Although it took place a few days ago, the Scottish Empty Homes Conference was very much in the same spirit as Empty Homes Week: a call to action and a celebration of what is being achieved.
This was the first time I had attended the event and it was well worth the cross-country trek from Exeter to Edinburgh - not least, I admit, because Edinburgh is a city where I once lived and of which I have many happy memories. It was lovely to wander the sunny streets and be reminded of why it earned the title "the Athens of the North".
Over 70 people attended the Conference, which was superbly organised by the Shelter Scotland team. This was to be Kristen Hubert's last event before going off on maternity leave and the event was a fitting tribute to her effectiveness as Co-ordinator of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership since its inception. The day was structured around three workshop sessions, each session allowing a choice of three options.
Local Project Panels
Some of the workshop sessions involved 'Local Project Panels' at which practitioners described their schemes, identified issues, and sought input from the audience. It was nicely interactive, with sessions small enough for anyone in the audience to feel comfortable about making a contribution. The Local Project Panel attended by me included three presenters. Mary Hill of YMCA, Glenrothes described what I would consider a classic social housing empty homes project, involving good partnerships with a local authority and support providers. Jen Ellis described the challenges of her work to get rural empty properties back into use on a 28,000 acre estate in the South Lochs area of the Isle of Lewis, bought by the community after 13 years of negotiation through the Pairc Trust. She was required her to grapple with the paradox of a shortage of rental accommodation on the one hand and the risks associated with a possible lack of tenants on the other. This seems to be a continuing theme in rural empty homes work where locational factors can play an over-riding part. Finally, Graeme Carling of Carling Properties, a private sector property developer, described his engagement with bringing empty homes back into use and letting them at LHA rates. It was clear that commercial opportunity and social engagement do not have to be in conflict. He was fortunate in operating on a large enough scale to be able take the rough with the smooth - in other words to absorb cost over-runs on some projects because of savings on others. Still it was interesting to hear him note that a key aim was to improve his cost estimating: when it comes to empty homes, no one gets away scot free(!). His appetite for the work was a welcome contrast to the whinging that I recall amongst some English housing associations when the HCA ran its big conversation about empty homes a few years ago: they would condescend to do the work but only if the taxpayer would de-risk it for them.
Another very interesting session was that run by Allyson Allison of Stirling Council and David Sanderson of Carlisle City Council on 'Making the Business Case for an Empty Homes Officer'. Lots of valuable lessons there which I hope will be documented in such a way that more people can benefit from it.
A particularly inspiring session was run by officers from Fife council where they described the close working between the empty homes team and the council tax team. The focus was on using discretion in the imposition of Empty Homes Premium to motivate owners to bring their properties back into use. Criteria had been developed around when the empty homes team could negotiate such flexibility and the way that information and discretion was shared in a controlled way between the two teams was inspiring. Normally I am implacably hostile to tax breaks for empty homes owners: such generosity towards people who invariably own more than one property always seem like an insult to the rest of us struggling with our various tax bills. On my model, for example, purchasers of empty homes should capitalise their future council tax liabilities (while they refurbish the property) or future VAT charges and reduce the purchase price accordingly. This is how a rational market should work and would mean the cost of keeping a property empty would fall where it belonged - on the owner who kept it empty in the first place. But of course the market is not always rational. If anything was going to persuade me to take a more flexible line, then the Fife model would be it.
What struck me most from the Conference was how organised it is up in Scotland. This is not the first time I have pointed up the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership as a beacon of best practice, but its exemplar status grows ever more compelling as the results continue to roll in and the partnership expands. Of course, this is largely dependent on the support of the Scottish government, and it was telling that Kevin Stewart MSP, Scottish Minister for Local Government and Housing was there to offer not just moral support but to announce yet further tranches of funding for more empty homes officers and promises of changes to legislation to support what the officers do.
The announcement of funding for empty homes officers at two more authorities means that 19 out of 32 Scottish local authorities will have specialist empty homes staff (not all full time). The Howdens Empty Homes Champion awards brought home still further the centrality of the specialist practitioner in effective delivery, and it is by focusing on this essential human resource that the Scottish government is most to be congratulated. In fact, in the early years, success depended more or less on the skill and tenacity of the practitioners alone, as there was little in the way of funding or legislation to rely on compared with what was available down in England. Of particular interest is how initial funding allowed the Empty Homes Officers to prove their worth, so that local authorities were subsequently prepared to fund the posts themselves. In the case of Stirling, this meant moving from a post shared with other authorities to a dedicated post.
Whilst we were pleased to welcome Andrew Stunell and Don Foster to our own 2011 and 2012 Conferences, what was on offer then were announcements of now-you-see-it-now-you-don't injections of capital funding without any sense of the need for an infrastructure to guarantee delivery. The debacle at Rossendale and the failure of the Empty Homes Loan scheme to get off the ground illustrate what can go wrong when random organisations grasp at short-term funding opportunities rather than their efforts being part of an integrated and planned strategy. We should not forget, however, that the successes far outweighed the failures, and it was the absence of any strategic monitoring or evaluation of the English funding programmes that was the real failure. It tells us all we need to know about the capacity of those concerned to think strategically or understand what tackling empty homes really demands. Whilst we in the Empty Homes Network have been issuing calls since 2009 for a proper empty homes initiative for England - without any real hint of comprehension by Whitehall or politicians - Scotland has moved from an initial pilot to resoundingly successful national strategy.
The challenge of rural empties
To finish on a more positive note, the day finished with a presentation by - to quote many news outlets - 'punk drummer' John Maher, previously of the Buzzcocks, who showed many of his photographs of abandoned crofts, with both interior and exterior shots. I am not sure about his status as a punk drummer - he came across as a decent, normal bloke notably lacking in Mohicans, zips or piercings: but he is certainly a superb photographer and you can understand why his work has captured the imagination. He was accompanied by Brian Whittington of Tihean Innse Gall, whose job was to find ways of rescuing some of these dwellings and making them inhabitable and affordable - the latter necessarily implying costly works to alleviate fuel poverty. Their depiction of these crofts as embedded in a social fabric that means they are not just empty real estate but monuments to the people who lived in them was eye-opening - and sometimes poignant, for example when poppies are placed outside them in remembrance of those who had died in 20th Century wars.
Tony Cain, Policy Manager for ALACHO, Conference Chair, and Kevin Stewart MSP and Minister for Local Government and Housing, answering a tricky question from our own David Sanderson.
Allyson Allison receives yet another award! With Phil Hanson of Howdens to her left and Kevin Stewart presenting the award.
From left, Graeme Carling, May Hill, Jen Ellis and Gavin Leask of Shelter.