Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 329 - 339)




  329. May I welcome you to the Committee? May I apologise that we are running a little bit late and ask you to introduce yourselves for the record?
  (Mr Murphy) I am Nick Murphy, Director from Southampton City Council.
  (Mr Gunner) I am Keith Gunner, Empty Propeerty Officer, Southampton City Council.
  (Ms Dubury) I am Vicki Dubury. I am Empty Homes Officer at Hastings Borough Council.
  (Mr Peters) I am Richard Peters, I am Head of Housing, Hasting Borough Council.

  330. Are you happy for us to go to questions or does anyone want to make a statement first?
  (Mr Murphy) May I say one sentence? In contrast to the earlier submissions I sat in on on low demand areas, Southampton is a very high demand area with excess housing demand over supply yet we still have this problem of empty properties. There does seem to be a significant difference in that many of these empty properties are dispersed rather than concentrated on estates and tend to be private sector. The solutions are different as a result and maybe that is something we shall explore through questioning.

Mrs Ellman

  331. Hastings say that public subsidy is needed to bring empty houses back into use. Could you tell us how much subsidy, if that is the case?
  (Mr Peters) We are looking at considerable shortfalls in the difference between property before improvement and afterwards. In our renewal area we have been providing grant aid to owners of private properties and that included owner-occupiers and private landlords. To give you an example, we are looking at properties which before improvements are perhaps worth somewhere around £50,000. We have had to invest grant aid of nearly £98,000 to bring the property up to a reasonable standard. After improvement the property is going to be worth in the region of £125,000. In that case you can see that there is a shortfall of £23,000 between the before and after improvement value and without the public subsidy the property would not have been brought up to a 30-year life standard.

  332. Is that a good use of public funds?
  (Mr Peters) That is an excellent question. Within the renewal area we do have a range of different property types and the one I highlighted there is perhaps at the extreme. The average grant is around £40,000 at the moment.

Mrs Dunwoody

  333. But you were asked whether that is a good use of public money.
  (Mr Peters) What I was going to come on to say was that in an area such as that we need to target some of the poorest condition properties to help bring up the rest of the area. In a small number of cases it is a legitimate use of public money. The area is partially a conservation area and there are some quite complex issues about whether one could adopt the sort of wholesale clearance proposals which we have heard about earlier on this morning.

Mrs Ellman

  334. What has happened in those properties where you spent up to £98,000? What has happened? Have people stayed in them?
  (Mr Peters) They have. This is a fairly recent scheme which has only been running for two and a half to three years. Where people get a grant from the council they are required to pay money back if they move out of the property over a five-year period. Consequently it has had an effect of stabilising the area in that people are not selling up and moving on because they would have to repay a substantial chunk of money. If you ask the question in two years' time, I may give you a different answer. At the moment it does seem to be creating some stability.

Christine Russell

  335. I note in the memorandum from Hastings that you say you have almost 3,000 empty properties in the borough, yet regional planning advice is requiring you to provide 3,250 new homes in the period up to 2006. Surely this is going to make your problems worse.
  (Mr Peters) A very good question.


  336. All our questions are good ones. It is the answers we are worried about.
  (Mr Peters) The situation needs to be unpicked a bit. The 3,000 empty properties in Hastings do include a substantial number of second homes. We have to include those for government returns. We are actually talking in terms of round about 900 second homes out of the 3,000. So they are not generally available to meet housing need in the longer term. They are generally used as holiday homes, weekend retreats and so on. We also have a substantial number of properties which are empty for relatively short period of time. That is a reflection of the turnover within the private rented market in Hastings. When we bring it back down to the core long-term empties, we are looking at a smaller number, though admittedly still quite a large number. We are looking at round about 1,000 to 1,500 of those properties. The targets for new housing in Hastings are dictated by regional and governmental targets. We are given a target which relates to the South East region and particularly Sussex and we are having to look at bringing greenfield sites into play to help meet that target. We are also arguing strongly that we should be allowed to count some of our empty homes which we are bringing back into use to help us meet that.

  337. How are you getting on with negotiating with the planners on that point? You are arguing that if you bring empty homes back into use you should knock them off the tally you are required to build for new homes. How are you getting on with that?
  (Mr Peters) We have no difficulty with our own planners within Hastings. They are very supportive of the approach and within our draft local plan, which is at deposit stage at the moment, we have a target of 320 properties included in that over the next five years. Our argument is basically that although within the planning regime it is accepted that the average number of empty properties is taken into account in terms of meeting housing need, that is a figure of around three per cent, we are not even sure in East Sussex that at the last structure plan stage that three per cent was allowed for. In Hastings we have around seven or eight per cent empty properties and we feel it is appropriate to be counting at least one or two per cent of those properties as a contribution towards meeting the target.

  338. Are East Sussex going along with that?
  (Mr Peters) We have an issue at the moment where East Sussex County Council have objected to our local plan and the inclusion of this target. They would argue that in effect we are double counting. Our argument would be that we think it is appropriate to include it in our target because we have such a high proportion of our private housing stock empty.

Mrs Ellman

  339. In the memorandum from Southampton you say that you are an area of high demand, you have an empty homes strategy, yet you keep having empty homes. What is going wrong?
  (Mr Gunner) It is an area where we could do a lot more active research. Part of the problem is that the majority, almost 50 per cent, of empty property stock in Southampton is built pre-Second World War and we can only surmise, but we feel that each property has a limited life. If it is not maintained up to standard there comes a point where it cannot be re-occupied any more. We feel that while some properties are coming in and out of occupation, once a lot of the older stock comes out of occupation it tends to stay so. That seems to be the problem but it does require more research. As far as the empty property strategy activity is concerned, as well as existing dwellings we also try to target vacant space above shops and conversions of non-residential properties into dwellings. Obviously that would not affect the unoccupied dwelling target.

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