Cornwall council offers owners of empty homes option of interest-free loans to bring properties back to use – or compulsory purchase order
guardian.co.uk, Saturday 8 October 2011 22.58 BST
A council with one of the biggest housing shortages in the country is threatening to use compulsory purchase orders against the owners of homes that have been left empty for six months or more.
Cornwall council says 3,597 flats and houses in the county have been empty for at least six months – some for many years – and has allocated £2m to spend on persuading owners to bring the them back into use. This does not include the holiday homes that make up 10% of the county’s housing stock.
Interest-free loans of up to £15,000 can be claimed by owners of two-bed properties that have been empty for six months or more and need substantial work to make them habitable. Owners of one-bed homes can claim up to £7,500.
In return, the refurbished homes must be made available for some of the 18,931 households on the council’s waiting list.
The council is also offering interest-free loans of up to £20,000 to local first-time buyers who purchase long-term unoccupied homes. It cannot be put towards a deposit, but is made available after completion of the purchase for buyers to undertake renovation work.
However, the council admits this is a scheme that may have minimal impact because few mortgage companies are willing to lend to buyers of homes that have been left empty for six months or more – even with the promise of an additional loan to improve them.
Cornwall council is also looking at offering loans directly to tenants to carry out improvements in return for a contract with the landlord giving them long-term security of tenure for five years or more.
The idea is still being discussed amid concern that it may be difficult to draw up a watertight contract binding landlords to such an agreement.
In addition to exacerbating Cornwall’s housing shortage, empty homes “can do great harm by attracting petty crime, devaluing neighbourhoods and eating away at the sense of pride people have in their communities”, according to Mark Kaczmarek, the council’s cabinet member with responsibility for housing and planning.
He says that if homeowners refuse to take advantage of the authority’s loans, and then fail to bring properties back into use with their own money, the council will consider using compulsory purchase powers.
According to the council, a trial of its empty homes strategy has already bought 131 properties back into use, and by the end of 2013 a further 350 homes will be returned to the housing stock. Those properties being targeted have fallen into major disrepair and, in many cases, have been occupied by squatters and attracted antisocial behaviour such as loud parties and drug abuse.
Cornwall council – where no one political group has overall control – is not the only local authority to use its powers to oblige owners to bring empty properties back into use.
In 2007 Kent introduced a similar “No Use Empty” programme of interest-free loans; since then, 1,729 long-term empty properties have been returned to use. £5m has been given in loans with, to date, £1m returned.
Although Kent has not used compulsory purchase orders, it undertakes other initiatives to encourage take-up, such as holding surgeries for owners of long-term empty properties.
Bristol city council runs a similar loan scheme, operated through a housing association, and some Scottish local authorities are also believed to be investigating the idea.
Empty Homes, a charity, says 920,000 properties across the UK are long-term empty, with some areas having more than one in 20 residential properties in this category. Some are the responsibility of the Ministry of Defence – where military bases have been closed and homes left to rot – while others are houses and apartments abandoned when regeneration projects were shelved. But about 50% are privately owned and are empty because the owner may be in financial difficulties.
“We believe that small incentives for renovation and reoccupation, and a reversal of some of the demolition programmes, are the most cost-effective way of providing new housing,” explains David Ireland, the charity’s chief executive.
“Surveys have shown that, on average, empty homes need only £10,000 of investment to get them occupied again, compared with £90,000 of subsidy to build a new social home.”
Help us make a difference
According to the charity Shelter, around 1.8m households are on waiting lists for housing, and the mothballing of building projects during the recession could lead to further problems in the future. Yet, according to the Empty Homes Agency, up to 920,000 properties could be lying empty across the UK. Estimates for the number of long-term empty homes are in the hundreds of thousands.
The issue of empty homes is a hot topic at the moment.
In recent months, politicians have been talking about ways to bring them back into use, with the government reportedly considering allowing local councils to charge a council tax premium on empty properties, and Channel 4 set to launch a campaign to fill some of those properties in December.
We are interested in finding out how so many homes ended up empty. We would like to put together a picture of the UK’s empty homes and find out what impact they have on the residents who live near them.
Please tell us about those in your neighbourhood – whether it’s a long-empty house you walk past every day, or the flat next door.
A photo would be useful, with the street name and postcode. We will then investigate some of those properties and see if we can find out what went wrong – and if any of the ideas being mooted to put things right could make any difference. Email the details to firstname.lastname@example.org, putting Empty homes in the subject area.