Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by The National Association of Empty Property Practitioners (EMP 22)


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this evidence are those of individual practitioners and not necessarily those of employing organisations.


  The National Association of Empty Property Practitioner (NAEPP) was set up in May 2001 with the support of the then housing minister, Nick Raynsford. Enjoying administrative support from and chaired by The Empty Homes Agency, NAEPP has also received funding from The Housing Corporation in the form of a good practice and innovation grant and endorsement from DTLR. It is a national body set up by local authority empty property practitioners for empty property practitioners to provide support and training in a field that is often afforded little funding and priority. Empty property practitioners are located not only in housing but also Environmental Health and Planning departments. An effective network, therefore is crucial for dissemination of good practice and joined up thinking. NAEPP welcomes this detailed inquiry into empty homes as a much needed exercise in coordination.


  There are many reasons why empty properties are left. Lack of funds; unfinished projects; properties left after the owner had died intestate; land-banking by private investors and sometimes just plain laziness. As mentioned before large areas are becoming empty due to lack of investment and a decline in the services provided. Forward thinking is needed if demolition and rebuild is to be curtailed on a vast scale.


Low Demand

  The issue of empty homes has a different aspect in the North compared to the South. Local authorities in the North suffer from the problem of low demand. Streets of empty properties stand empty as investment and faith in the community has receded resulting in an intolerable level of crime and property decay. These areas are—as a last result—being targeted for clearance and then rebuild providing opportunity for critics to question whether this is prudent use of public funds.

Possible solution:

    —  A national empty property strategy—although not a definitive solution in isolation—would provide a national overview and focus for investment targeting.

    —  Homesteading is an opportunity for communities to be rebuilt. Government support would ensure that funding and investment is afforded to these schemes providing employment, education and transport infrastructures.

    —  Some LAs when determining their district/borough plan are still not taking filled empties into consideration. This results in over-estimation by planners of the amount of new housing needed. The imposition of a statutory duty to adopt an effective empty property strategy at local level would help to alleviate this.

Redundant Commercial Property

  There is a vast amount of empty and redundant commercial property across England that could be converted to provide residential accommodation. This would then mean that local authorities would be pro-active in developing policy to ensure viability and regeneration of "office" areas in their area instead of reactive when commercial buildings stand empty due to a lack of forethought and planning.

Possible solutions:

    —  For Government to insist that renewal strategies and regeneration policies take into account areas with increasing numbers of commercial properties with a view to converting to residential whilst also having regard to the growth of industry/office space in other parts of the town, which would then replace these.

    —  For government to issue central guidance to planners to ensure they enable residential conversions of commercial properties to be afforded priority where appropriate.


Council tax data sharing

  The Council Tax department of most local authorities has information regarding the ownership of every empty property in their area. Currently confusion exists over whether that data can be shared between departments. Data collected by the Council Tax department is governed by the Local Government and Finance Act 1992 for the sole purpose of council tax collection. This has been interpreted to mean that it cannot be passed to the empty property practitioner to identify empty properties within their area. However some Council Tax departments do pass the data across to ensure joined up thinking and the facilitation of delivery of their empty property strategy.

  Some Council Tax departments also take the view that sharing information regarding ownership details would be a breach of the Data Protection Act, and not the Local Government Act. Indeed, it is the view of many that section 111 of the 1972 Act, and sections 2 and 3 of the 2000 Act DO give powers to the authority to share such information.

  Whatever the reason, it is an anomaly that must be addressed. It is not good practice that two internal departments of the same council cannot share information when the common aim is the improvement of council services to the public. It is not good for "joined up government".

Possible solutions:

    —  For Government to issue central guidance on the subject thus clarifying the position nationwide.

    —  For Government to set up a dialogue with the Information Commissioner to ensure that every possible tool is used to circumvent the Data Protection restrictions. The intention of the Data Protection Act 1982 was to protect individuals from unsolicited mail and dubious marketing. Its intention was not to thwart the duty of the local authority. As local authorities are creatures of statute clear guidance and possibly secondary legislation is needed to resolve the situation.

Complicated compulsory purchase procedure

  CPOs can bring about a change of ownership to properties where landlords have proved unwilling or unable to bring empty housing accommodation into residential use to new owners willing and able to do so. As well as the qualitative and/or quantitative housing gain that this achieves, the transformation of badly managed, often visually offensive empty properties to improved permanent homes for residential use has a marked impact on:

    —  the local environment;

    —  quality of life for local residents and people who work and visit in the area; and

    —  perception of the work carried out by local authorities.

  In our view the use and threatened use of CPO's must be closely aligned to, and form an integral part of, any Empty Property Strategy. Therefore, we strongly advocate that when local authorities adopt or review empty property strategies they should make it clear that the use of CPO's will form an important part of that strategy and will be vigorously pursued where appropriate. The CPO policy should be well publicised so that owners of long-term empty properties are fully aware of the consequences if they fail to return bring properties into residential use by voluntary means.

  If an effective and robust CPO policy does not exist it is inevitable that some owners will ignore a local authority's attempts to encourage and persuade them to bring their property into residential use with impunity, safe in the knowledge that no further action will be taken. This is unfair to owners who do bring their empty properties into use voluntarily. The absence of a CPO policy will also ultimately bring the empty property strategy as a whole into disrepute, because it will be seen to not deal effectively with the worst abuses.

  We believe that, in general terms, the existing procedures relating to CPO's work well. However, we share the Government's view that the laws and procedures are unwieldy and complex and that this has led to a situation where the vast majority of local authorities have little or no expertise or experience of Cops and are therefore reluctant to use them. The current review designed to streamline and simplify the procedures and make them easier to understand and implement is therefore welcomed.

  We would welcome legislation that made CPOs more streamlined, and offer the following suggestions.

Possible solutions:

    —  For Government to apply the "VAT ten years empty" rule to empty properties. The intention of English Land Law is that—as land is a very limited commodity—no land should be landlocked or barred from use. Owners who leave their properties empty are in effect "land-locking" that land and go against the very intention of our land law system. Las should have full Government support then to compulsorily purchase a property left empty for such a length of time with no opportunity for the owner to "rescue" it at the last moment.

    —  For Government to afford Las the power to acquire properties for an appropriate time to be able to effect repairs with viability and them to let the property to those in housing need for a period of say 15 years. Ownership at the end of this time would be passed back to the freeholder.

    —  For Government to issue clear guidance on the subject of funding CPOs as it still remains shrouded in a good deal of mystery and confusion.

Lack of statutory duty to produce an empty homes strategy

  It is our view that every local authority should have a statutory duty to produce and implement an effective strategy to tackle empty homes in their area. The majority of empty property work is currently handled by officers as just part of their already heavy workload. NAEPP believes that this full-time post—in some areas—needs to be dealt with by a dedicated empty homes officer.

Possible solutions:

    —  For Government to impose a statutory duty upon LAs to produce a working strategy tailor-made to their area.

    —  For Government to issue annual targets for each local area thus ensuring that one authority does not simply "cut and paste" a neighbouring strategy on to their own but instead carries out detailed research of their area. This research would include not only housing need but also regeneration issues and shifting industry/office accommodation patterns.

—  For Government to issue recommendations to LAs to employ a dedicated officer to empty homes work with a consideration for the most effective delivery. Considering the difficulties faced in sharing council tax data that might include exploring the possibility of locating the EPP with the Council Tax department.

Lack of training/joined up thinking

  Most local authorities are unaware of the full extent of empty property work and consequently recruit officers to the task without providing training other than to join a regional forum and thus enjoy networking. The empty property practitioner has to play detective to determine empties and how to bring them back into use. A definitive list of empties is needed in England and that can only happen if access to information is facilitated.

Possible solutions:

    —  For government to issue guidance to utility providers and postal services advising on the ability under Data Protection Act 1992 to provide LA EPPs with a list of empty properties no longer receiving gas and/or electricity.

    —  For government to issue guidance to police and fire services asking them to advise Las of the importance of advising them of empty properties in their areas particularly to stem vandalism/nuisance and to reduce the possibility of further crime and arson.

    —  For Government to fully support the work of NAEPP in providing national network and training opportunities for EPPs.



  The benefits of bringing empty property back into use are numerous. In many authorities they include; provision of much needed temporary and permanent accommodation for homeless families, removal of eyesores and crime risks, increase in Council Tax receipts and the removal of potential fraud. In areas of low demand, it is important to address the issue so as to stop the cycle of decline, as confidence is lost in communities whose heart is ripped out by large-scale demolition and abandonment.

  The financial implications of keeping property empty are staggering. The average house price in England is £113,000 (Proviser 2000-01). If we allow a lower value of £85,000 (75 per cent) as a large proportion of empty property is in areas of low demand and combine that with the number of empties currently stand is at 762,600 devaluing both neighbouring properties by 10 per cent then that shows that empty property wipes £13 billion off the property market in England.

  This is in addition to lost Council Tax revenue. We would therefore also welcome legislation that allows authorities to charge full council tax on long-term empty property. This would remove the perverse incentive that owners now currently enjoy to keep property empty as they receive a discount for keeping property empty. However, it is vital that this power should be discretionary, allowing flexibility when determining which properties to target. For example, one would not want to be punishing an owner who legitimately faces difficulty in bringing property back into use. However, one would want to punish an owner who clearly has the means, but refuses to co-operate. Being able to impose the full charge, or even a punitive charge of 150 per cent, would give the empty property officer more power, and would act as a further stick, which we could use to force action from the owner.

Rosie May



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Prepared 24 October 2001