Back in February, during the General Election campaign I raised concerns about a Conservative Party manifesto commitment to scrap powers councils have to take over privately owned homes that have been empty for six months or more. I was concerned that scrapping these powers would reduce councils' ability to tackle empty homes. Empty Property Management Orders (to give them their full title) were introduced in 2006 as part of the Housing Act (2004) to help local authorities do more to reduce the number of empty homes in their area.
Today I read that the Conservative Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government Eric Pickles had moved to modify EDMOs so they can only be used by councils 2 years after a property has become empty. Mr Pickles has attacked these powers as 'heavy handed' and likely to infringe homeowner's rights.
This is disappointing news and I wish he had consulted a bit more widely before making the announcement. While I welcome the fact that EDMOs are not being abolished altogether I am concerned that they could make it harder for councils to tackle the problem of empty homes and lead to an increase in this blight.
This announcement gives the impression that councils rush to use these powers to harass homeowners. The reality is in most cases this is a long way away from the truth. As I pointed out in February, very few councils have actually had cause to use EDMOs. An answer to a parliamentary question by then Housing spokesperson, Sarah Teather MP revealed EDMOs had only been used by councils 15 times since they had been reduced. Councils see these powers very much as a last resort as they can be very expensive to use (they involve lengthy legal action). In Reading to my knowledge the Council has never used this power despite having for a couple of years had a very effective strategy for bringing long term empty homes back into use.
In most cases councils use a combination of encouragement and enforcement activities to persuade landlords to do something about empty homes.However, I think EDMOs can be a useful deterrent landlords from leaving their properties empty indefinitely.
My experience in Reading of campaigning on the issue of empty homes has taught me that there is no one way to bring empty properties back into use. Flexibility is the key. Empty homes officers use a range of tools and powers - a carrot and stick approach if you like. For that reason I would not like to see these powers curtailed without careful thought.
On a wider point it does puzzle me how Eric Pickles can preach localism and yet at every turn appear to want to direct councils from Whitehall. Thankfully, however, this is not a Conservative government but a coalition of two parties hence Empty Property Management Orders have not been dropped (as the Conservatives pledged to do in their manifesto) but modified.
This is clear evidence of the influence of Liberal Democrats such as Andrew Stunell in government (a minister in the same department as Eric Pickles). When I met him earlier this year to discuss empty homes policy he explained that there was difference of opinion between Conservative and Lib Dem MPs on policy but there was clear willingness on all sides to do more to tackle the problem, by blending the best policies from each Party.
Overall the Coalition Government has signalled it is much more committed to dealing with the problem of empty homes than the previous Labour Government ever were: As I blogged last November the Liberal Democrat-Conservative Coalition has developed ambitious plans to reduce the number of empty homes in the UK - including using financial incentives to reward councils for bringing empty homes back into use.