Friday, 12 February 2010

Conservative policy 'U-turn' threatens empty homes campaign

I have been campaigning for the last four years for the need for urgent action to bring the hundreds of empty private homes in Reading back into use. As a direct result of the campaign I have led as Lib Dem housing spokesperson Reading Borough Council now has an empty homes strategy and resources dedicated to tackling this problem.To find out more, you can listen to my recent interview with BBC Radio Berkshire which I recorded just before Christmas here:

Despite our recent successes in getting progress on this issue I am not complacent about the scale of the problems we face and the amount of work still left to be done in this area in Reading. The recession has led to an increase in the number of empty properties in Reading - notably in Battle ward in West Reading (pictured) and with the housing waiting list currently standing at around 5,000 there is a pressing need and I would argue strong moral grounds for speedier action to make more housing available for local families.

Anyway, I like to keep up with what is being said and done nationally on this issue and to continue to campaign for action. In April last year I went to Whitehall to meet the government minister responsible for empty homes, Iain Wright MP, to press the Labour government to do more. And I didn't stop there. When he was reshuffled shortly afterwards I lobbied the minister who took over from him, Ian Austin MP and got him to back further action to help councils like Reading do more to bring empty homes back into use.

The problem of empty homes gained national prominence last year and I was pleased to see a consensus emerge amongst the three major political parties that bringing empty homes back into use should be a priority - this was largely thanks to active campaigns led by the Empty Homes Agency and Inside Housing magazine.

More recently the Lib Dems have led the way on this issue with Nick Clegg and Sarah Teather announcing a few weeks ago that action on empty homes would be a key element of our Party's manifesto at the coming general election - something I was obviously very happy about as it is a policy that will really benefit local people here in Reading.

I was dismayed, therefore, to read about the Conservative shadow housing minister, Grant Shapps, signal an apparent u-turn by his Party on this issue in this week's Evening Standard as I was travelling home from work earlier this week. In the article, Mr Shapps says that the Tories would abolish empty property management orders (EDMOs) which give councils the power to bring empty homes back into use. Mr Shapps attacked the powers as "draconian".

This strikes me as a potential backward step and gives landlords and local authorities the wrong message on empty homes. I have looked into this issue and found that EDMOs have only been open to councils since 2006, following Royal Assent of the Housing Act 2004 in 2006. Interestingly at the time they were proposed by the Empty Homes Agency these powers attracted cross-party support. Since the legislation was introduced councils have been encouraged to use these powers but most only use them as a last resort for various reasons not least because they can be time-consuming and costly. Sometimes, however, the threat of action by a local authority is needed in order to spur landlords into action.

The answer to a parliamentary question tabled by Sarah Teather earlier this year revealed that so far councils (and that includes Conservative-controlled councils) have used these powers a total of 15 times. This hardly gives the impression of councils using these powers excessively.

So I think the claims made by Mr Shapps in the article in the Evening Standard in which he attacks EDMOs as "bully-boy" laws which he says are being used to "seize the homes of the dead and vulnerable" risks being pretty misleading about both the frequency and the way in which councils have used these powers.

EDMOs have so far not been used in Reading as officers have felt it has not been necessary to use them. I notice they have been used by Conservative-controlled South Oxfordshire District Council, though. Here in Reading, a 'carrot and stick' approach used by officers is proving effective in most cases although it is a slow process and there is a backlog of empty properties to tackle (following years of inaction by Labour).

Officers I have spoken to working in the area of empty homes argue that EDMOs should be just one of a range of tools available to councils to tackle the problem of empty homes.

These powers do not need to be used in relation to every home - sometimes the threat of action by the local authority is enough to get landlords to return their properties to use after a long period of time. I would accept as well that these powers could be tweaked to make them more effective.

Without these powers it might make it more difficult for councils to persuade landlords to bring empty properties back into use. So, Conservative policy could lead inadvertently to an increase in empty properties.It would therefore seem that tackling empty private homes is no longer a priority to the Conservative Party.

The latest comments made Grant Shapps give out a very mixed message to the public, councils and landlords about his Party's approach to the problem of empty homes - not least because they appear to be in sharp contrast to Mr Shapps' public support for Inside Housing's 'Empty Promise' campaign last year .

This campaign sought cross-party support for three campaign pledges:

- calling for VAT to be cut to 5 per cent on home refurbishment and renovation;

- a grant for social landlords to buy and repair empty properties;

- and clearer guidance to help councils use empty dwelling management orders to free up homes.

According to Inside Housing when he signed up to the campaign last year Mr Shapps said he 'warmly welcomed' these pledges. It's not clear why Mr Shapps' and his Party have cooled towards the national empty homes campaign since then.

In contrast to the confused position of the Conservatives on empty homes, Sarah Teather and Nick Clegg have demonstrated a clear commitment to helping councils and landlords work together to tackle the problem of empty homes.

A Lib Dem government would empower councils to take a more proactive approach to dealing with the problem of empty homes in their area by giving them access to more grants and loans to incentivise landlords to help tackle this country's affordable housing crisis - and create jobs on the way!

Check out this video to find out more:

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