Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Leading the Campaign To Tackle Reading's Empty Homes

I don't mind admitting I'm a little bit obsessed about tackling empty homes. But sometimes in politics you need to be a bit obsessed to change things and get things done.
Last March when I was chair of the then Housing, Health & Community Care Panel I went on a tour of some of Reading's empty homes and I was struck by the diversity of properties I saw - right across the Borough.
Yesterday I hit the streets again joining Reading Borough Council's officer responsible for coordinating empty homes activity, because as Lead Member for Housing I believe in leading the local agenda, not following it, and seeing for myself the realities of issues facing our Town.
I am fairly confident I am the only councillor in Reading and probably the UK who spent a freezing cold morning earlier this week hand-delivering letters to landlords of empty properties. This, I discovered forms a large part of the work of a empty homes officer. But then delivering leaflets and letters is second nature to me as a busy ward councillor!
As it turned out spent most of our time checking out empty homes in Abbey and Battle wards in central Reading as these wards suffer from a high number of empty properties.  This is partly because they are wards with a large private-rented market and also to do with the age of some of the properties i.e. they require significant investment to be rented out.
A number of empty properties in Reading are self-contained flats and a number are once-beautiful Victorian and Edwardian Terraces. Several streets we visited such as Charles Street featured more than one empty home - this can really blight an area so it is important that the Council works with landlords to bring them back into use.
An empty home is also a genuine waste of resources. Particularly when thousands of people locally are waiting to access affordable housing.
On our visit I learned that the reasons that homes are empty vary enormously - we visited a couple of properties that were linked to heavy-duty criminal activity. In some cases landlords have simply bitten off more than they can chew or are struggling for family or medical reasons. In these cases the Council really can help reduce the burden of stress and anxiety on residents.
In virtually every street we visited  we got talking to neighbours - all of whom had views about the impact of the empty homes on their street. On Catherine Street an elderly expressed sadness about the impact of a neglected property on her and her neighbours. This is the reason we have an empty homes policy. It's not good enough simply to say: "not our problem".
It was particularly cheering to talk to a resident who had been living next door to an empty home on Wantage Road in West Reading for many months (pictured). She was really relieved to see the house up for sale as a family home and very grateful for the all the work the Council had put into getting the landlord to bring the home back into use. I think she was pretty flabbergasted to see us out and about in the freezing weather - it's all part of the service.
The approach we take in Reading is pragmatic. The letters I was delivering invite landlords to engage to get help and advice bringing their properties back into use. When this doesn't work enforcement activity is considered but this is the last resort, not the first.
I'm proud that in contrast to a number of other councils Reading Borough Council is not cutting back on it's empty homes activity. The previous Labour administration dumped it's empty homes policy with dreadful results: an increase in the number of empty homes in our Borough creeping up over the last few years. Sadly Labour councillors don't appear to have learned from their mistakes, with my successor as chair of scrutiny ditching update reports on empty homes that I commissioned on a six-monthly basis when I was in the chair.
The Coalition Government has committed to rewarding councils that take a proactive approach to empty homes. In Reading we are already working closely with a full range of local partners including letting agencies, landlords, the Police and housing associations. More recently we have been actively engaging with the Homes And Communities Agency which has £100 million pounds worth of funding to work with housing associations to bring long term empty properties into use.
None of this amazing work could happen without the hard work of our brilliant empty homes officer on the Council - who I would like to say a big thank you  - not least for putting up with me and for all the hours he puts into bringing these once-loved properties back into use as homes.
 If you live in Reading, to report an empty home near you please visit this link.

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