Monday, 5 December 2011

Empty Homes Week 2011 - Reading Lib Dems' Campaign Continues

Apologies for the lack of updates, the previous few weeks have been incredibly busy, but productive.

I haven't had time to write many blog posts so if you want to keep up with my activities you might want to follow me on Twitter.

But I wanted to write a quick note about an important current issue and one that is close to my heart .

This week is National Empty Homes Week - the brainchild of my friend David Ireland, Chief Executive of the excellent campaigining charity Empty Homes.

David switched me on to the problem  in Reading when he phoned me out of the blue five years ago when I was first elected on to Reading Borough Council to tell me about the problem of empty homes and to draw my attention to the Council's shocking record on the issue.

The Council which was at that time controlled by Labour had no strategy, resources of focus ont the issue.

This was not as a result of lack powers available to tackle the problem but lack of will by councillors in control of the Council to do something about it.

I began campaigning on the issue locally and this led me at one point to have a meeting with a Labour housing minister who despite listening to what I had to say failed to take any action whatsoever to improve the situation.

Fast forward to today and we have a Council controlled once again by Labour councillors who are once again close to silent on the issue.

To to coincide with Empty Homes Week this morning I took part in a live discussion with BBC Radio Berkshire's Andrew Peach, David Ireland, and Hayley, a resident living in Buckinghamshire struggling to get access to housing she can afford.

According to statistics gathered by Radio Berkshire there are about 25,000 people on housing waiting lists across Berkshire and at about 8,000 in Reading alone.

By their reckoning the number of people stuck on waiting lists has risen by 60% since 2004.

In Reading, lack of access to affordable housing is a major problem for many families and all political parties should be focussed on finding solutions.

There is a particular shortage of family-sized housing to rent.

At the same as people are struggling to find housing in our area there are over 400 properties currently registered as empty in Reading alone (down on 500 last year).

Clearly, bringing empty homes back into use will not solve the housing shortage we are facing but it will go part way to addressing it whereas doing nothing about them will just make matters worse.

According to official figures from Reading Borough Council the total number of properties in Reading classed as 'long term empty' i.e. empty for 6 months or more breaks down as follows:
  • 281 owned by individuals
  • 67 owned by companies
  • 86 by housing associations
  • 3 by public bodies
Locally I've led the campaign to raise the profile of empty homes since 2006 and I'm glad that after years of campaigning to get action taken at both local and national government we have a government that actually believes in tackling the problem.

Action on empty homes in the Coalition Agreement and is being delivered now.

Last week in a debate on the issue, Lib Dem Minister Andrew Stunell said:
'I am appalled at the scandal that 250,000 properties are empty when millions of people are on waiting lists, anxiously looking for homes and unable to find them. As well as being eyesores and as well as easily falling into disrepair, empty homes are often an expensive menace to communities and public services, attracting antisocial behaviour, squatting and vandalism.'
So where are empty properties currently located in Reading? According to the latest RBC figures (September 2011) they are:-
Battle 78

Tilehurst 69

Abbey 43

Redlands 30

Minster 27

Katesgrove 27

Park 24

Caversham 24

Norcot 22

THames 18

Kentwood 14

Southcote 13

Church 9

Peppard 8

Mapledurham 2
Real Action on Empty Homes in Reading

Locally Lib Dems have been leading on the issue with other Parties virtually silent.
  • Since 2008, (after a campaign I led which shamed Labour councillors into action) Reading Borough Council has had an Empty Homes Strategy which sets out how the Council will address the problem of empty homes including ranking them by priority order.
  • When I was chair of the housing scrutiny committee I asked for updates on empty homes to be published every 6 months. That stopped after a Labour councillor took over the chair last year.
  • I have gone on regular 'empty homes' walkabouts with RBC officers to understand the problem and campaign for action
  • We have reported countless empty properties to the Council for action across Reading (including 1 Alexandra Road, pictured)
  • We have asked questions in Council meetings of councillors and officers
  • The Lib Dem - Conservative Coalition Administration that ran the Council between May 2010 and May 2011 protected the role of empty homes officer to ensure that despite budget pressures this important work could continue.
Lib Dems protected action on empty homes in this year's budget. The question is will Labour and the Greens?

Research has  shown there tend to be more empty properties in places with large private rented sector - which is what we have in Reading - our private rented sector is the same size as Manchester!

One of the reasons we have so many empty homes in Reading is that until now there have been little or no incentives for landowners or councils to bring empty homes back into use.

Lib Dems in Government are helping to change this.

The Government has taken a number of important steps, including introducing the New Homes Bonus, in response to the empty homes problem.

  • The New Homes Bonus means that for the first time councils are receiving cash not only for every new home they build but also every empty property they bring back into use
  • In Reading the Council has been awarded over £1.2 million pounds for building new homes and bringing empty properties back into use.
  • Government has allocated a £100 million budget so that housing associations, councils and community and voluntary groups could apply to bring empty homes back into use as affordable housing.
  • An additional £50 million of funding has been allocated to tackle some of the worst concentrations of empty homes.
  • Councils will have local discretion to introduce a council tax premium on homes in their areas that have been empty for more than two years, to provide a stronger incentive for empty-home owners to bring them back into use.
David Ireland, Chief Executive of the Empty Homes Agency said:
"The government has introduced some excellent measures to bring empty homes back into use set out in it's housing strategy. It is the first time that there has ever been a government empty homes strategy and we welcome it,
"I do think however, that there are a couple of areas where the government could do more. The first is in encouraging councils to dispose of their own abandoned property, and the second is in helping ordinary people create homes for themselves by bring property back into use."
What can you do to help reduce the number of empty homes?
  • Visit the Empty Homes website for more information on the issue and how you can take action.
  • Watch Channel Four's new series 'The Great Property Scandal' starting tonight at 8.30pm on 4.
  • People in Reading can help us tackle the problem of empty homes. Email me if you notice an empty property on your street and I will raise it with the Council for action.
We will continue to campaign on this important issue but we need your help to bring more empty homes back into use so get involved.

We owe it to the people stuck waiting for affordable housing to do everything we can to make the best use of existing housing as well as building new homes.

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