This year’s annual report from the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership tells a story of expansion and consolidation. It also highlights a number of gaps (some might say ‘opportunities’) that have yet to be filled.
The headline is that councils reported bringing 25% more empty homes back into use this year than last year. We’ve estimated these 697 homes would be worth £110m on the open market, so it’s a significant contribution to unlocking stagnant housing supply.
We’ve seen expansion in our own team as well with the addition of the Empty Homes Advice Service, a national helpline for anyone who needs help bringing their empty home back into use or anyone who wants to report a problem empty home in their neighbourhood. In its first year, with only media coverage to promote it, we’ve had 402 unique enquiries to the line. Calls to the advice line have driven fruitful conversations to local empty homes services and it’s brought troublesome empties to the attention of councils that otherwise might not have been. We believe that keeping empty homes stories in the media and having a national one stop shop that people can phone is making a difference in raising the profile of empty homes work and making sure the message is getting across that there is help available.
As for consolidation we’ve seen an encouraging move towards making empty homes posts full time and permanent – something we think is crucial to future success. Last year there were 2 permanent full time empty homes officers in Scotland (while there are many more full time officers, they are often on fixed term contracts). At the time of writing the report there were 4 and a further 2 due to take up post this month. This may sound like small numbers but given that there were no Empty Homes Officers at all in 2010 when the Partnership was established and there are now 17 councils with at least one Empty Homes Officer and 6 of these will now be permanent posts, this is a huge shift in capacity. Against the background of budget cuts and council restructuring exercises it also speaks to the value for money that Empty Homes work really does achieve. As well as contributing to housing supply and making communities safer and more pleasant to live in, empty homes work creates local jobs, recovers council tax debts and more than pays for itself in both qualitative and quantitative benefits to local areas.
As ever when we look back at the year we can also see the things that are still holding us back. Good strides were made last year on the enforcement front. The Scottish Government have stated they intend to legislate to introduce a Compulsory Sale Order Power for vacant land and buildings. Such a power, which would allow local authorities to force long term empty homes on to the open market so someone else can reuse them, could unlock the ‘no hope’ cases that councils tell us they are struggling with after trying every other tool at their disposal. Seeing this power in action is of course still a long way off and until then unfortunately Empty Homes Officers are in effect working with one hand tied behind their back as they have recourse only to the carrot and not the stick.
Another opportunity that could unlock more empty homes is to make available a wider range of financial incentives. Currently grants and loans are available if you can make your project stack up for affordable rent or sale. If it can’t there isn’t anything available for you. This limits the role of a whole host of players from potential owner occupiers to small scale developers and community groups looking to tackle problem properties in their communities.
We think all these types of owners have a role to play and that bringing empty homes back into use as housing, in whatever tenure, is a positive addition to housing supply.
Of course the other gaps to be filled are those 15 councils who don’t yet have an empty homes officer. We will continue to make the case nationally about why having a dedicated local empty homes service makes sense both economically and socially. We will also continue to run new Empty Homes Shared Services Projects where groups of councils and other organisations are able to club together to afford the establishment of an empty homes post. This year Glasgow City Council & Glasgow Housing Association began such a project and have been achieving great success in bringing homes back into use as affordable housing. Dundee City Council and Angus Council also began a shared services project this year and have achieved a quick setup which has seen homes being brought back into use across the region. So while there are still gaps to fill this year’s report also has a lot of success to be celebrated, including these two projects, and we hope to see more such success stories in the year to come.
If you’d like to get in touch with the Empty Homes Advice Service please call 0344 515 1941 or email email@example.com.