Empty Homes or Empty Promises: Would the Lib Dem empty homes policy work?

By Adele Momoko Fraser

The Liberal Democrats announced this week, that after conducting a study; they found that more than 11,000 homes across the UK have been empty for 10 years or more. But is this a significant number?

The figures, garnered from 276 FOI requests to councils across the country, show that there are also over 216,000 empty homes nationally, which have been empty for 6 months or more.

The data also showed that only 13 councils were using their powers under Empty Dwelling Management Orders to take back property which had been empty for over 6 months, and that only 19 had used the EDMO in the last 5 years.

Despite this, the figures also show that council activity had returned 23,000 empty homes back into circulation in 2016-17.

Screen Shot 2018-01-05 at 13.54.24                      Source: Lib Dem FOI
For interactive map, click here.

The leader of the Lib Dems, Vince Cable stated that this was a “national scandal” that these homes were lying empty, when “the homelessness crisis is worsening”.

This is part of the Liberal Democrat housing policy to tackle empty homes as a means of alleviating homelessness and the social housing crisis. Lib Dem leader Vince Cable has also stated that the retaking of empty homes “must form part of a wider package to tackle the housing crisis, including building more homes on unused public sector land and clamping down on land banking”.

“In order to tackle the housing crisis, some 250,000 new homes are required annually.”

However, housing experts say that the number of homes, which could hypothetically be returned to use, is not enough to merit empty homes being a central pillar to a national housing policy.

John Perry, policy advisor at the Chartered Institute of Housing told City News that, “In order to tackle the housing crisis, some 250,000 new homes are required annually. Even if all 11,000 long-term empty homes were brought into use immediately, it would make a difference only for one year. The time and effort required might be better directed to getting more new homes built.“

This statistic of 250,000 homes required per year is also supported by a report by the late Dr Alan Holmans OBE, of the Cambridge Centre for Housing and Planning research.

Screen Shot 2018-01-05 at 15.00.14

Source: Lib Dem FOI 
For interactive chart, click here.

Matthew Warburton, policy director of the Association of Retained Council Housing – an organisation representing the 162 remaining councils which still own council houses – told City News that, “There are major regional factors which impact the extent of empty property. In the North East, for example, the primary cause is low demand – as people move from the region in search of jobs.”

“In Cornwall, the main issue is second homes and in London foreign buyers often acquire new housing simply as an investment. There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to this issue and EDMOs can be difficult and take time to deliver.”

Warburton’s views are backed by available statistics. If we look at the data provided by the Liberal Democrats themselves, we can see that the northeast is the region with the highest volume of vacant properties at 20,000 (compared to the national figure of 200,000). London also has a high volume of unoccupied properties at just fewer than 20,000 – but the lowest overall percentage.

Is the solution to enhance council EDMO powers? The Lib Dems think so and have suggested a strengthening of local council powers to take back empty properties.

“There is no ‘one size fits all’ solution to this issue and EDMOs can be difficult and take time to deliver.”

The Department of Communities and Local Government responded saying that they had in fact given these greater powers to the council already. A spokesperson stated, “We have provided councils with further powers in order to take back empty homes. We are also implementing major changes to law and investing over £1bn to 2020 to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping”.

But would extra government funding help councils? In November last year, a government grant of £750,000 was made available to repair privately rented homes in the north east that had been empty for two or more years. The new homes would be rolled out between 2016-2021.

With this grant, a mere 30 homes could be repaired compared to the rest of the 20,000 that remained empty. This suggests that the policy of using EDMOs to boost housing supply is too complex and time consuming to make a major contribution to meeting the housing crisis.

“Tackling empty property will never be more than a marginal contribution to the housing crisis.”

Ross Fraser, independent housing commentator and former Chief Executive of Housemark, a leading housing consultancy, argues that “fast action on empty property would require councils to be given the powers to legally requisition empty property – as happened immediately after World War II – but there is no appetite amongst any political party to do this.”

“Tackling empty property will never be more than a marginal contribution to the housing crisis. The Liberal Democrats would be wise to recognise this and focus instead on how 250,000 new homes can be built each year over the next decade.”

Matthew Warburton, policy director of ARCH also argued that “over the years, the Lib Dems have shifted their focus from empty homes owned by local authorities to now ones that are privately owned. The reason for that is because the number of empty homes owned by local authorities had reduced significantly.”

“It’s a good campaigning issue, with readily identifiable villains but there’s not a lot they can do.”

Those in the housing industry feel that this is an easy and palatable story for the public, which the Lib Dems wish to capitalise from in order to boost their popularity.

Warburton responded to this by telling City News “Throughout my 40 year career, the Lib Dems have focused on empty homes as a housing policy. I feel that it’s a good campaigning issue, with readily identifiable villains but there’s not a lot they can do.”

When asked whether he thought it was an effective policy he stated, “In Cornwall the issue is second homes, but in the northeast it’s more about depopulation. The policy to solve that issue is much more economic than it is housing. It’s much easier to devise policy to stop homes being sold to those who will leave them empty, than dealing with the ones that already are.”

The Liberal Democrats declined to comment on this story.