Skip to main content

Empty Homes

Volume 536: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2011

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr Newmark.)

It is an honour to have secured this Adjournment debate on empty homes. It is an issue that I and many Members on both sides of the Chamber have raised in recent weeks and months. Indeed, only last week, three Members asked about empty homes during the ministerial statement on housing.

I shall digress for one second. This debate may be my last in the House with my Movember moustache, which is coming off on 1 December. Like many Movember men across the country, I have sprouted some hair on my top lip—you can just see it, Mr Deputy Speaker—to raise awareness of the Prostate Cancer Charity and men’s health issues. All Members would agree that with the tragic events over the weekend we need to be more open about men’s health, particularly issues such as depression.

I became involved in the issue of empty homes because of my deep concern about overdevelopment in my Colne Valley constituency in west Yorkshire. It is home to the lovely towns of Slaithwaite, Marsden, Holmfirth, Honley, the Huddersfield suburbs of Lindley and Birchencliffe and many more beautiful areas. I was concerned that our beautiful Pennine countryside was set to be dug up for new identikit homes.

The idea of green fields being developed is bad enough, but it defies all logic to be doing it while thousands of existing empty properties are being left to rot. In fact, my local council, Kirklees, has just voted for a local development framework that will impose 22,470 new homes in the district over the next 15 years, with some going on green belt. I say, bring Britain’s empty homes back into use first.

There is a groundswell of support for the empty homes campaign. I have to admit that I am a big fan of Channel 4 shows such as “Grand Designs” and “Restoration Man”. The presenter of the latter show, George Clarke, will be telling the nation about the scandal of Britain’s empty homes in a forthcoming series on Channel 4 next Monday and Tuesday evening—that is the plug out of the way.

The Government have responded really well to this problem, with targeted initiatives and cash to back it up. The inspirational—I do not use that term loosely, as he is a master of his brief and has seen off eight Opposition Housing Ministers—Minister for Housing and Local Government has spoken with me at great length on the issue, as has the Minister here this evening, who I know will give more details of Government help later.

What is an empty home? Homes are left empty for a number of reasons—for example, when they are between tenants, being refurbished, in probate or when the owner is in care or hospital. For the purposes of this campaign and this debate, however, we are primarily talking about long-term empty homes. These are properties that are stuck empty, and I believe that getting those houses back into use could be a quick and relatively inexpensive way of providing more housing.

How many empty homes are there? Across the UK as a whole, there are close to 1 million empty homes and approximately 350,000 long-term empty homes—this at a time when 2 million families are on housing waiting lists. Those figures are based on statistics from the Governments in England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, plus advice from the Empty Homes Agency about the number of empty properties across the UK that are not currently accounted for in official figures.

In my patch, we have been trying to get accurate figures from Kirklees council—I need to put the record straight on this. Following the original freedom of information request on the issue, we were told that there were 6,864 short-term empty properties—properties with a council tax exemption—and 3,463 long-term empty homes, or properties no longer exempt from council tax. By adding 1,000-plus second homes or holiday homes, the total comes to over 11,000. Obviously not all those homes are available for bringing back into use, and nobody has ever suggested that.

Kirklees council has now revised the figures, giving me—and everybody else who has been asking—another figure on long-term empty homes. However, whether it is 11,000, 7,000 or 3,463, it is one too many when people are waiting for homes and when the developers are eyeing up our greenfield sites. The Government have stepped up to the challenge, making £150 million available in the housing strategy, which will be delivered quickly. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will have more details on the scheme, which he and his colleagues have been working on.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on securing this debate about such an important issue, which is crucial to my constituency, where there are some 2,600 to 2,700 empty properties. Would he be shocked, as I was, to discover that local authorities cannot bid for the empty homes fund?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for making that contribution. Those are some of the issues that I hope the Minister will say something about later. Councils, community groups and all sorts of community people need opportunities to tap into those funds, and those are some of the points that I will be making later.

I acknowledge that, through the new homes bonus, 16,000 empty homes have been brought back into proper use in just one year. That shows what can be done. However, the Housing Minister has admitted that it is a scandal that 700,000 or 750,000 properties are empty when so many people are in desperate housing need. The Government announced last week that they were adding another £50 million to the existing £100 million fund for empty homes, making a total of £150 million.

Let me set out some of the benefits of bringing empty homes back into use. The refurbishment and reoccupation of those homes could clearly contribute significantly to meeting England’s housing needs. The reuse of empty homes can also help to protect the beauty and openness of England’s natural landscapes for future generations, by negating the need for development on greenfield sites, which is important in my area of west Yorkshire. The renewal of existing communities can take advantage of existing infrastructure such as transport links and schools. Refurbishment constitutes a much more efficient use of construction materials than new build, and the reinvigoration of existing communities can add to the local economy.

As always, my hon. Friend is making a strong and persuasive case on behalf of his constituents. Does he agree that, as well as there being many empty homes, changing shopping patterns have resulted in many empty shops? Many are substantial buildings that could be refurbished at a reasonable cost and brought back into use as homes.

My hon. Friend makes a really good point. Empty shops are an issue in my part of the world, as they are in his. Indeed, there are concerns that there are slightly too many charity shops, for example. I have also been thinking about how the flats and apartments above shops could be brought back into use. That would mean families and young couples living in our town centres, which would not become no-go zones in the evening. That would help, so I thank him for making that valuable point.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of Northern Ireland’s “Living over the shop” scheme? We have used it over the past couple of years to provide accommodation above shops, enabling young people to live in town centres, so perhaps there should be discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly, in order to enlighten the Minister about the possibilities.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that useful intervention. I hope that the Minister will take it on board. I am willing to learn best practice from all over the United Kingdom. The scheme described by the hon. Gentleman sounds exciting, and if it has worked in Northern Ireland, I hope that we too can take advantage of it.

I am particularly excited about the opportunities to reinvigorate certain trades and specialisms using local materials. Good-quality insulation and other energy-efficient measures should also be key to the renewal of empty homes. There are plenty of plus points. In my area, I should like educational establishments such as Kirklees college to become involved. Perhaps students could use empty homes for hands-on projects. I note that Kirklees college runs a course called “Construction and building crafts”. What better way for students to employ their skills than to return homes to use so that families can live in them?

As I have said, the Government have already acted. The reoccupation of empty homes has been included in the scope of the new homes bonus, and 16,000 homes have been returned to use. However, I should like councils to be given more incentives to bring about reoccupation of empty homes. I should also like to see the use of brownfield sites. That really would be a sustainable housing policy.

I am pleased that communities and local voluntary organisations will be able to tap into the funding so that it does not go only to councils, but I should like to hear more about the Government’s plans to allow councils, if they wish, to introduce an empty homes council tax premium on homes that have been empty for more than two years. That could serve as an incentive to the returning of homes to productive use.

I am very interested in what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but might not the premium actually prove to be a disincentive? Some people might go off the radar, their properties might be registered as occupied, and they might therefore pay a 100% rather than a 125% rate of council tax.

The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. Councils might wish to consider introducing such schemes themselves, given that they have the local knowledge. Perhaps they should introduce it on a trial basis. It might work better in some areas than in others. I am pleased that the Government are considering different options, and that they are happy to devolve power to councils so that the various needs of communities can be dealt with on a more local basis.

Some key changes need to be made to the draft national policy planning framework. Instead of the presumption clause in favour of sustainable development, let us consider a presumption clause in favour of returning empty homes to use and ensuring that brownfield land is developed before greenfield land.

Given that commercial banks rarely lend money on empty homes, the Minister might wish to consider a sustainable low-cost loan fund. It could be kick-started with cash from the empty homes fund and managed by a commercial bank in partnership with an appropriate body such as the Empty Homes Agency. The loan fund would help private empty home owners who needed money to return their properties to use. They could borrow modest sums from the fund, and repay the loans from subsequent rental income set at affordable levels. Would-be buyers on low incomes could also purchase empty homes cheaply and return them to use with the help of modest loans from the fund. Cash for the fund could also come from the proposed empty homes premium, which could impose a 150% council tax rate on properties that had been empty for over two years. I should like the Minister and his team to consider all those ideas, and then report to the House on their conclusions.

Let me suggest a right to help local people to rescue abandoned properties. Will the Minister consider an amendment to current legislation on the community right to reclaim land? Should local people be able to use a new “community right to reclaim abandoned property” clause, which would enable them to apply to a tribunal to bring long-term abandoned properties in their areas back into use?

Therefore, lots of action has already been taken. I hope that I have given lots of ideas for more, and I shall now sum up to allow colleagues to make a brief contribution. Let us put renewal and regeneration ahead of greenfield development. Let us use existing buildings and infrastructure as efficiently as possible, with the economic, environmental and social benefits for all. Let us finally get Britain’s empty homes back into use.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) on making a powerful speech containing lots of good ideas. The situation that he described in his constituency is identical to the one faced in mine. I welcome the measures in the Localism Bill providing for neighbourhood planning, and I am chairing the steering group of the Truro and Kenwyn parish neighbourhood plan. We face the same challenges that he portrayed so well. Through the development of our neighbourhood plan, we have identified a great number of empty properties in our villages and the city centre of Truro, as well as other buildings that we believe can commercially and viably be brought back into use to create much-needed homes for local people. However, in constructing our plan, we are aware that it will have to be inspected by the inspectorate, and the types of properties that my hon. Friend described being brought back into use will be considered by the inspectors as “windfall” properties and therefore cannot be counted as contributing towards the housing targets that we are developing to meet local need.

I would very much like the Minister to consider that point, and when the Government are considering the national policy planning framework I would like them to examine the fact that these windfall properties need to be judged on their merits. I hope that if a good neighbourhood plan—such as, I am sure, ours will be when it is introduced—can demonstrate viable sites for bringing empty buildings back into use, they will not be deemed to be “windfall” properties but can be taken into consideration for our housing targets.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley (Jason McCartney) for bringing to the House’s attention this important subject, which is very close to my heart, as I know it is to his. I was delighted that this move to bring empty homes back into use was written into the coalition agreement between our two parties and that we have now had the opportunity to put some real cash into the programme to deal with it. I also congratulate him on his moustache and wish him well with his fundraising.

Like my hon. Friend, I have been in contact with George Clarke and Channel 4, and I am happy to add a second endorsement of the programme on empty homes that they are developing. He, I and they are appalled at the scandal that 250,000 properties are empty when millions of people are on waiting lists, anxiously looking for homes and unable to find them. As well as being eyesores and easily falling into disrepair, empty homes are often an expensive menace to communities and public services, attracting antisocial behaviour, squatting and vandalism.

The Government know very well that we need to build more homes, more quickly, and the housing strategy statement made in the House by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government last Monday shows real earnest intent. At the same time, we have to make better use of our existing homes, as that is better for communities, for the environment and for the families who have the new home to live in. We have been working on ways to bring empty homes back into use, and tackling those homes is one of the key pledges that we made in the housing strategy.

My hon. Friend appeared to have some difficulty in understanding the situation in his constituency. The figures available to the Department refer to the whole local authority area of Kirklees. He might be interested to know that in the six years from 2004 to 2010, the number of empty homes reported to the Department went up from 6,200 to 7,300, so there were extra empty homes at a time when housing demand was rising. However, the good news for him is that Kirklees council will receive £7.6 million under the new homes bonus over the next six years because it has succeeded in bringing 307 homes back into productive occupation.

The Government have taken a number of important steps, including the new homes bonus, in response to the empty homes problem. Back in September, I announced that we were allocating a £100 million budget so that housing associations, councils and community and voluntary groups could apply to bring empty homes back into use as affordable housing. I was astonished by the intervention of the hon. Member for Hyndburn (Graham Jones), who said that councils are not eligible to apply for that money. That absolutely is not the case.

That information was provided to me by a cabinet member of our local council, which had looked through the consultation. I was advised that it was not entitled to bid under the proposals. If I am wrong, I will stand corrected.

Then the hon. Gentleman stands corrected.

We recognise that there is a wide range of possible approaches to tackling empty homes and that different approaches are needed in different circumstances. Sometimes the right vehicle for doing that will be the council, but sometimes it will be other registered housing providers, housing associations or local community groups. The bidding guidance was published on 21 November and registered providers of social housing have until 23 January 2012 to submit applications. I earnestly suggest to the hon. Gentleman that he should revisit his sources, because it would be tragic if Sefton lost out because of a misreading of the paperwork.

No, I think not.

Alongside the publication of the guidance on the bidding system for the £100 million, we have also allocated almost £3 million of empty homes funding for this financial year to organisations that are ready and able to deliver now, so that work can begin straight away. As a result of that spending, 200 properties will be brought back into use.

We are also setting up a national intermediary in the next few weeks to administer the community element of the funding. There are legal reasons why it is not possible for that to be directed through the Homes and Communities Agency. It will allow smaller not-for-profit community and voluntary organisations to access some of the £100 million and will allow community groups to stimulate new and innovative ways of tackling empty homes. I have seen plenty of those already, so I know that there are organisations ready to go. My hon. Friend mentioned the possibility of a rolling loan fund. There are some complexities with that which do not appear immediately, but some of the models through that community route might well exploit that opportunity.

Funding will be allocated on a demand-led basis. To put it another way, we are not going to stuff people’s mouths or stuff organisations with money. We want the money to go to real schemes that will really deliver results. Let me add in parenthesis that the outgoing Government were great at allocating budgets to projects that could never be delivered, but we do not want to go down that route. Let us make it so that every pound counts towards bringing an empty home back into use.

On top of the £100 million with the launch of the housing strategy last week, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Local Government was able to announce an additional £50 million of funding to tackle some of the worst concentrations of empty homes. Although I do not know the detailed circumstances of my hon. Friend’s constituency, I could well believe that some of the higher concentrations would be found in Kirklees and the measure might therefore apply to Colne Valley. I am sure he will want to explore that. A more intensive approach will be required than simply dealing with a home here and there, and it will involve refurbishing and reconfiguring homes, as well as improving housing in the public realm and tackling wider issues in the local area.

The funding details of that £50 million are being finalised and further details will be announced shortly, but there will be some differences between that fund and the £100 million fund. The £50 million fund will tackle concentrations of empty homes, and it will not be appropriate for all homes to be brought back into use as affordable housing, which is the clear intention of the £100 million fund.

My hon. Friend rightly praised the Government’s initiative of the idea of introducing a council tax premium, which is being consulted on. I hope that local authorities and others who are interested will respond positively to that proposal. He made a good point about the premium needing to be tailored to local circumstances. Councils will have local discretion to introduce a council tax premium on homes in their areas that have been empty for more than two years, to provide a stronger incentive for empty-home owners to bring them back into use. Of course, that could still be coupled with a discount or a free period at the onset of the home being empty. It will be important for local councils to configure their profile of charging accordingly.

I have already commented on the new homes bonus. In the first year of such funding being given to councils, £19 million can be attributed to empty homes coming back into use. As I have said, there are 307 such homes in Kirklees, which has got further to go than nearby Bradford, which brought 1,500 homes back into use with an equivalent budget coming back to the council. Again, my hon. Friend might want to speak politely—challenge, possibly—his council and ask, “What’s wrong with Kirklees compared with Bradford? Let’s get those empty homes back into use.”

It was a rhetorical question; I have no intention of responding to it.

In addition to those measures and separately, my right hon. Friend has announced housing market renewal transition funding of £71 million to help families trapped in half-empty and abandoned streets as a consequence of Labour’s controversial regeneration scheme introduced in 2002 that far too often managed decline, rather than fulfilling its task of regeneration.

Following the spending review announcement, separate housing market renewal funding ended this year, but £35.5 million is being allocated to develop a transitional scheme intended to help those people. That will be a match-funding scheme, generating about £71 million overall, as I said, to resolve the worst problems in the five most challenged areas: Merseyside, east Lancashire, north Staffordshire, Hull and Teesside.

My hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers) spoke about the conversion of shops into houses. Certainly, the Government are very much aware of those opportunities, and we are consulting on some changes of planning use classes that might make conversion to housing a simpler proposition in future.

It only remains for me to comment on the right to rescue that my hon. Friend the Member for Colne Valley suggested might be useful. It will be difficult to combine that with the action that we are taking to prevent squatting, on which I am sure he is equally keen to see action.

Empty homes are a vital resource for the housing market. We need to get more of them back into use sooner, and I look forward to working with hon. Members and friends all around the House in doing so in the next few years.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.