Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Sixth Report


The size of the national problem


8. The DTLR provided us with an estimate of the number empty homes in England in April 2000.[17] Their figures show 763,900 empty homes, representing 3.6 per cent of the housing stock. Just under one third of these empty homes have been vacant for more than 12 months.[18] The vast majority are in the private sector, as the table below shows.

Local authority
Registered social landlord
Other public sector
Private sector

Source: DTLR, EMP26, Annex 1, Table 2


9. Unfortunately these figures, taken from local authority Housing Investment Programme (HIP) returns, are not very reliable. Local authorities complete their HIP returns on the basis of council tax records, empty homes reported by the public and any surveys which they may have undertaken, an approach described by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors as "unsophisticated."[19] Figures on private sector homes are particularly unlikely to be precise. As an example, the HIP definition of empty houses[20] excludes second homes but both Hastings[21] and Tower Hamlets[22] Councils explained that their reported empty homes figure included some second homes. They could not identify exactly how many; in Hastings the number was thought to be of the order of 800 out of 2,958.[23]

10. The Housing Corporation has funded a number of innovative schemes to try to improve the quality of information about the extent of the empty homes problem, for example a telephone hotline in London and a survey in Southampton in 1997. However, most authorities have not benefited from such schemes, reinforcing concerns about the quality of their data. The Housing Corporation's memorandum recognised the "need to be better informed to ensure that decisions are sound and improve rather than exacerbate the problem," and described its proposals to develop a computer-based Geographic Information System which could analyse housing information at ward level.[24]

11. The poor quality of the data on empty homes makes it difficult to ascertain how many there are. As a result, decisions on resource allocation to deal with the problem are based on inadequate information. We recommend that local authorities should improve the accuracy of data on empty homes in Housing Investment Programme returns, particularly those in private sector ownership. We also recommend that Geographic Information Systems should be developed in partnership between local authorities and the Housing Corporation, to improve information about empty homes and the wider housing market.

12. Empty property officers need information not only about the number of empty homes but also the identity and whereabouts of their owners. Their names and addresses are held by local authority council tax departments but many local authority officers are uncertain about how such data can be used. Poole Borough Council has recently obtained Counsel's opinion which suggests that it can use data held by its council tax department to tackle the problem of empty properties.[25] However, the Office of the Information Commissioner has advised that local authorities have no power to make disclosures of personal data held for council tax administration for other purposes and would be acting ultra vires if they do so.[26] The Information Commissioner wrote to the Chairman of the Committee to explain that her staff have made several attempts over the years to encourage officials at the DTLR to clarify the issue for the benefit of local authorities. The DTLR's memorandum to our inquiry, submitted in September 2001, referred to discussions between the Department, the Office of the Information Commissioner and the Empty Homes Agency, an independent housing charity, in an attempt to identify a way forward.[27] In December, the Minister told us that this matter was now being considered by the Cabinet Office which would report in 2002.[28] The Information Commissioner informed us that there has been no contact from the DTLR since last year. She added that the best way for the Government to authorise the use of council tax data for such purposes would be through the making of an Order in the case of non-personal data or through primary legislation in the case of personal data.[29]

13. There is clearly a great deal of confusion and ambiguity amongst local authorities about how council tax data can be used to address the problem of empty homes. We are amazed that the DTLR has not yet followed the sensible advice of the Information Commissioner to clarify the position on the use of Council Tax data to address the problem of empty homes with an Order for non-personal data and primary legislation for personal information, such as names and addresses.

14. There are reported to be at least 16,000 "other public sector" vacant dwellings.[30] These are owned by Government departments and agencies such as the Ministry of Defence and the National Health Service. Just over half of these are in the South East, South West, East of England and London,[31] areas of high housing need. Local authorities currently find it difficult to find out about the "other public sector" empty properties in their areas: the Greater London Authority argued that this could be addressed by Government departments and agencies being required to provide more information on their empty homes to the local authorities in whose areas the properties are located.[32] The DTLR compiles annual statistics on vacant "other public sector" stock and in 2002 will be publishing revised guidance for agencies and departments on better use of their housing stock.[33] We recommend that the revised guidance for departments and agencies on "other public sector" vacant stock require them to make an annual report on their holdings of vacant housing to each relevant local authority.


15. A certain level of vacancy is perfectly normal to allow for the time it takes to sell a house and for people to move. The vacancies associated with the normal workings of the housing market are known as 'transactional' or 'frictional' vacancies. There is little agreement about what an acceptable rate of transactional vacancy might be. The DTLR's memorandum states that these vacancies amount to approximately 2 per cent of the housing stock[34] but the Council of Mortgage Lenders' (CML) memorandum argued that, "a higher rate may be justified now to facilitate longer distance and more frequent moves."[35] Alan Wenban-Smith, an expert in regional planning, explained that a 3 per cent transactional vacancy rate would imply an average gap between occupation of about four months, based on an average annual turnover of properties of 10 per cent, which he thought was sufficient time to allow for moves.[36] This four month average would include all those people who move into their new home on the day that the previous residents left. In areas of the country where demand is high, vacancy rates are now below 3 per cent (2.6 per cent in the South East).[37] Vacancies over and above the transactional level are defined as "problematic."[38] It is the problematic vacancies which are the subject of policies and strategies to address the problem of empty homes.

The consequences of the national problem

16. The Empty Homes Agency's memorandum described the consequences of homes lying empty in all areas:

  • Crime and anti-social behaviour.

  • Pressure on existing housing stock: lack of accommodation, especially affordable accommodation, across significant areas of the country.

  • Increasing use of bed and breakfast accommodation in many areas especially London.

  • Loss of over £75 million[40] per annum in council tax revenue to local authorities from the discount given to long-term empty properties ...

  • Pressure for further greenfield housing development."[41]

The causes of the national problem

17. The causes of empty homes in areas with healthy housing markets were described by the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham:

  • Purchased vacant as investment-owner can make a profit without refurbishing and/or letting due to escalating prices.

  • Speculative purchase by owner who lacks funds to redevelop and/or skills knowledge to manage.

  • Abandonment, sometimes due to age or ill-health.

  • Ignorance of options available including grants and private finance.

  • In the case of part-occupied premises, some landlords deliberately fail to replace tenants and allow the property to fall into a state of disrepair in order to get rid of regulated tenants paying fair rents.

  • No financial penalty for keeping property empty.

  • Empty property above shops-planning restriction, unsuitable means of access, reluctant freeholders, sometimes low demand.

Southampton City Council has found that the age and condition of the property can also be a cause:

    "The underlying nature of Southampton's private housing stock of some 65,000 dwellings-where around 50 per cent were built before 1945 and one in five dwellings are either unfit or require essential repair-seems in part to be the cause."[43]

18. External factors can also play a part. Demand for housing falls dramatically with the arrival of anti-social neighbours, "You can often trace two or three individual households who can blight a whole neighbourhood by their activities."[44] This is true across the country. The evidence which we have received indicates that this problem is more concentrated and more devastating in areas with failing housing markets.[45] We have therefore dealt with the problem of anti-social behaviour in the section of the report on failing markets.

17   EMP26, Annex 1, Table 2 Back

18   EMP26, Annex 1, Table 3 Back

19   EMP55 Back

20   The HIP definition of an empty home is set out in Section A, Paragraph 6 of the Guidance Notes on the Completion of the 2001 Housing Investment Programme: Housing Strategy Statistical Appendix Back

21   EMP77 Back

22   Tower Hamlets visit note Back

23   EMP77 Back

24   EMP86 Back

25   Described in EMP55 Back

26   See the Information Commissioner's Compliance Advice on Secondary Use of Personal Data Held for the Collection and Administration of Council Tax, August 2001 Back

27   EMP26 Back

28   Qq 607-8 Back

29   EMP90 Back

30   DTLR's memorandum admits this figure "is probably an understatement," EMP26 Back

31   EMP26, Annex 1 Back

32   EMP40 Back

33   EMP26 Back

34   EMP26 Back

35   EMP57 Back

36   Q 278 Back

37   EMP26, Table 2 Back

38   EMP59 Back

39   "The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors estimates that if you live next door to a long term empty property, your property is likely to be devalued by at least 10 per cent", Council of Mortgage Lenders, EMP57 Back

40   See Qq 50-2 for a discussion about the extent to which this is a realistic estimate of the level of income being lost given the number of empty homes in low demand areas Back

41   EMP49 Back

42   EMP32 Back

43   EMP31 Back

44   Q 19 Back

45   See for example, Gateshead's memorandum, EMP13 Back

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