a street of boarded up houses

The scandal of empty homes

By Vicki Prout 1 August 2013

The spare room subsidy—or bedroom tax as it is more commonly known—had its 100 day birthday earlier this week. There were several pieces of analysis in the media, looking at how it’s been going so far, and generally speaking the consensus is ‘not well’. If you’ve read some of my previous blogs you’ll know this is not a surprise to me. But I was at a housing event a few weeks ago where I did find myself very surprised.

There are over 700,000 empty residential homes in the UK. We are in the midst of a desperate housing crisis, with millions of people in housing need, and yet homes in various states of disrepair are lying unoccupied up and down the country. And we’re not just talking about derelict streets in the former industrial towns of the North, or out in the South West sticks. There are thousands of empty homes in London. 1,500 in Elephant and Castle for example, and plenty even in upmarket Mayfair.

Most empty homes are owned by individuals. Some people inherit them and don’t want to sell, while others acquire properties speculatively and are waiting for them to go up in value. But some are owned by housing associations, or local authorities, and in some parts of the country there are whole streets of boarded up properties, falling into disrepair.

Aside from the obvious issue that empty homes are an affront to the 1.8m people who are on the waiting list for social housing they also cause many other problems in the local area. As buildings fall into disrepair they become a blot on the landscape and often attract anti-social, and sometimes criminal activity. This has a knock-on effect on the surrounding area and can  impact  the level of investment in the neighbourhood.

In 2011 the Government offered the first round of funding available to do up empty homes and bring them back into use (to the tune of £100m) and this was followed by a second round last year. Changes to council tax (where owners must now pay tax for homes even if they are uninhabited) have also been introduced, and all of these measures are moving us in the right direction. However it was interesting to hear from the Chief Executive of Birmingham YMCA—who got a grant to do up 50 homes in their area—who reported that Government grants are currently underspent as they are not able to deliver as expected  and projects are very behind. It seems there are a range of reasons behind this, from problems identifying suitable properties to project management skills within the charities themselves.

That said the third sector is also doing some excellent work in this field. My favourite part of the whole event was when David Ireland, Chief Executive of Empty Homes, took us through some great examples of innovative projects such as Canopy Housing Project in Leeds, who work with homeless volunteers to do up derelict houses and create decent homes for them. I was happy to see there were beacons of good practice in the capital too, such as the Phoenix Community Housing Co-operative in East London, who are a low cost housing regeneration programme that uses volunteers and donated materials.

It’s great that housing, and the various issues around it, is making its way up the political and media agenda. But so far as I can see the scandal of empty homes has not attracted a huge amount of attention. In the discussion at the end of the event we all agreed that a lot of progress has quietly been made in this field, and that there’s huge potential to put a dent in the housing crisis. But there is uncertainty about whether the government will continue to fund this empty homes work, and with the 2015 elections looming on the horizon, nothing is a given.

Next month a new report by NPC and the Smith Institute will be launched, looking at how we can rebuild the relationship between housing and philanthropy. I think empty homes is definitely a space where funders could make a difference, and as a speaker at the launch I’ll be interested to hear what other people on the panel have to say about this.