Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by a North Manchester Residents Association (EMP 54)

  This document has been prepared by members of a North Manchester Residents Association in response to the press notice issued by the Transport, Local Government and the Regions Committee concerning a new inquiry into the problem of empty homes. Each item is addressed in the order given on the press notice:

1.  The consequences of so many homes being empty, including the link between empty homes and urban degeneration, social and racial tension.

  Empty homes are a target for vandals. The windows get broken and have to be boarded up causing the appearance of the street to deteriorate, and advertising the fact that the property is empty and available for squatting, drug/solvent abuse, arson and further vandalism. Empty homes attract unscrupulous builders who take the fittings, central heating boilers, roof tiles etc. Empty homes are also subject to infestation from rats, pigeons and other vermin and are often set on fire. Long-term empty homes become structurally unsound due to neglect and are a danger to residents, and to children who persistently break into them.

  Empty boarded up houses in a street or neighbourhood are an eyesore. They are difficult to sell or let out to tenants, and cause other residents to move away from the area with the general result that the area is de-populated and local amenities suffer. They also discourage prospective buyers from purchasing property in the area. (Location, location, location. . .)

  Empty homes are broken into and used by criminals, squatters, drug abusers, drug dealers and other disruptive elements. Burglary and car crime, particularly "joy riding", increase dramatically and this tends to drive the longer-term "respectable" residents away and increase tension in the area, especially at night time. In some neighbourhoods, youths come from surrounding areas to vandalize properties and to steal vehicles for "joy riding". The issue of "joy riding" is particularly pertinent since small children living in the neighbourhood often play in the streets and are extremely vulnerable. "Joy riders" have no regard whatsoever for other road users or pedestrians and as such represent a serious threat to the neighbourhood. "Joy riding" currently goes on daily and nightly in Moston, usually with the added noise of police sirens and helicopter.

  The effect of these factors on property values in the area is devastating. Would you invest in an area obviously in decline where properties are boarded up and burnt out and people are afraid to walk the streets at night? Property values collapse and the only way to sell a property in such an area is by auction where you might except to get £3-£10k from a private landlord for a house that might have cost £25-£30k 10 years ago.

  As the area declines, owner-occupiers, desperate to move, sell their houses at a substantial loss, at the local market rate defined by private landlords. Houses are then let to tenants without any vetting or regulation. Tenants are often disruptive and antisocial people who are unable to get council or housing association accommodation due to their past record. This further accelerates the decline. It is also rumoured that landlords deliberately put bad tenants in to "clear out" the existing owner-occupiers so that their properties become available for purchase. This may or may not be true, but it is worth considering the economics of the situation:

  Suppose that a landlord buys a property for £10k and lets it out to a Benefits Agency tenant for £300 per month. This money is paid directly to the landlord from housing benefit. The initial investment will be recouped in less than three years (33.33 months) and the annual return on the investment is 36 per cent per annum. Properties are also sometimes converted into flats with little regard for fire and noise regulations, allowing the landlord to recoup the initial investment faster. Now suppose that the landlord has 10 such properties and one falls into neglect. His return falls to 32.4 per cent per annum, a mere 3.6 per cent reduction. For a landlord operating a number of properties it is not in his interest to prevent property from becoming derelict.

  In conclusion, private landlords make a lot of money (out of the poorest people) and it is of little consequence if some of their properties fall into dereliction. In addition to this, property that changes hands for less than £10k does not require registration with the Land Registry. The consequence of this is that the owners of derelict properties are virtually untraceable.

  All of the factors outlined above cause neighbourhoods to become uninhabitable over a period of a few years. Local amenities suffer and often have to close. Eventually, the only option for the council is to demolish.

  Furthermore, any deprived area is an easy target for political extremists particularly from the far right to stir up trouble and incite racial hatred (Germany 1930s). This has happened recently in northern towns with high levels of deprivation.

2.  The benefits which would arise from bringing empty homes back into use

  Provisions of housing; there is apparently a shortage of housing in the inner cities, yet in certain parts of the city, there are vast areas of unoccupied homes.

  To strengthen and sustain existing local communities, make the area "lived in" and improve its viability as a neighbourhood. More people would be available to use local amenities, and the threat of vandalism, crime, drug abuse and arson would be reduced. Property values would fall into line with national averages as a consequence of re-population.

  One possibility for bringing low demand terraced property back into use might be to combine two small terraced houses to make a larger property more suitable for a family. Intermediate rows of houses could be demolished to provide gardens and play areas and eliminate the alleyways and culture that grows out of them, animal, vegetable and human. A converted terrace would also be subject to only one payment of council tax.

  Empty properties could also serve as student accommodation. They could be bought at low cost by university accommodation agencies and let out to students who want a quiet place to study. The University would be accountable and could be easily contacted regarding any issues pertaining to the properties.

3.  Why so many homes are empty

  Homes are empty in certain areas because ultimately nobody wants to live there. The reasons for this, given in the first part of this account, constitute a clear cycle of events which destroys neighbourhoods. The main culprits being irresponsible private landlords who are unaccountable to local government and regeneration boards. They are often untraceable since properties sold for less than £10k do not require registration with the Land Registry. This is a major contributory factor to the decline and must be addressed urgently. The combination of lack of accountability and high returns inevitably attracts criminal elements into the letting business and residents are often reluctant to involve local government and the police in the event of any trouble for fear of reprisals.

4.  The effectiveness of government policy to date

  Government policy to date has not acknowledged that there is a problem at all. The effectiveness of any policy is probably zero if not negative. It seems that it is very straightforward to operate as a private landlord without any regulation or accountability. Particularly in the accommodation of asylum seekers who are often housed in sub standard accommodation with no proper support from the state or the landlord. The landlord is paid directly from government funds, is not accountable to anyone and is under no obligation to do anything for either the tenants or the neighbourhood.

5.  What additional measures should be taken by the government, housing corporations, local authorities and in particular whether:

  5.1.  Local authorities should charge full council tax on empty properties; This would impose a small burden on landlords if it were possible to find them and would require substantial legislative changes. Yes in principle but probably wouldn't make much difference, as so many landlords are untraceable.

  5.2.  There should be further changes to VAT; What is the current VAT position for landlords? Do they pay any tax at all?

  5.3.  Compulsory purchase powers should be revised; This is definitely the case. If a property has gone beyond a certain stage of neglect it should be either demolished or compulsorily purchased and renovated to be let out by the council.

  5.4.  A statutory duty should be placed on local authorities to establish an empty homes policy; This should include a register of bad landlords, a register of empty properties and heavy penalties for landlords who allow property to fall into neglect. Penalties might include substantial fines, naming and shaming using local press radio and TV and a full investigation into their business affairs by the Inland Revenue and the Police.

  5.5.  Regional planning guidance is taking proper account of the re-use of empty properties in making provision for housing; Regional planning seems to involve new housing developments exclusively, ignoring the existing housing stock. Planning departments seem to have "special arrangements" with developers, and existing housing is usually demolished wholesale to make way for new developments. Re-use of empty properties does not seem to be on the planning agenda.

6.  What government departments and their agencies, the NHS, local authorities and RSLs should do to bring more of the properties they own into use

  Either use them for the purposes that they were intended for or donate them to community organizations for public use with adequate funding for maintenance and security provision.

7.  What specific steps should be taken in areas of low demand, including whether

  7.1.  Too many homes are being built and proposed by regional planning conferences on greenfield sites in such areas; This is definitely the case. It is probably more cost effective for the developer to build on greenfield sites.

  7.2.  Government offices for the region should be more vigorous in implementing government policy; Yes, especially where government policy applies to the re-use of empty property.

  7.3.  Regneration initiatives are adequately addressing the problem of empty houses; Regeneration initiatives seem to take little account of empty properties. They are mainly business orientated. Cosmetic improvements to run down properties have been carried out in some areas nearby however.

  7.4.  Too many homes for rent continue to be built in such areas; New homes are generally built for private sale, not for rent.

  7.5.  Some homes should be demolished; If a property goes beyond a certain stage of decay, it should be demolished. Some areas might benefit from selective clearance which would "open up" the back to back streets.

  7.6.  Local authorities should establish a register of approved landlords; All landlords should be registered. Government legislation is desperately needed here in the north.

  7.7.  What measures should be taken to deal with the problem of negative equity? It is interesting that this issue is the last item on the list. For owner occupiers living in a low demand area, negative equity is the most significant factor preventing them from selling their homes at a realistic price in order to move on. In an increasingly expensive housing market, owner occupiers who may be in a financial position to "move up the property ladder" are unable to do so and are excluded from the on going property market altogether. Government funding assistance should be made available to owner-occupiers who want to move in the form of a one off payment to cover the negative equity shortfall. The only options currently available to owner-occupiers are to move away and rent the property out, or to sell at a substantial loss.


  In the medium and longer term, empty homes in a neighbourhood are extremely detrimental to the well being of the community and to local amenities. There is a clear cycle of events involving empty homes and irresponsible private landlords, which destroys neighbourhoods and communities in a very short time. Landlords stand to make significant gains from the situation at the expense of local government, owner-occupiers and the community as a whole. The potentially high returns and the absence of any accountability attract criminal elements into the business with corresponding increase in crime and lawlessness, which the Police are unable to deal with. Under current legislation, it is virtually impossible to trace the owners of badly neglected properties. This is a major contributing factor in the decline of formerly viable neighbourhoods and communities. The laws applying to registration of property under £10k in value must be addressed urgently, and landlords must be made accountable for the condition of their properties with heavy penalties for those who let property fall into neglect.

  Regeneration initiatives should take existing properties into account and be carried out with proper consultation with local community and residents organizations. Current regeneration initiatives tend to work in partnership with property development companies whose primary interests are to maximize profit rather than to improve and develop existing communities.

  Local government powers to compulsorily purchase and deal with neglected properties should be extended in order that the property can be either demolished or brought back into use, and occupied by responsible tenants.

  The issue of negative equity must be addressed in order that owner occupiers can have proper access to the existing property market and be able to make their homes available to first time buyers at a realistic market price should they choose to sell.

  If the current situation regarding empty properties and irresponsible private landlords is allowed to continue, the resulting destruction of communities and subsequent increase in crime and lawlessness will pose a severe threat to the viability of towns and cities in the North of England. It will also significantly undermine public confidence in the credibility of local and national government, the Police, the law and the political process in general. The seriousness of the current situation here cannot be overstated, and must be addressed as a matter of urgency.


  This section gives some comments and short accounts of experience of living in low demand areas. Names are withheld to protect witnesses from reprisals.

    "Your house becomes un-saleable and you're stuck there".

  The dealers move in; "Shortly after we bought the house I noticed a great deal of activity around a formerly empty property along the street. There was constant traffic day and night, and people hanging about on the street waiting for the dealer to turn up. They were the most desperate looking individuals I have ever seen and were obviously eyeing up the houses in the street for burglary. When the dealer turned up in a large white Mercedes, packets were handed out and money changed hands. It was unbelievably blatant. One of the neighbours said he'd seen a gun in the house. I phoned the police several times but they seemed to be unable to do anything. In the end the neighbours got together and threatened the dealers with physical violence and they left. Another house was used by prostitutes with the associated traffic and noise at night. Again the police were powerless to do anything about it".

    "I challenged a gang of youths who were throwing bricks at an empty house to smash the windows. One of them demanded money from me, threatening to do my house if I didn't pay up."

    "The police here are no longer in touch with the community. They seem powerless to tackle the problems here. They take hours to respond to reported crimes, and turn up long after the crime has been committed. Furthermore, most people here live in fear of reprisals from the `criminal community' if they involve the police in any way. There is a serious problem here about the role of the police in the community and how effective they can be under current legislation".

  Reprisals: "A neighbour reported the attempted theft of a car to the police and challenged the youths breaking into the vehicle. He was attacked. The police arrived two hours later. The following night his front windows were bricked in and the next night the tyres on his car were slashed and his rear windows bricked. He has since left the area".

    "The only effective organization for dealing with antisocial neighbours is the `Neighbourhood nuisance' which is operated by Private Sector Housing. They actually respond to reported crimes and seem to have powers to get things done".

    "My car was pushed up the road and burned out on the Thursday night. At the weekend I was burgled, and lost some irreplaceable musical equipment of about £3,000 in value. The stolen property wasn't insured since property and contents insurance here is beyond my means."

"It is only a matter of time before a child is killed here in the street by a joyrider".

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Prepared 24 October 2001