Monday, 8 November 2010

Coalition Government develops radical new plans to tackle empty homes

Good news today which I discovered via the Department of Communities and Local Government's Business Plan, which was published by the Coalition Government today as part of a drive towards greater transparency.
Priority 4 of the Plan relates to housing aspirations:
'Meet people’s housing aspirations, including by providing local authorities with strong and transparent incentives to facilitate housing growth, as well as making the provision of social housing more flexible"
Action 4.8 of the Plan in particular caught my eye:
'Develop a strategy to bring more empty homes back into use, working with local authorities, housing associations and some of the property owners, neighbours and others affected.'
So far the Government has done the following:
  • Invited interested parties (including local authorities and registered social landlords) to submit views through the Homes and Communities Agency’s ‘Maximising the Use of Empty homes’ online debate
  • Considered the Homes and Communities Agency’s analysis of responses and develop plans to bring more empty homes into use
Later this month the government will:
  • Consult as part of the New Homes Bonus consultation, on provision to reward local authorities for bringing empty homes back into use
  • Work with the Homes and Communities Agency to develop a programme for empty homes
The fact that the Government is already developing concrete proposals to reduce the number of long-term empty properties across the country is fantastic news for everyone who wants to see councils and other public bodies makes the most out of existing housing stock.
It is a testament to individuals such as David Ireland, Chief Executive of the Empty Homes Agency who have been making the case for action for much longer than I have, and who originally got me involved in the campaign. The approach taken by the Coalition Government is in direct contrast to the timid, slow one taken by the previous Labour Government.
Locally, thanks to the Lib Dem campaign I led, Reading Borough Council is steadily bringing empty homes back into use following years of inaction by the previous Labour administration which meant the number of empty homes built up to several hundred. Disgraceful when you think this Council once won awards for its empty homes work.
It's worth saying that this work is about far more than simply bringing a home back into use as a new home - it can also be about reducing anti-social behaviour, helping individuals who have got to financial and legal difficulty and restoring pride in our neighbourhoods.
Details released today follow the announcement in the Comprehensive Spending Review that £100 million pounds would be allocated by the Government to bringing empty homes back into use - evidence of commitment at Treasury level to action in this area.
As someone who has been campaigning for over four years for action on this issue, I was very encouraged to see plans to tackle empty homes included in the Coalition Agreement. Both Liberal Democrat and Conservative manifestos contained commitment to action to reduce the number of empty homes. Earlier this year I went to meet Andrew Stunell MP, Minister for Local Government at DCLG to lobby him to deliver on this commitment. I found him very receptive. He asked me some challenging questions about how change could be delivered. I understood that he needed to find a solution that could be acceptable to the Conservatives but also one which was cost-effective and value for money. I am hopeful that progress can be made by councils working with the Homes and Communities Agency.
I am excited by proposals to incentivise councils to bring empty homes in their area back into use.  Empty homes work is currently a non-statutory function of councils - hence not all councils choose to act and a very patchy picture nationally. It must make financial sense as well as sense from a community perspective for councils to act as some of the powers have can be costly in terms of the time and resource needed to make them work.
This announcement today coupled with last week's announcement by Chris Huhne of the new Green Deal is yet more evidence that this Government is committed to getting the most out of existing housing stock, as well as building more homes. This makes environmental, as well as economic sense and I look forward to investigating the details when they are published in the coming weeks.

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