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Empty Homes

Volume 563: debated on Friday 10 May 2013

The coalition agreement outlined this Government’s commitment to introduce a range of measures to get empty homes back into use, reflecting the general election manifesto pledges of both coalition parties. We want to increase housing supply, remove the blight that rundown vacant properties cause and help support local economic growth from refurbishment and improvements. I would like to update the House on the steps we have taken.

As part of this commitment, we have explicitly rejected the last Administration’s top-down, large-scale Whitehall targets for demolition and clearance. The obsession with demolition over refurbishment was both economically and environmentally wasteful, as well as involving significant damage of our nation’s heritage. By contrast:

The Government have committed £160 million to bring empty homes back into use. Some £100 million of this funding is being paid directly to local authorities, registered housing providers and community groups to bring around 7,600 empty homes back into use as affordable housing. £60 million is being allocated to 20 partnerships which suffer from significant clusters of empty homes which have good market prospects but require an intensive approach to return them to a liveable standard. This will produce a further 3,600 homes, resulting in a combined total of over 11,000 empty homes being brought back into use by March 2015.

In November, we launched a second bidding round to bring up to a further 5,000 empty homes back into use using a further £75 million of funding, with a particular emphasis on refurbishing former commercial and high street properties. Combined with existing empty homes commitments, this funding will take our overall target to over 15,000 empty properties being brought back into use as housing by March 2015.

We are further supporting local authorities to take a lead. Under the new homes bonus, local authorities now earn a financial reward for bringing a long-term empty home back into use. To date this has provided an income to councils of £63 million for 55,000 homes brought back into use.

Our reforms on council tax flexibilities and the new empty homes premium now allow councils to remove the special tax subsidies being given to empty homes and instead use the funding to keep the overall rate of council tax down and support front-line services.

My Department’s refurbishment schemes are also assisting the improvement of social housing and getting empty homes back into use. During the current spending review period, the Government have allocated £1.6 billion to the decent homes backlog programme to provide a grant to local authorities to support them in bringing 127,000 poor quality council homes up to the decent homes standard by April 2015.

In addition, following a number of large-scale voluntary transfers, the Government have made gap funding grants to private registered providers to enable stock to be brought up to decent homes standard. The total amount of gap funding will be £500 million during the current spending review. It is currently expected that gap funding outside London will contribute to making 43,500 homes decent between 2011 and 2015 (we do not have comparable figures for London).

By the end of April 2015, 18,500 homes will have been renovated through housing private finance initiative schemes.

As outlined in the written ministerial statement of 9 May 2013, Official Report, column 4WS, we have introduced a series of planning reforms to facilitate change of use; this includes making it easier to convert empty offices into homes. Further changes will be implemented to help convert redundant agricultural buildings into new homes.

Our new community right to reclaim land will help communities to improve their local area by making information about land and empty properties owned by public bodies more easily available. It will also help to ensure that underused or unused land and buildings owned by public bodies can be brought back into beneficial use.

The last Administration’s programme created large-scale Whitehall targets for demolition and clearance across the midlands and the north of England. The National Audit Office previously estimated that there were plans for a total of 57,100 properties to be demolished under the scheme. This Government have cancelled the pathfinder programme.

Last year, SAVE Britain’s Heritage challenged the Government’s decision to award transition funding, to help councils exit the pathfinder scheme; in doing so, we needed to balance ending the scheme with not leaving councils in the lurch with unfinished building sites. We have now agreed terms with SAVE to settle that case. Local authorities are now working to align their regeneration priorities more closely to refurbishment. Liverpool remain committed to refurbishing 40 houses on the Welsh Streets, including the former home of Ringo Starr, with strong community involvement and all local authorities that received transitional funding will now undertake the refurbishment of over 2,000 empty houses.

We are reviewing what further steps can be taken to end the bias for demolition in the state sector. This will include revising outdated Office of the Deputy Prime Minister guidance, stating in housing fund bidding documents that demolitions are not appropriate, and working with our independent adviser George Clarke to take forward his best practice recommendations on empty homes.

The number of long-term empty homes has already fallen by 20,000 between 2011 and 2012 and by over 40,800 since 2010. Ministers will keep the House updated with progress.