Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Harrogate Borough Council (EMP 52)

  I refer to the circular dated 21 August 2001 (ref 398/01) regarding the Housing of Commons Select Committee Inquiry into empty homes.

  Harrogate Borough Council has a well established and corporate empty property strategy which for a number of years has sought to target the large number of private sector empties in the Borough and to bring them back into beneficial use primarily for the benefit of those in need of affordable housing. To achieve this objective the Council has formed a strong and productive partnership with Leeds Federated Housing Association which has resulted in the allocation of substantial staffing and financial resources, including local authority capital grant, to facilitate any necessary capital works. The benefits of returning empty property to use are self evident in terms of urban and rural regeneration but to a great extent the Council's primary goal is to secure additional affordable housing accommodation to meet the excessive affordable housing needs which are prevalent in the Borough.

  The empty property initiative in many respects has become the mainstay of the Council's affordable housing strategy, primarily because of the severe limitations on the availability of land for new housing development. It is perhaps worth noting at this stage that in the Harrogate Borough there are no public sector empties save for casual voids, which are without exception re-let expeditiously.

  My comments in respect of the Select Committee Inquiry are not surprisingly formulated against the backdrop of the housing need and supply situation in Harrogate but I am sure that our experiences are reflected elsewhere in the country and hopefully will prove to be of interest to the Select Committee.

  Taking each of the points raised in your circular in turn I would offer the following comments:

    —  The principal consequence of homes remaining empty is that a highly valuable resource is wasted and does not contribute to meeting the wider housing and social needs of the Borough. We have identified that approximately 1,500 long term private sector empties exist within the Borough out of a total of some 66,000 dwellings as a whole. This is clearly a very significant proportion of total dwellings and should be seen against the background of an identified need for 5,000 additional affordable homes to 2005.

        Harrogate is widely regarded as a prosperous and affluent area but there are pockets within the Borough of relatively poorly maintained properties, some of which are empty. These impact badly in terms of appearance and residential amenity and serve to deter investment in occupied property. Because of the dispersal of empty homes throughout the Borough this empty property problem does not, however, impact upon social and racial tension. It is however very apparent that where efforts to return empty property to use have been successful, other investors have followed suit and it has been possible to turn around whole neighbourhoods particularly in respect of mixed retail and residential neighbourhoods.

    —  We regard the benefits of bringing empty property back into use as being largely self evident. This is in terms of improving the appearance of neighbourhoods, maintaining the fabric of individual buildings so that they will continue to contribute positively for years to come and meeting housing needs. In addition it is possible to argue that increased council tax revenue, increased investment in retail and associated business activities and improved security particularly in respect of retail premises are also significant benefits.

    —  Research conducted by the Yorkshire and Humberside Empty Property Forum has identified the following primary reasons for properties remaining empty in Harrogate:

      (a)  Elderly people moving into care establishments/hospital and not wanting to sell for a variety of reasons.

      (b)  Unfitness.

      (c)  Properties held by beneficiaries or executors following an owners death.

    —  Government policy to date is both unclear and poorly directed. In particular the 2001 budget is poorly understood in terms of VAT implications etc and appears to be of limited direct benefit. Elsewhere government policy is both sketchy and ineffective. In particular policy in respect of council tax charges for empty properties does little to encourage owners to return them to use—higher council tax (possibly in excess of 100 per cent) should be levied on owners irrespective of their state of repair. In particular major works exemptions should be abolished. Hitherto the requirement for those taking up residential care to pay for care services where they have savings over a fixed limit has deterred many owners or their families from disposing of property and ensuring their re-use.

    —  Additional measures which should be taken by the Government, the Housing Corporation, local authorities and others should include:

      (a)  Higher cost parameters allowed by the Housing Corporation to encourage re-use of empty properties in ares of high housing needs.

      (b)  Local Authorities to be permitted to charge 100 per cent minimum council tax on empty properties including those requiring major works.

      (c)  VAT on works to bring empty property back into use should be zero rated. At the very least it is incongruous that new build housing, including green field sites is zero rated but works to empty property attract VAT.

      (d)  Compulsory purchase powers are convoluted and extremely time consuming. It is understood that new guidance on compulsory purchase is expected but needs to be very much streamlined and straightforward if it is to be cost effective in terms of effort and yield.

      (e)  A comprehensive housing strategy should include an empty property strategy whether or not the local authority perceives empty homes to be a problem. Currently there is no statutory requirement to produce any form of housing strategy and clarification of local authorities' responsibilities and powers in this area is urgently needed.

      (f)  Regional planning guidance is an important tool in helping local authorities manage and control the supply of housing to meet needs. On the surface it appears reasonable that empty homes should be taken into account when identifying development opportunities to meet needs but the limitations on a local authority's ability to ensure that empty properties are brought back into use could cause problems in satisfying housing needs at all levels unless powers available to local authorities are increased and streamlined.

      (g)  The operation of the Data Protection Act currently prevents local authority housing and planning departments from accessing council tax data to identify recalcitrant owners and to initiate measures to encourage them to make full use of the properties they have control of. Amendment to the Data Protection Act to allow such exchange of information would be a valuable additional tool.

    —  Research nationally has shown that government departments especially are presiding over higher levels of empties than local authorities. Considerable pressure is placed upon local authorities to ensure the rapid re-use of council and RSL homes but little effective pressure appears to be applied to government departments themselves. This matter should be addressed as a matter of some urgency.

    —  In Harrogate we have little experience of managing empty homes in the public sector. However, in other local authorities where this is a problem, "homesteading" arrangements would appear to be relevant. Returning empties to use in areas of low demand is a complicated and difficult problem, which stems from the changing needs of communities, changing individual aspirations and the lack of any long term viable future in some areas. The solution to these problems will be equally complicated and will not be capable of resolution by single policy initiatives.

  I hope you find that the above comments are helpful. Please do not hesitate to contact me if you require further information or would like to discuss any of the points, which I have raised.

G H Wilman

Assistant Director

(Policy and Private Sector Housing)

September 2001

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