Memorandum by Paul Palmer Esq (EMP 35)
I have been a dedicated full time Empty Property
Practitioner for five years.
I worked at the London Borough of Newham as
their first ever empty property officer for two and a half years.
I wrote and implemented their first strategy and brought over
200 properties back into use.
I was privileged to win a national award from
the Empty Homes Agency for my work.I then left Newham to work
at the Empty Homes Agency as local authority executive, training
empty property officers and local authorities all over the country.
I also currently serve as the secretary of the National Association
of Empty Property Practitioners, and chair of the Central London
empty property officers group. I have also acted as a consultant
to the Greater London Authority on its London Empty Property Strategy,
the DTLR, and several private sector bodies. I am currently the
Empty Property Officer for the City of Westminster.
My experience of seeing empty properties around
the country has helped me to see all the factors and issues surrounding
I saw for myself the effect of empty homes in
places like Coventry and Newcastle.
Areas that were once vibrant and prosperous,
not necessarily in a material sense, but rich in community spirit,
are now wastelands, barren areas with just a few die hards, scared
for their safety.
In the South, the issues are different. Areas
such as Epsom and other affluent areas in the south east, seldom
admit to a problem, but they do have empty property.
It is important to note that ALL authorities
have empty property. Some due to low demand, some due to deprivation
and some due to natural causes such as deceased owner-occupiers
with no family.
However, in the south the issues range from
inner London authorities such as Newham, Hackney and Tower Hamlets
who have large numbers of empty property along with a huge need
for more, to areas such as Horsham, with relatively few empty
properties and little demand.
All these areas face the same issue of blight,
nuisance and the eyesore of visual pollution that such empties
I have experienced at first hand the despair
of neighbours whose homes suffer terribly due to the empty property
next door or nearby. Rodent infestation, damp, arson, squatting,
vandalism, drug dealing and taking, all stem from such properties,
leaving surrounding residents powerless when these properties
are in the private sector.
There is evidence that the fire brigades and
Police forces are concerned about empty property, having to attend
to properties that are the subject of arson or crime.
In Newham, I met with senior offices who explained
that they often boarded empty property at their own expense, with
no prospect of reclaiming the expense. We set up a referral service,
whereby officers from stations across the borough could report
empty properties to me and I would work to bring it back into
use, thus removing the problem.
There are huge financial implications of empty
property. I once calculated that some 50 billion pounds is wiped
off the capital value of property in this country. This was based
on the RICS, (Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors); report
that states that empty property devalues neighbouring property
by 10 per cent. If you take the recent average price of property
in the country as £117,000, this would be £17,000. Times
this by the number of long term empties only, the worst ones,
which is 250,000 and you have = a lot of money!
Added to which is the loss of council tax revenue
approx. £50,000,000 and it is easy to see the financial losses.
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, and keyworkers,
removal of eyesores and crime risks,
increase in Council Tax receipts
removal of potential fraud, by owners
claiming discount on occupied property,
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.
Why left empty?
The question as to why homes are left empty
is difficult to answer considering the value that most properties
attract. However, they fall into the following areas:
large estates such as Freshwater,
who seem to have such vast estates that leaving a few empty is
of no concern to them,
small time landlords who buy speculatively
but who do not have the resources or knowledge to finish the scheme,
properties that have fallen out of
ownership due to the death of the owner.
The effectiveness of the measures brought about
by the 2001 budget is a little early to comment on. However, we
have yet to see large scale publicising of them. Also, builders
and developers have access to this information from their own
sources, and will not always be working with the empty property
officer. There is a need for Central Government through the DTLR
to publicise the role of empty property officers in a larger way.
This could be done by supporting the National Association of Empty
Property Practitioners. It is hoped that the results will be seen
for themselves in an overall reduction in the figures of long-term
empties over the next few years.
It is pleasing to note that the criterion for
claiming the reduction in VAT includes evidence from the local
empty property officer. This gives increased recognition to the
important role that these officers have, recognition that is often
overlooked by many authorities.
It is my view that it should be a statutory
duty for authorities to produce a strategy, but also that the
strategy should be implemented.
Anyone can produce a strategy and tick a box
stating so, however, putting it into action is another matter.
This will mean that targets will have to be
set nationally by the DTLR and authorities that do not perform
need to be penalised. Obviously these targets will need to be
set locally, as the issue varies in size and nature across the
Epsom for example, does not have the same problems
as does the L.B Hackney, but it does have empty property, therefore
strategies need to be strategically focussed to address local
issues and local solutions.
This will mean that authorities cannot just
produce a strategy by cut and pasting from other authorities,
they will have to do some research locally. This heightens the
case for a dedicated officer, although some authorities would
be hard pressed to justify a full time officer.
I would 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
However, I would like this power to be discretionary,
allowing flexibility when determining which properties to target.
For example, one wouldn't 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.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks to empty
property work, is the restriction on councils sharing information,
particularly council tax records.
The Council Tax department of most local authorities
has information regarding the ownership of every empty property
in their area. However, they are unable to share this information
due to data protection laws.
There is some dispute, as to whether the restriction
comes about because of Data Protection issues, or the Local Government
Finance Act, which restricts the use of Council Tax Data for anything
other than Council Tax collection.
Most Council Tax departments 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 ridiculous 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".
Compulsory Purchase Orders. (CPO's)
CPO's 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:
quality of life for local residents
and people who work and visit in the area;
perception of the work carried out
by local authorities.
In my 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, I 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 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.
I believe that, in general terms, the existing
procedures relating to CPO's work well. However, I 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 CPO's
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.
As well as tackling the complex procedures it
is considered that if the use of CPO's is to make a significant
contribution to the overall success of empty property strategies
on a nationwide basis the following issues need to be addressed:
CPO's have long been perceived in a negative
light and this has fuelled reluctance amongst local authorities
to use them. CPO's need to be projected in a far more positive
way, particularly highlighting the major contribution they can
make to the overall success of Empty Property and regeneration
There is a common misconception amongst local
authorities that CPO's are costly and cannot be accommodated within
capital expenditure programmes. The special funding rules that
apply to CPO's, which ensure this is not the case, need to be
spelled out in clear terms.
Many local authorities have, at best, only limited
knowledge of CPO procedures and practice. If, as in Westminster,
CPO's are seen as an essential complement to a successful empty
property strategy, it is imperative that training programmes are
put in place so that relevant staff can develop understanding
and experience in this specialist function which involves a long
there should be increased recognition
of the work of empty property practitioners;
it should be a statutory duty to
have an empty property strategy;
authorities should have discretionary
power to charge full/punitive Council Tax;
the issue of data sharing must be
CPO's must be streamlined.
As a practitioner with several years experience
in this field, I welcome the heightened prominence the issue has
received recently, and welcome the select committees involvement.
I applaud the efforts of the Empty Homes agency
who have worked hard to get us to this stage, and look forward
to the National Association of Empty Property Practitioners taking
up this role in the future.
I hope that recommendations made by the committee
will be implemented and that this will facilitate the necessary
changes to enable the reduction of empty, wasted homes in this
Empty Property Practitioner