimes a separate week focussing just on London).
  • Responding to questions from local authority officers involved in empty property work.
  • Providing advice and guidance on important aspects of empty property work; this may be unsolicited, on the back of new legislation or in response to inquiry themes.
  • Attending and presenting to the regional empty property forums (which meet quarterly or so in most English regions).
  • Contributing to National Association of Empty Property Practitioner Executive meetings.
  • Encouraging local authorities to respond in a particular way to major public policy threats and opportunities ( e.g. on Government consultation papers).
  • Visiting local authorities to provide support; understand the issues they face and learn about good practice.
  • Disseminating a monthly Bulletin.
  • Gleaning examples of empty homes initiatives for use in media work around the National Week of Action on Empty Homes (etc.).
  • Highlighting the problem of empty property and the solutions that exist on its web site.

In 2007-08 the EHA lobbied on the following issues:

  • Encouraging owners of empty homes to bring them back into use by reducing the VAT on refurbishment of empty homes to 5% or less for properties empty for more than a year.
  • Removing the council tax discounts still offered by some local authorities to owners of long-term empty homes (councils currently have discretion to retain, reduce or remove the 50% discount that previously applied).
  • Ensuring the new Housing and Planning Delivery Grant rewards the return of long-term empty homes to use.
  • Including empty homes returned to use within the new National Indicators (replacing Best Value performance indicators in England).
  • Introducing challenging national (English) and regional targets to reduce the numbers of empty homes.
  • Putting a statutory duty on local authorities to tackle long-term empty homes in their area.
  • Putting a duty on public sector landlords to publicly report their long-term empty homes annually.
  • Ensuring that funding for house-building is not at the expense of local authority empty homes work.
  • Making more use of short-life housing ("property guardian" schemes) to provide accommodation in temporarily vacant ( e.g. commercial) buildings.

Case Study 2: The National Association of Empty Property Practitioners

Background

The National Association of Empty Property Practitioners ( NAEPP) is an independent, unincorporated association, founded in 2001. The impetus came from a number of sources. The Empty Homes Agency played a significant role as did an officer with Exeter City Council who had established an email group for empty property practitioners. The final contributors to its establishment were members of regional forums on empty properties that had developed from 1996 onwards e.g. the South West Empty Homes forum was established in 1996.

Key Aims

NAEPP's aims include:

  • A commitment to raise the status and profile of empty homes practitioners.
  • To promote the development of professional standards through training and dissemination of good practice.
  • To promote policies and practices which offer effective responses to the challenges presented by empty property.
  • To share information, skills and experience with other organisations and individuals in the furtherance of the foregoing aims.

Funding

NAEPP was founded with a small grant of around £2,500 from the Housing Corporation and a similar amount from central government via the Empty Homes Agency. NAEPP is now funded almost entirely from membership fees with its Annual Conference making a small profit. For the future, it is hoped that training courses and advertising on the NAEPP website will generate some additional profit.

NAEPP continues to operate with very limited resources. It costs around £5,000 annually to operate. About half the running costs are associated with administering membership fees and website development for use by members. However, the costs are under-stated by considerable unpaid time given by one officer to keeping NAEPP going. Since January 2008 NAEPP's financial / organisational basis has changed to address the problem of over-stretch. One member is now paid from membership fee income under a Service Level Agreement to sustain the administration and development of the organisation. If NAEPP were to be funded to the tune of £5,000 per annum the business of administering and collecting membership fees could be dropped.

Membership and Governance

There are around 150 separate organisations in membership. Apart from the AGM, NAEPP is governed by an Executive Committee consisting of elected officers and regional forum representatives - but in practice a small nucleus of about 6-7 officers from various authorities has held NAEPP together over the last few years. The regional forums exist independently and officers in each region meet in their local forums but NAEPP's national remit does not make regular meetings a practical option.

The NAEPP website

The website is the central means of communication between members for policy discussion, dissemination of good practice, discussion of new, emerging issues, mutual learning opportunities, etc. The website operates as a network for officers asking questions and other members answering them via the forums. Useful material on empty property issues is collected and a 'library' of information is maintained on the website. Electronic newsletters are also sent out.

Affordability

NAEPP believes empty homes initiatives have been the mainspring of many successful interventions in the private sector e.g. leasing schemes, rent and deposit type schemes, social lettings agencies etc. Most of this accommodation is relatively short term and rents may be lower than market rents but not affordable by the standards of social rented housing. However, empty homes initiatives' engagement with the private sector property market, make them the ideal springboard for such initiatives - the enabling culture is seen as vital.

Strengths and weaknesses of the NAEPP model

NAEPP sees its strength to be that it is democratic and does in fact provide a level of service for a very low cost. The main weakness of NAEPP is that it has insufficient income to deliver the level of service that it aspires to deliver. It has also been difficult to achieve a fully mutual exchange of information, advice and news between members.

NAEPP depends on the voluntary effort of local authority officers who also work for their authority to discharge all its roles and activities. As a way of operating, this has proved difficult to sustain. The problem has been exacerbated by the view within NAEPP that there were higher expectations of its capability when it was set up than it has been able to deliver to date.

NAEPP's view, drawing on its own experience, is that the critical requirement for developing a similar support organisation in Scotland should be the employment of a paid facilitator or co-ordinator whose job would be to promote empty property work. This should include support for a Scottish network of empty property practitioners that would mirror the regional forums in England.

Case Study 3: Manchester City Council

Manchester City Council ( MCC) has been actively dealing with the problem of empty properties developing in its older, pre-1918, "two-up-two-down" terrace house suburbs since the early 1990s. As house prices dropped through lack of demand, houses were increasingly purchased by private landlords and with a consequential anti-social behaviour problem amongst some private tenants, the spiral of decline and low demand continued. While there is a newer problem of voids in the city centre buy-to-let market, the approach to the regeneration of the suburbs makes dealing with empty homes here critical. Many of Manchester's wards (22 out of 32) are in the Pathfinder 48 area.

Manchester has a dedicated empty property team of three who are backed up on the ground by area teams who deal with the overall regeneration of the private housing areas. These empty homes team meet on a six weekly cycle, forming an Empty Properties Cabinet. All empty homes staff are in the Housing Service and by agreement with other departments, are allowed to serve notices under the Town & Country Planning Acts, against dangerous buildings etc.

Data

The team has a register detailing some 6,500 empty properties of which some 3,000 - 3,500 can be dealt with immediately. In the remaining cases, the owners are in care homes, prison or the properties subject to probate/ intestacy. The list has been built up from the following data sources:

  • The Council Tax Register. The empty properties team have full access to Council Tax data including names and addresses of properties and their owners. Cross checks on ownership are made with the Land Register online. Care is taken about how this information is released in order to maintain data protection - only data on addresses is passed to area teams for investigation (unless names are confirmed from the Land Register, which is public). In some cases, "empty" homes are found to be occupied and vice versa.
  • Reports from Area Teams from street-by-street surveys.
  • Reports from members of the public. When these reports are received, staff are careful not to reveal the status of any property, or that it is on the register, but just assure the caller that the property in question will be secured (this is done in case the report is from a potential squatter seeking confirmation of the property's status). If calls are received from potential buyers of empty homes, they are referred to the council's auctioneer.

Properties in probate

While there are not a large number of properties held empty in probate for some time, there are some where the council has had to secure or carry out works. It is possible to serve an enforced sales order but not an EDMO.

Procedure to deal with empty homes

MCC will send a series of three letters escalating the threat of enforcement. Where there is no action, the next step is generally to serve an Enforced Sales notice to recover costs of securing the property etc. In 17 out of 18 cases, the owner will pay the costs but this gives the Council the opportunity to start a process of dialogue with an owner, using the threat of serving an Empty Dwelling Management Order ( EDMO) to get the property back into use. However, the Council has not yet had to serve an EDMO which are seen as an important tool in the armoury though and complimentary to other powers.

Outcomes

Of the properties that it deals with, MCC estimate that roughly 20% will move into private rented landlord ownership, 60% will move into owner-occupation and 20% of "critical" properties will become owned by RSLs. The latter is achieved through Enforced Sales and seeking three valuations (from the Council surveyor, the RSLs surveyor and an independent) and then selling the property to the RSL on the highest of those three valuations. "Critical" properties are those which are deemed to be likely to have the most negative effect on an area in some way by remaining empty or falling into the wrong hands. The RSL which has purchased the home in this way may decide to keep the property in its rental stock or sell on a rent-to-mortgage or shared equity basis.

Monitoring against indicators

While the Empty Property staff feel that the removal of the empty homes indicator BVI64 is a retrograde step, they have inserted a clause in their own Local Action Agreement with the government. (This is an agreement with outcomes which, if met, will reward the Council with £1.2M of grant). The authority has set itself targets of:

  • The number of vacant and blighted properties brought back into use.
  • The number of long term empty properties.

Affordable homes strategy

MCC is developing an affordable homes strategy which will seek to increase levels of owner-occupation in the city to 60% through reduction of the Private Rented Sector. This will generally be achieved by offering assistance to purchase to first-time buyers and key workers. However, MCC will also use its current practices for achieving sales to RSLs.

Case Study 4: The Newcastle City Council/Private Renting Service

Background

The Private Rented Service ( PR Service) originally the Newcastle Private Renting Project, was a voluntary funded project, started in 1997, working in low demand, regeneration areas but integrated into the City Council in 2004/05. At March 2007, Council Tax records (not necessarily accurate) indicated there were 2,011 private homes empty for over 6 months in Newcastle accounting for about 2.4% of the private housing stock.

Staffing and skills

The Project operates with 8 staff but covers a wide range of private rented work. In staff terms, it is estimated that empty homes work takes up the equivalent of half of an Assistant Project Officer post at scale 5. In terms of the skills required of staff, both 'hard' technology skills such as data analysis, monitoring and GIS mapping skills and 'soft', people management, skills (to achieve effective inter-departmental working relationships and for successful liaison with the public, private landlords) are considered important:

A joint working approach

Inter-departmental working on empty private homes work is seen as essential. The PR Service relies on enforcement powers held by Environmental Health, Building Control and Strategic Housing and Housing Renewal Services. Regular inter-departmental meetings are held to discuss empty homes issues (strategic and cases) and a protocol is being finalised (at the time of the fieldwork) that will set out how joint working will operate and how each service will work on empty homes.

Reasons why properties lie empty

The Project has identified a variety of reasons for homes lying empty: Landlords with large portfolios who don't care about 1 or 2 properties in poor condition lying vacant; property investors who purchased homes at low prices in the past and are not interested in letting; properties in multi-ownership where joint owners fail to make decisions to take action and properties where the ownership cannot be traced in Companies House.

The reason a property is empty does not directly affect the type of intervention made. The scoring system and prioritisation is the main determinant.

Developing a database

Council Tax data is seen as useful for statistical returns but it can be incomplete and have errors so the PR Service officers carry out street surveys in targeted areas to identify empty homes, giving them a score in terms of different criteria and a priority rating for future action. Identifying "empty" from occupied homes can be difficult and in areas with a high student population, visits can be carried out in the evening to ensure more accuracy.

Addresses from surveys are cross-referenced to the Council Tax Register and up to a point, ownership and tenure can be identified. Housing Benefit data is also cross-checked. No data protection issues have arisen as the PR Service, with the support of the Data Protection Officer draws on specific rights of access under local government and town planning legislation - provided the data is kept within the Council. In addition, recourse is also made to searches of the Land Registry to identify ownership. More informal methods of assembling data include letters that may be sent to neighbours to ask if they have any knowledge of who is the owner, complaints to the PR Service or Regeneration Directorate by members of the public and notifications of empty private homes by local officers in the regeneration offices.

Affordable housing commitment

The main purpose of initiatives has been to return empty private properties into use rather than to increase affordable housing supply, to date achieved by the nature of the work in the regeneration areas. It is expected that the next Housing Strategy update will reflect a move to a more formal commitment to see empty private homes made available for affordable rented housing.

In addition, a rent guarantee bond scheme operated by the PR Service is now in place and has found favour with a number of "investor" landlords who are willing to buy empty properties that are in a reasonable condition that they can bring up to a standard for letting within a number of weeks and then receive a nominated tenant. This approach has worked successfully without grant aid.

A balanced approach to owners

Having operated in a largely reactive manner to empty homes problems, in 2007 the Service adopted a much more proactive stance and developed a range of intervention tools. Now, the general philosophy is to pursue a dual approach to owners with a clear emphasis on providing advice, support and financial incentives, backed up by the threat of enforcement action and compulsory purchase. At each stage of engagement, the PR Service seeks a voluntary response while making the owner aware that enforcement can and will be adopted if there is a lack of positive response. In the past, grant aid was available (up to £25,000) to private owners in regeneration areas to bring their empty properties back into use but this is no longer the case. Assistance has moved to offers of loans and advice on equity-release schemes .

Owners are first sent a letter and questionnaire with all the options open to them to return their properties into use and an invitation to discuss ways forward with the PR Service. If no response is received, a second letter is sent with the threat that enforcement action will be taken usually eliciting a better response.

Prioritising enforcement

The PR Service has a prioritised scoring system for taking enforcement action. A high priority might be an empty home having an adverse impact on surrounding houses. However the Council's approach can vary according to the attitude of the landlord/owner. If enforcement powers are deemed necessary, e.g. where an owner refuses to take any advice or action, Environmental Health officers are asked to inspect the property. The owner is then written to and informed that a notice could be served on the property, but given time to respond on a 'voluntary basis'. If no response is received, action is taken, or, if the property is in serious disrepair, appropriate notices are served, works are carried out in default and costs recovered by a charge on the property. On the other hand, an owner who is just "reluctant" to act is given time to see if he or she will come forward to discuss the options open to them.

In general terms, Empty Dwelling Management Orders ( EDMOs) were not thought appropriate for very long term, poor condition properties but more relevant for properties in reasonable condition and not vacant overly long. No EDMOs had been served at the time of the fieldwork, but two Compulsory Purchase Orders ( CPOs) are being taken forward, one in a regeneration area; the other justified by landlord negligence of a property having a seriously detrimental effect on a neighbourhood.

Developing an action plan for empty private homes

Newcastle's Housing Strategy has a commitment to produce an Empty Homes Action Plan by 2011. A report in 2007, prepared by the PR Service, set out the recommended key priorities for empty homes work that would be developed into an Action Plan. While accepted as the way forward, resourcing these priorities was still to be reconciled against other priorities. These included:

  • The development of an empty homes register and street surveys.
  • Arrangements with an external body to lease long-term empty properties.
  • New funding arrangements for supporting owners.
  • A formal commitment to the use of Enforced Sales Procedures and CPOs and the establishment of an appropriate funding framework and procedures.
  • Reductions in Council Tax discounts.
  • Increased staffing.

Conclusions

For Scottish Councils looking to develop work on empty private homes, the learning from Newcastle City Council is:

  • Adopt a bottom-up approach: Know the neighbourhood - know its local housing market - operate at street level - find where the empty properties are - then develop an action plan.
  • Find the landlords: know where they are, who they are and the reasons they have empty properties and then develop an approach on how to deal with them.

Case Study 5: South Oxfordshire District Council

Background

South Oxfordshire is a very affluent area characterised by expensive property prices and a surfeit of second homes. Home ownership remains beyond the means of many people and the Council's Community Strategy 2004 has a commitment to increase the supply of affordable housing, including key worker housing. The Council does not have a major problem with empty (over 6 months) private homes though 400-500 homes pepper-potted across the district and in reasonable condition have been identified. The Council's policy on empty homes is to work with owners, not to be heavy-handed and not to take over the ownership of their properties by compulsory purchase. Yet while the Council allocates very limited resources to empty homes work and has an essentially reactive approach, it has had success by returning an increasing number of empty homes into affordable housing using its Rent Deposit Bond Scheme and by obtaining England's first Final Empty Property Management Order ( EDMO).

Staffing

The Private Sector Housing Team operates with a manager and three officers. Empty private homes work is carried out by one Private Sector Housing Officer supported by the manager with empty homes work being given around half a day a month.

Inter-departmental working

The number of empty homes has not merited a formal liaison structure and issues are addressed through informal liaison by the Private Sector Housing Team, normally with Council Tax staff and Council lawyers when legal issues arise.

Data collection

The Council has not developed a formal data base of empty homes. However, it draws on several sources to gain knowledge of potential empty homes:

  • The Council Tax Register.
  • Complaints and information from members of the public.
  • Information from the Planning Service when it has turned down a planning application for conversion or change of use of an empty home. The Private Sector Housing Officer can then contact the owner and discuss ways in which the Council could help to return the property to residential use.
  • The Council's website for members of the public to report an empty home although this has hardly ever been accessed.

The Council does not carry out publicity exercises about empty private homes but occasionally an article on empty private homes is carried in the Council's quarterly newsletter to residents.

Strategy

Empty private homes work is not a major priority for the Council. No Empty Homes Strategy has been produced as the number of empty homes and their condition does not merit a dedicated strategy but empty private homes work is addressed in the Housing Strategy.

Rent Deposit Scheme

The Council operates a Rent Deposit Guarantee Scheme which offers landlords of habitable empty properties a bond in lieu of a deposit for accepting applicants nominated by the Council who are in housing need. The Council has had considerable success with the scheme.

Empty Homes Initiative: interest-free loans

The Council does not give grants to owners of private empty homes but may offer an owner an interest-free loan. If the owner accepts, a legal agreement is signed between the owner and the Council, whereby the owner in return for the loan agrees to accept a nominated applicant drawn from the Council Housing Register list. The tenant is given an assured short-hold tenancy by the landlord but the rent is received by the Council to pay back the loan and recycled into the pot of money available for lending. However, to date, only loans of £80,000 out of £100,000 available has been given for four properties.

Monitoring

The Council has set targets for the annual number of empty homes brought back into use and will continue to use Best Value Performance Indicator 64 despite its deletion from compulsory reporting - although there is some concern that the removal of this indicator as a statutory duty to report could lead to a further reduction in priority of empty homes work by the Council.

Compulsory powers

The Council has never served a CPO on an empty private property but has served one Empty Dwelling Management Order ( EDMO). The property concerned had been empty for over 5 years and was causing neighbours concern about the risk of fire and burglary. It was a relatively modern mid-terrace house located in an area of housing need and supply shortage. The property was in-fact in reasonable condition other than needing re-decoration. The process of obtaining approval for an Interim EDMO from the Regional Property Tribunal Service and then a Final EDMO (approved by the Council) was very time consuming for housing and legal officers. Once taken over, the Council entered in to an agreement with a private sector letting agent (less expensive than a local RSL) to manage the property and let it to someone in housing need. The record of the Interim Order Tribunal hearing can be found at: http://www.rpts.gov.uk/Files/2007/February/100009I9.pdf].

Case Study 6: Hounslow Borough Council

Extent of the empty homes problem

The Council is part of the West London Housing Partnership. Although overall the number of empty properties in Hounslow is relatively low, (462 properties claiming vacant homes council tax discount being empty over 6 months and forming 2% of private sector stock) the Council has a designated officer for empty dwelling enforcement. The fact it has an admittedly small problem relative to neighbouring boroughs has not however meant inaction.

Outcomes and targets

There is no specific EH Strategy but a section of the Homelessness Strategy 2003-2008 addressed the issues faced with recommendations. Against a target of 50 houses to be brought back into use, Hounslow has a programme of 70 empty homes being dealt with at present. It has a lead-in time of approximate 3 months whilst it uses tracing agents to find owners and, once located, writes to owners a series of escalating letters. Properties that are brought back into use through the offer of grant and those where the owner decides to sell during the enforcement process are included in the list of successful projects.

Locating properties

Properties are identified from the Council Tax Register and from reports from members of the public. Other LA officers will also identify properties and report them to the EHO. Most properties dealt with are those where original owners have died and a seven to eight year period ensues where attempts are made to trace relatives.

Support

The Empty Homes Officer has links with the West London Partnership that has arranged a number of seminars on empty homes including a seminar on serving CPOs led by an Officer from Great Yarmouth who has a specialist team that will provide a CPO service for other local authorities (for £1500).

CPOs, EDMOs and other enforcement action

Hounslow has completed one final EDMO and found the property cost them £93,000 to bring back into use. This was seen to be just about acceptable as they paid themselves £15,000 renovation grant and will recover the remainder at a monthly rental of £1100 over the following 7 years. A further three interim EDMOs have been served and one is in the pipeline. At least one of these is likely to be withdrawn as the owner appears to have been prompted to take the required action on their own account.

Other powers that are used include:

  • S29 Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982: powers to make houses safe through boarding up.
  • S135 Housing Act 2004 powers to board-up houses. This power is used where squatters have taken possession of the house. The reason for taking this action is that even a day's illegal occupation of a property can void the 6 month period that the property needs to lie empty before an EDMO can be served.

Case Study 7: Islington Borough Council

Overview

Islington Borough Council is a borough with a mix of great affluence and poverty and (at the time of the fieldwork) with a buoyant housing market. While not having a major problem with empty private homes, the Council is a member of the North London Sub-Region Working Party on Empty Homes and its partnership with six borough councils in the sub-region is important to its strategic planning and delivery work on empty private homes.

Strategy

The Council has a fully developed Empty Homes Strategy (2007-2010). It focuses on three Action Plans with a three year delivery timeframe. The Strategy's main delivery priority is intervention on medium term (over 6 months) and long term (over 2 years) empty properties and includes developing and improving the empty property database, establishing a clear strategic framework for tackling empty properties and developing methods of returning empty properties into use.

Partnership working

Islington's own Empty Homes Strategy ( EHS) fits in to the North London Sub Regional Empty Property Strategy (see case study 4 below) and is also closely linked to the Council's Private Housing Strategy. Islington has its own Empty Property Officer working within a small team. At Sub-Regional level, there is a team of three specialists who:

  • Promote good practice amongst the partnership Councils.
  • Develop consistent procedural approaches to issues ( e.g. on using CPO powers).
  • Share information.
  • Instigate new approaches to working.
  • Carry out some individual case-related work at council level.

A link to the Metropolitan Police gives the Council monthly information on properties subject to police Closure Orders due to drugs raids. The Council takes early intervention, boarding up properties and approaching owners with a view to properties being sold or brought into lawful occupancy.

Inter-departmental working and accountability

Inter-departmental working is seen as essential for effective empty homes work. Five main services are engaged: Private Sector Partnerships (collecting data and working with landlords); Residential Environmental Health (grant and enforcement powers); Council Tax administration; Planning (for applications for conversion and upgrading) and Legal Services (instituting legal action to bring long-term empty properties into use). Accountability and monitoring of Islington's EHS is by quarterly meetings of a cross-departmental Private Sector Strategy Group of senior officers. Progress on delivery of the Strategy's Action Plans is reported to the Council's Corporate Management Board and annually to the Executive Board and the Landlord Forum.

Data collection

To improve its database on empty private homes (one of its three Action Plans), verification visits are made to properties identified from the Council Tax Register, which is recognised as not fully accurate. In addition, two annual street surveys are carried out to monitor the progress of every private property empty over six months on the Council Tax list. Information on empty properties is fed to the Empty Property Officer from environmental health stock condition surveys, the Sub-region's empty property "hot-line", and the empty property mail box. The Council advertises periodically in local newspapers and takes part in the National Empty Homes Agency led annual week of action on empty private homes. The Land Registry is used to identify missing ownership and Companies House records allow names and addresses of directors to be traced .

Schemes to help owners

There has been a grant budget of £350,000 per annum for empty private properties. Owners of empty private homes can receive grant aid (administered by Residential Environmental Health services) to bring their property back into use. Conditions attach to such grants e.g. the owner has to agree to improve the property and put it up for sale or lease as social accommodation managed by a local RSL. It is not anticipated grant aid will stop and be replaced by loans

Three initiatives, either supported by, or run by Islington Council, address rent affordability by providing accommodation for tenants eligible for housing benefit or who are technically homeless:

  • A Council-run Rent Deposit Scheme gives the landlord a deposit when the property is let.
  • A Housing Association Leasing Scheme under which an empty home is leased and managed by a housing association and
  • A Private Sector Leasing Scheme under the management of a private property company.

There are also mechanisms to support owners without the skills or know-how to bring their empty property back into use. Under a contract with an RSL, owners can pay for an improvement service. For an owner wishing to sell, the Council can assist by advertising the property through its web-marketing tool. The Council can also offer to act as an intermediary to sell the property to low-paid or key workers or alternatively, it can "place" the owner with an RSL who may purchase the empty property on behalf of the Council.

The Council has not, to date, used Empty Dwelling Management Orders ( EDMOs) but is moving forward with a Compulsory Purchase Order ( CPO) programme on the most difficult empty property cases.

Case Study 8: North London Empty Property Initiative

Importance of partnership working

The North London Empty Property Initiative is a joint partnership involving a six council consortium (Barnet, Camden, Enfield, Haringey, Islington and Westminster) the aim of which is to reduce the number of long-term empty private properties in North London. At the sub-regional level, the Initiative has helped the Councils take a more strategic and targeted approach to their empty properties and assisted them in developing a robust enforcement strategy. It has provided training for Empty Property Officers ( EPOs) and developed Compulsory Purchase Order ( CPO) procedures. It also distributes the grant allocation from the London Government to the Councils. The formation of the Initiative was essentially financially driven - the councils were already working on empty homes but in 2004 the London Government bidding round for empty homes funding was only open for consortia bids. The 6 councils submitted a joint bid and were successful. A new bidding round for 2009-11 allows Councils to bid separately but the six in North London have agreed to continue joint bids.

Affordability

A condition of funding from the London Government is that an owner of a home, empty for 6 months or longer, who receives local Council grant to bring it into use must give the Council nomination rights and let the property for at least 12 months. Thereafter, if the property becomes unoccupied for over 6 months the grant must be repaid in full.

Incentives and enforcement: a changing balance

The original philosophy behind the Initiative was that the Councils provided as much support to owners as possible using as many means as possible ranging from advertising; a grant programme; partnership with RSLs to provide an improvement service to owners; to the use of compulsory powers and enforcement notices (as a last resort). However, while the commitment to providing affordable rented housing from empty properties has been successful in the past, it is proving more difficult to sustain by supportive measures and incentives only. Consequently, there has been a shift to a more explicit enforcement approach with the owners of empty properties who have been resistant to accepting support such as grant-aid linked to nomination rights. Also, with the high costs on upgrading in London, the £17,000 per unit grant, generally leaves a large contribution to be met by the owner. This growing reluctance of owners to engage with the Councils to accept grant-aid in return for nomination rights has been recognised in the 2009-11 funding round and is contributing to the acceptance that enforcement powers will become increasingly necessary.

To date, one Council has used an Interim Empty Dwelling Management Order, but at sub-regional level, no particular advantage is seen to using EDMOs over CPOs which are becoming more actively taken-up by the councils.

Data collection methods

While the Sub-Regional level co-ordinates the overall profile of numbers of empty private properties across the Councils, the main property data work is carried out by each Council and to help to identify "hot spots" for early intervention.

Communication methods

Apart from Council Tax records and surveys, a variety of approaches are used by the consortia Councils to identify empty properties and advise owners of the support available to return their properties into use:

  • A free phone hot-line for the public to notify councils of empty private properties.
  • Advertising campaigns ( e.g. on buses, advertising boards).
  • A website for access to information on empty homes and a data box for reporting a possible empty property that an EPO can then follow-up.
  • Presentations at local landlord forums.
  • Distribution of an Empty Property Owner's newsletter.
  • Participation in the national Empty Homes Agency's annual "week of action" on empty homes.

Links with RSLs

While there is not a significant link between empty homes work and RSLs, two initiatives have been established:

  • A contract has been agreed with Touchstone HA and four of the six Councils for it to manage any future EDMO properties that come on-stream as the Councils move more determinedly to an enforcement approach.
  • There is also a sub-regional level contract with Pathmeads HA that will offer owners of empty properties an improvement service to help them bring their properties into use by providing help with tenders, contractors, inspecting, etc. In return, the RSL charge a management fee and are given nomination rights.

Conclusions

Issues for councils considering joint partnership working on empty private homes:

  • Flexibility: Accept at the outset that "one size does not fit all" and that the more proactive councils should take the lead in initiative work but ensure that other members have the opportunity to learn and develop.
  • Personnel: Fund the cost of a shared officer who can ensure all members receive benefits: gain training and share good practice.
  • Costs: a consortium or partnership approach needs money to support its development, and
  • Benefits: Cost savings from joint commissioning can be achieved e.g. for property surveys and advertising campaigns.

Case Study 9: Kent County Council - 'No Use Empty' Initiative

Background

The Initiative " No Use Empty" was launched in 2005 as a partnership between Kent County Council ( KCC) and 4 District Councils in response to the problem of empty housing in East Kent. KCC estimated the County had around 6000 properties empty on a long-term basis. The primary aim of the Initiative was to improve the physical urban environment in East Kent by bringing empty properties back into use as quality housing accommodation. Subsequent to the initial success of the initiative, KCC teamed up with five neighbouring councils to expand the No Use Empty campaign - the Kent Empty Property Initiative - as a close partnership across all of Kent. A target was set to return 372 empty properties to use over three years. In fact the initiative has achieved 487 long-term empty properties brought back into use during the term of the scheme and it is anticipated it will achieve 600 by the end of the current year (2007-08)

External support

As well as the 5 main councils the initiative has been supported by:

  • The Empty Homes Agency which has provided support and research.
  • Capital Projects Consultants - to provide professional and technical expertise particularly regarding enforcement and training.
  • Tamesis - a PR and media relations company to raise and promote the profile for the Initiative.

Establishing the joint initiative

Prior to the launch of the Initiative, research was undertaken to:

  • Identify the location of the empty properties.
  • Establish their condition and likely costs for refurbishment.
  • Identify the full range of options available (in conjunction with the Empty Homes Agency) and
  • Establish what help and assistance would encourage owners to bring their properties back into use.

From this research, the Initiative developed a project plan focusing on:

  • An empty homes awareness campaign to be targeted at owners.
  • The development of an information resource for owners, residents, and any one else with an interest in empty properties. This led to the creation of the No Use Empty web site www.no-use-empty.org, and the production of regular newsletters.
  • Financial support to encourage owners to refurbish and bring their properties back into use.
  • Training on the enforcement options for empty property officers and other appropriate council staff involved in this work e.g. solicitors, planners.

Training

The consultant (an Environmental Health professional) employed by KCC has two main supportive roles:

  • To train the various Kent authorities' Empty Properties Officers on the use of the wide-ranging legislation to improve corporate working. In addition, a training input has been provided by the National Empty Homes Agency and other specialists.
  • To accompany officers to vacant properties and guide them through the range of enforcement options or otherwise, and to mentor them through the procedures from service of notice through to the enforced sale of the property. The aim is that each officer should go through all methods and procedures from start to finish, so that they build up their knowledge and ability, while developing their procedures and paperwork to support future action.

Financial support to owners

The Initiative uses its capital funding in 3 ways to encourage the re-use of empty properties:

  • A Loan scheme - loans are available to help owners/developers to refurbish/convert empty homes or redundant commercial buildings to provide good quality residential accommodation. On completion properties must be made available for sale or rent. The loan fund is operated as a revolving fund, so that as loans are repaid, the money is re-lent to support new schemes.
  • The partnership fund - funding available to help the District Councils undertake enforcement where necessary e.g.CPOs.
  • A direct purchase scheme - acquisition of empty properties by KCC for redevelopment into good quality housing accommodation

Action against individual properties

It is seen as important to understand the reasons why owners have left their property empty for a long time and to help each to bring it up to a reasonable standard. The approach is negotiation and encouragement first, not enforcement, as that is seen as counter-productive and too costly an approach. However, there is an increasing scale of intervention:

  • Letter 1 polite - offering assistance, guidance, interest free loans and a note on the effects of empty homes.
  • Letter 2 - firmer but polite, reiterating the offers but mentioning that the Council has powers to deal with empty homes.
  • Letter 3 - usually requiring access to the property with a view to giving guidance and offering an interest free loan.
  • Power of Entry - the next step, stating that if access is not provided at a set time and date, a warrant to enter property will be obtained.
  • Attending the property - if there is still no access, a warrant will be obtained, entry forced and locks changed.
  • Inform owner that access was obtained to the property and, if the owner wants the keys, he/she has to attend the office with passport and ID. (Obtaining entry by legal force has been found to "seriously concentrate the mind of the owner").

Affordable housing

The objective of No Use Empty Initiative is to raise awareness of the issue of empty housing, the problems it causes to local communities and to help bring them back into use. However, there are a number of properties that have required an enforced sale of the property to an RSL partner to bring the property up to the decent homes standard, incorporate security by design, water and energy saving measures. Such units have often been used as shared ownership or let at affordable rents.

Empty Dwelling Management Orders ( EDMOs) and Compulsory Purchase Orders ( CPOs)

An EDMO deals with properties that remain empty perhaps being "sat on" for capital growth. It allows the Council to encourage such owners to rent their properties out. The Council can require works to put them into a lettable condition, which goes much further than other legislation. Any charge created can be recovered using the enforced sale procedure. However it has downsides: an EDMO is seen to have rather a bureaucratic set of procedures; it is not possible to register a charge with the District Land Registry while the EDMO is running; an EDMO property has to be let at market rent, and management arrangements have to be made. The Initiative has, at the time of fieldwork, one CPO in the pipeline. CPO use been threatened on four occasions but owners have been encouraged to sell to a suitable developer, so saving the initiative having to proceed with the CPO. The aim is to 'pressure' owners into talking to the council about carrying out the works needed to get the property occupied rather than to necessarily proceed with the CPO case. However, where it has been threatened, it is not an empty threat and the district council will proceed if discussions are not fruitful.

Case Study 10: Devon Empty Homes Partnership

Joint Commissioning

Exeter's Empty Homes Service was initially established as a partnership between the Exeter City Council and two local RSLs in May 1996. The two associations funded the part-time Empty Homes Officer salary costs while the Council bore the overhead costs. Successes in the first year of operation attracted a further RSL to join the partnership and allowed the employment of a part-time Empty Homes Assistant from November 1997.

In 1999, partnership was put on a more formal and solid long-term footing by involving additional RSLs on an equal funding basis (another 2 RSLs joined) and by operating under a formal Joint Commissioning Protocol agreed with the Housing Corporation. Since then, three more RSLs and three local authorities have joined what is now known as the Empty Homes Partnership.

Features of the partnership

  • Joint funding from the Housing Corporation and the City Council created an "opportunity pot" ( i.e. not scheme specific) which allowed opportunities to be taken as they arose: this was fundamental to the success of the Living-Over-The-Shop Initiative by facilitating partnership ventures with commercial developers which were not constrained by normal Social Housing Grant bidding cycles. (The "opportunity pot" has now gone as the Housing Corporation focus has moved to supporting s106 agreements and moved to an "open market engagement" system of bidding rounds).
  • Detailed procedures were developed for opportunity-sharing.
  • Regular Steering Committee meetings and monthly RSL capital spend review meetings brought the partners together to discuss joint bids, operational matters and strategic direction. Other departments such as Planning and Environmental Health were also regularly involved.
  • Basing all staff in one office allowed for better supervision and reduced costs.

Successes

Since 1996 the initiative has been responsible for:

  • Giving advice and lettings guides to private owners with empty property.
  • Leasing 116 units for temporary accommodation for homeless families under the Council's Private Sector Leasing Scheme.
  • Award-winning conversion schemes such as Topsham First School, Concord House and Jubilee Court which have provided affordable accommodation for many local people in housing need.
  • Bringing back over 500 empty properties into use.
  • Establishing and hosting the South West Empty Homes Forum.
  • Establishing a lettings agency ( ExtraLet) to work with private landlords to utilise their properties for homeless prevention.

Implementation

Two of the Council Partners (East Devon District Council and Mid Devon District Council) have opted for the partnership post to be 2 days a week at a cost per day of £166. The officer provides the service to organise twice yearly South West Empty Homes Forums, arrange twice yearly Empty Homes Partnership Meetings, agendas, minutes etc. and provides research facilities for procuring "off the shelf" properties and possible development sites for the RSLs. The Empty Homes Officer works to each LA's priorities which is generally to deal with Private Sector Leasing Scheme first of all and then to deal with Empty Homes.

Conversions

A number of larger conversion schemes have been targeted - disused schools and college buildings, office blocks, properties over shops and an under-used church. Key features for success for these conversions include:

  • The "opportunity pot".
  • Working with the same developer on a number of properties.
  • Redevelopment of the whole building but retaining retail (and church) use on ground floors.
  • Seeking larger schemes.

Cost per unit of these schemes ranged from under £2,000 to £58,000 with lease periods to 73 years.

The Council operates two leasing schemes targeted at different client groups and a number of the empty properties are targeted towards these schemes for letting.

Data collection

Mid Devon has tried using the Council Tax ( CT) register to look at empty properties but has found a number of logistical problems. Due to data protection issues, CT departments have only been allowed to give out the addresses and name of the "liable person" of those properties that have been empty and unfurnished for over 6 months. One of the issues is that unfit properties are not recorded as being empties. These properties are the most expensive and difficult to bring back into use and tend to be houses which are empty because of changing family circumstances, e.g. following a death. Letters are sent out to owners of empty homes on the council tax register but there is often a poor response. Many of the properties on the list are also transitory, either waiting to be sold, let, refurbished or for planning approvals. Reports from members of the public are found to be a better source of data. The Partnership would like to undertake more preventative work but tends not to have time for it.


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