Memorandum by The City of Westminster
The City of Westminster has had an Empty Property
Strategy since 1995.
Using a number of methods, including a comprehensive
compulsory purchase programme, 500 units of accommodation have
been brought back into use.
However, as at 1st April 2001, according to
Council Tax figures, we still had a total number of 2,378 empty
properties, 1,610 of which had been empty six months or more.
The City Council has a dedicated full time Empty
Property Officer who previously worked at the Empty Homes Agency
as local authority executive. This role involved training empty
property officers within local authorities. The postholder currently
serves as the secretary of the National Association of Empty Property
Practitioners, chair of the Central London empty property officers
group and has also acted as a consultant to the Greater London
Authority on its London Empty Property Strategy, the DTLR, and
several private sector bodies.
The City Council also has a dedicated full time
compulsory purchase manager, who has 20 years experience of CPO'S,
and is a lead authority on compulsory purchase issues surrounding
empty homes. He has developed a strategy that responds to the
nature of the market in Westminster with large properties having
complex ownership. In the last five years the City Council, has
compulsorily purchased 45 properties, leading to 234 units of
accommodation being brought back into residential use.
We will not comment on areas outside of our
experience, such as low demand, and will speak generally around
some of the policy areas.
The experience in Westminster of the consequences
of empty homes has centred mainly on the nuisance factor. Complaints
are often received from members of the public expressing concern
that property is empty. These concerns relate to rubbish accumulation,
and the negative effect on house prices, as well as concerns about
the waste of valuable residential resources.
The benefits of bringing empty property back
into use are numerous. In Westminster, they include: provision
of much needed temporary and permanent accommodation for homeless
families; removal of eyesores and crime risks; and increase in
Council Tax receipts.
It is difficult for the City Council to obtain
property for temporary accommodation purposes, due to the exceptionally
high value of property and the higher than average rents available
to owners in the private sector.
The City Councils CPO programme has been held
up by both the DTLR and the GLA as an example of good practice.
The question as to why homes are left empty
in Westminster is difficult to answer considering the high value
of properties in the City. However, they appear to fall into the
following main areas:
large family-owned estates, who seem
to have such vast estates that leaving a few empty is of no concern
landlords who own only a small number
of properties, who buy speculatively but who do not have the resources
or knowledge to finish the scheme,
properties that have been abandoned
or which are subject to probate due to the death of the owner,
or family breakdowns/disputes.
Particularly because of the last two reasons,
there will always be a number of empty homes in Westminster, even
if proportionately, the amount is lower than in other parts of
Added to this, is the fact that owners often
have unrealistic expectations with regard to their property, feeling
that it is worth more than it really is, or can achieve higher
rents than can be reasonably expected. This is a major problem,
as owners often keep property empty either waiting for prices
to rise, or whilst they try to attract tenants at the rent level
they want. In the mean time, the property can deteriorate or be
the subject of vandalism.
Having the authority to be able to take strong
enforcement action is crucial. This is why a compulsory purchase
programme is vital to the success of our strategy.
Changes made in the 2001 Budget
It is a little early to comment upon the effectiveness
of the measures brought about by the 2001 budget. Certainly in
Westminster we have not seen a huge increase in activity due to
these measures, however, we are currently reviewing our empty
property strategy and will be looking at ways to publicise these
measure more effectively.
Also, builders and developers have access to
this information from their own sources, and will not always be
working with the empty property officer. Therefore, it will be
quite difficult for officers to quantify the effect of these policies,
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.
Requirement to publish an empty homes strategy
It is the view of this authority that it should
be a statutory duty for authorities to produce and implement a
Anyone can produce a strategy and tick a box
stating so, however, putting it into action is another matter.
The requirement to produce a strategy under
the Home Energy Conservation Act 1995 provides a good example.
In most instances, the strategies adopted by local housing authorities
to achieve a 30 per cent improvement in domestic energy efficiency
involve a scale of measures that are extremely challenging, particularly
in respect of the tenures over which they have no direct control.
Most local authorities are failing to fully implement their strategies
and there exists a dislocation between these strategies and the
resources made available by central government to implement. Perversely,
there exists no statutory duty to fully implement these strategies.
At present, the assessment of a local housing
authority's policy and performance in respect of empty homes forms
part of the overall assessment of an authority's performance by
the regional office of the DTLR. If the implementation of a strategy
is to become a statutory duty, it is necessary that this be adequately
It is important that the funding of empty homes
work is made as transparent as possible. This is by no means an
easy task given the various funding sources that exist through
the Housing Corporation and the Regional Offices that impact upon
empty homes work.
funding solutions to be made clearer;
empty Property Strategies to be compulsory,
and monitored for effectiveness by Government.
Westminster City Council believes that it would
be justifiable, and indeed would welcome legislation, that allows
them to charge full council tax or indeed punitive levels, on
long term empty property. This would remove the perverse incentive
that owners now currently enjoy to keep property empty.
However, we would like the discretion to reduce
this charge where the imposition of the full charge is iniquitous.
For example, we would not want to charge the full-rate to an owner
who legitimately faces difficulty in bringing property back into
use. Similarly, being able to impose a punitive charge of 150
per cent in the case of dwellings that have remained vacant for
very long periods of time, say, over 3 years, may act as a further
incentive to return the dwelling to residential use.
One of the biggest obstacles 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.
The City of Westminster Council Tax department
takes 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 their view 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, which
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 doe not
suggest "joined up government".
The issue of Council Tax departments
sharing information about owners to be resolved.
Power to charge full or punitive
Council Tax on long term empties.
Compulsory Purchase Orders
Our CPO policy closely mirrors that of successive
Governments over the past 20 years, and can be summarised as follows:
CPO's are only used as a last resort
and in the public interest.
CPO's are not implemented, even in
the late stages of the process, if owners give time limited, binding
undertakings to carry out improvement works and return properties
to residential use.
The City Council has operated a highly successful
CPO policy for many years. This has achieved many notable successes
ranging from the refurbishment and return to residential use of
individual properties to the redevelopment of a brownfield site
providing 110 new units of accommodation for a mixture of social
rented housing and shared ownership.
Westminster published a CPO procedure guide
in September 1998, which has been purchased by over 120 local
authorities. Feedback has been excellent and the guide received
widespread praise from, among others, the Empty Homes Agency.
In July 2001 the guide was made freely available through the HouseMark
web site whose validation panel assessed it as "leading edge
City Council officers have given presentations
on CPO's to Empty Property Fora across the country and regularly
respond to requests for help and guidance on CPO's from other
In December 1998 officers contributed ideas
to the Urban Task Force on how CPO procedures under Housing Act
powers might be simplified and streamlined, and also made major
contributions to two recent consultation exercises initiated by
the Government in relation to CPO's. In March 2000 extensive comments
were made on the housing section of a proposed CPO manual commissioned
by the former DETR. In October 2000 we gave a detailed response
to the final report of an advisory group set up by the DETR to
undertake a Fundamental Review of the Laws and Procedures relating
to Compulsory Purchase and Compensation.
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 the City Council's view the use and threatened
use of CPO's must be closely aligned to, and form an integral
part of, any Empty Property Strategy. 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,
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.
The City Council believes that, in general terms,
the existing procedures relating to CPO's work well. However,
the City Council shares 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.
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
The City Council 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.
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
In conclusion, the City Council welcomes the
Select Committee's interest in the subject of empty homes, and
are confident that Westminster are doing much of what may be reasonably
expected of our authority to tackle this problem.
The City Council hope that the recommendations
that the Committee might make at the end of their enquiry, will
facilitate the necessary changes to enable the nation to reduce
the number of empty homes down to the lowest level commensurate
with the efficient operation of the housing market.
Empty Property & Compulsory Purchase Officer