Memorandum by Harrogate Borough Council
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
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.
(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 usehigher 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
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
(Policy and Private Sector Housing)