Memorandum by The Countryside Agency (EMP
The Countryside Agency is the Government's statutory
body working for people and places in rural England. Our objectives
are to: conserve and enhance the countryside; promote social equity
and economic opportunity for the people who live there; and to
help everyone wherever they live, to enjoy this national asset.
We recognise that bringing empty homes back into use helps meet
a number of these objectives including improving the supply of
affordable housing, reducing development pressure on the countryside
and assisting the regeneration of market towns. We, therefore,
welcome this Inquiry and have used the questions you raised to
present our key areas of concern and put forward proposals which
would assist bringing more empty properties back into use.
The starting point for our response is that
the problems associated with empty homes is not confined to urban
areas and their regeneration. It is also important to recognise
that other empty properties, besides those in the residential
sector, can be brought back into use and, like empty homes, make
a contribution to regenerating rural communities. These points
were recognised in the Rural White Paper (paragraph 5.5) and have
been highlighted through the work of the Empty Homes Agency in
its publication "Wasted Homes: a blueprint for action".
Why are so many homes empty?
The majority of empty homes in rural areas are
owned privately by owners with only one or two properties. Typically
the owners have relocated due to work or have inherited properties
from next of kin. Owners often have little or no experience of
letting and need guidance through the letting and property management
process. Properties often require extensive renovation work for
which owners often lack resources. In rural areas popular with
tourists and of high landscape value there is a high incidence
of second homes which are vacant for large parts of the year.
Many empty properties in rural areas are on
farms. There is an estimated property holding of three cottages
per farm, many of which are in considerable disrepair. Farmers
are often reluctant to fund works or get involved in letting property.
Bringing existing buildings back into use curtails
the necessity of developing greenfield sites and so can help conserve
the countryside. Moreover, just as in urban areas, the dereliction
associated with empty properties can deter new investment and
undermine the vitality of the area affected.
Provides affordable housing
Access to a good quality affordable home is
becoming increasingly difficult for people on lower incomes in
many of England's rural communities. As well as adversely affecting
individuals and families there is a direct impact on the balance
and sustainability of rural communities. In most English rural
communities there is an absolute shortage of affordable homes
to rent or buy. In some tourist areas and those of high landscape
quality this is exacerbated by high levels of second home ownership
which reduce the availability of housing for local people.
Supports the regneration of market towns
Over recent years many market towns have gone
into decline and now require regeneration if they are to act as
effective service centres and hubs for the surrounding rural hinterland.
To assist the revitalisation of these centres the Countryside
Agency is running a Market Towns programme which includes a "health
check" which can be used to assess the strengths and weaknesses
of market towns. Communities are also encouraged to assess the
extent of derelict land and vacant buildings and identify opportunities
for "living over the shop" schemes. One indicator of
failing health is that more than 10 per cent of properties are
vacant. Reversing this trend has an important part to play in
the regeneration of market towns by offsetting identified housing
need and improving the vitality market town centres through mixed
uses, including accommodation for small businesses.
A good example of the link between the redevelopment
of empty property and the regeneration of market towns exists
in Langport which is a small historic market town between Yeovil
and Taunton. Because of significant social and economic changes
the town was in need of regeneration and environmental enhancements.
The council made a bid for English Heritage HERS (Heritage Economic
Regeneration Scheme) funding in 1999 including an element which
made better use of wasted space over shops. The bid was successful
and one of the identified properties attracted further joint funding
from the Housing Corporation and South Somerset District Council.
Although the majority of accessible rural England
continues to thrive in some areas, particularly the more remote,
there is still a strong reliance on farming and tourism. The fragility
of these economies has been amply illustrated by the impact of
Foot and Mouth disease. Making use of empty properties, including
agricultural buildings, can contribute to providing workspace
for new sources of employment.
To support this work the Countryside Agency
is working with English Heritage to foster sustainable rural regeneration
through the use of farm buildings.
The Empty Homes Agency has identified the cost
of keeping empty homes empty as £6,400 per year. This figure
takes into account that Council Tax levied on the property is
up to 50 per cent lower than an occupied property. Rural authorities
faced with the extra costs of providing services to dispersed
populations over wide geographical areas can ill afford this loss
Catalyst for community involvement
Empty properties can provide an asset base for
community development or community reinvestment trusts. Using
the income derived from bringing these properties back into use
funds can be made available to support other community regeneration
activities including, providing start up finance for micro-businesses
and supporting credit unions.
This concept has been developed and tested further
by Salford University in conjunction with the Countryside Agency
and resulted in the publication of Investing in people and
land: sowing the seeds for rural regeneration and two pilot
projects in Suffolk and North West Lancashire.
Adoption of "empty properties" in place
of "empty homes"
The current focus on "empty homes"
can detract attention away from the contribution which a range
of empty properties can make to regeneration. For example, in
market towns the numbers of empty homes above commercial premises
are few compared with the prevalence of redundant commercial space.
Often there is a complex ownership structure to commercial property
with ownership dominated by national companies even in smaller
towns. Added to these problems are owners reluctance to have any
sort of relationship, either legal or practical, with residential
occupiers. It is important that future policies and practices
include consideration of the future use of a range of empty properties
to meet social, economic environmental needs.
Empty Property Strategies
Empty property strategies should form an integral
part of local authority housing and regeneration strategies. Rural
Authorities with good empty property strategies have demonstrated
the extent to which the problem of empty properties can be turned
into a valuable resource. For instance King's Lynn and West Norfolk
Borough Council have developed a strategy that has enabled them
to bring back into use over 150 homes within two years. The key
to a successful strategy, as demonstrated by this authority and
others, such as Cotswold District Council, is centred on a joint
working approach. This means council services working together
within a corporate strategy. This should ensure that all available
information on identifying and possible uses for empty properties
can be brought together efficiently.
An important aspect of King's Lynn and West
Norfolk Borough Council's strategy is centred on developing a
wide range of initiatives with partner organisations such as RSL's,
Private Sector and Accommodation forums and Regional Empty Property
Officer Forums. These initiatives include Deposit bond schemes,
Empty property grants and Flats Over Shops.
Many of the empty agricultural dwellings are
subject to an agricultural occupancy condition. However, the decline
in agricultural employment means that in some areas there is little
demand for this type of accommodation but there is a general need
in many rural areas for affordable housing. We would favour the
type of policy being pursued in places like Exmoor National Park
which is seeking to change agricultural conditions to ones which
allow for the property to be used to meet a local housing need.
Some concern has been raised at the reluctance
of local planning authorities to support the use of agricultural
and redundant buildings for rural diversification. We see a need
for further government guidance to local planning authorities
on how they can implement the clarifications to PPG 7, introduced
following the Rural White Paper, which seek to encourage sustainable
A further incentive for owners to bring forward
empty homes would be to charge 100 per cent council tax on empty
properties which remain vacant over a number of years and where
owners are making no effort to bring them back into use or are
only letting the properties for very short periods of time. To
assist this process it would be helpful if council tax records
were able to distinguish between empty homes, second homes and
We welcome the recent reductions to VAT from
17.5 per cent to 5 per cent for all repair and refurbishment works
to properties that have been empty for three years or more. However,
while helpful, this does not go far enough. We believe that other
financial incentives should be explored to bring empty properties
back into use, especially as there remains a lack of VAT parity
between new build and refurbishment.
Improved resources to bring empty properties back
Identifying properties in rural areas particularly
is extremely time consuming. The relevant resources need to be
made available, particularly in terms of staffing, in order to
deliver an effective strategy. The Countryside Agency provide
funding towards the employment of Rural Housing Enablers some
of whom have become involved in bringing empty properties back
into use as affordable housing. They could support activity, which
engages a wider interest in increasing the use of empty properties
in rural areas, such as local authorities and the Regional Development
There are additional costs incurred in bringing
rural empty homes back into use. This is recognised in the additional
funding made available through the Housing Corporation's Rehabilitation
Grants for properties in any state of disrepair. We would support
a similar supplement for rurality being made available through
local authority Discretionary Renovation Grants.