Empty Homes Network

Life in the Lakes - March 2015

Life in the Lakes

March  2015

I am currently feeling very happy with the end result of our first empty homes grant, part of our new empty homes grant management scheme.  Or as they say in this neck of the woods ‘job’s a good ‘un’!!  There’s now a very contented family living in what looks like a new home – mum, dad, 3 kids and dog!  Result!

We persevered with the prototype legal agreements needed for this scheme, which took a long time to complete.    Now it all feels worthwhile.

Prior to this scheme, I always felt that empty home owners, as a general rule, didn’t want to project manage repairs or to be a landlord.  This scheme seems to be ideal for both our empty home owners and for our district council – it means we are effectively the co-ordinators, and our partner housing association are the project managers and managing agent for the property.  It’s a good ‘match’ all round.

The ‘icing’ on the cake was the lovely positive press coverage we had, which I hope will attract more empty home owners.  In fact we’re off to visit an interested owner today….

Lynne Campbell, Empty Homes Officer, South Lakeland District Council

Meeting the challenge of low demand? - News Review

220 empties in Horden street survey

There have been a fair few stories over the last two or three weeks about significant numbers of empty homes in Durham mining villages near Easington which demonstrate that the issues associated with "low demand" - and the search for solutions - are still very much alive.

In the news stories it is Horden in particular which has been singled out, with a claimed 130 empty homes owned by Accent housing association now slated for disposal and reportedly another 130 to follow.

Factoids

Most of the key elements in the story seem to be discussed in a Channel 4 News clip and a story the following day and could be summarised as follows:

  • the "broken window" effect means that the level of vacancy is a major deterrent to people moving in and is thus self-perpetuating
  • many of the empties (most?) are owned by Accent housing association, which is planning to dispose of them in the open market
  • Accent says that 67% of its two-bedroom homes were let to single people, mostly unemployed, and the bedroom tax was "the straw that broke the camel's back"
  • nevertheless when they converted a two-bedroom home into a one-bedroom it apparently still could not be let
  • there was a significant decline in social conditions over an indeterminate number of years but that did not follow directly on the closure of the colliery
  • Accent failed to sell the homes for £1 each to Durham County Council, which claimed the homes needed too much work
  • there are claims that Accent failed to keep the homes in good repair
  • it is claimed by some that two-bedroomed Victorian terraced houses are so little in demand that they should be considered obsolete
  • there are 11,000 households on the waiting list
  • homesteading is a popular option amongst those seeking solutions.

Bigger picture

What has been little discussed are the broader regeneration issues such as employment and also the extent to which problems have emerged in, or have been created by, the private housing market (eg the incidence of poor quality private rented accommodation let by disengaged private landlords).  A survey by the local residents' association indicates that 220 properties are empty which might be taken as evidence that there 90 vacant private sector homes alongside the social housing.

A case study

Although posing some problems that are different from those of Liverpool's Welsh streets  - which, being within walking distance of the centre of the city, might have lent themselves to "organic" gentrification had the nuclear option of enforced gentrification not seized the imagination of the powers that be - the locational factors at Horden are not totally disadvantageous either. The village is on the Durham heritage coast and a railway station is being built that might reasonably be expected to make a significant difference to the desirability of the village as a place to live.

The priority is to find solutions; but at the same time, there is a need for some thorough research here that would plot the causes and trajectory of the decline in more detail, explore the solutions, and provide a template for earlier interventions elsewhere. On the evidence supplied it is easy enought to conclude that Accent's responses have not been imaginative or timely enough to address the emerging difficulties, a point made quite strongly by the local MP who also accuses the HCA of failing to intervene.  But perhaps it is all too easy to point fingers: it would certainly demand an exceptional combination of leadership and a sophisticated, multi-agency place-making strategy to tackle the diverse underlying issues involved, which are not all under Accent's control (the bedroom tax being a case in point).

Local residents, with support from community housing expert Jo Gooding, are now mobilising to create some alternatives to outright sale in the open market. It is this kind of energy—the kind of energy that large bureaucratic organisations can rarely supply— which might turn things around.  The hope would be that this could build sufficient momentum to decisively reverse decline: the fear, that it would be too little, too late.

And the need for a more strategic approach with other players involved is well illustrated by the saga of Horden's late-running railway station. The original one was axed by Beeching in 1962 and the new one, called Peterlee, is now scheduled to be opened in 2016, but that will be nearly thirty years after the colliery and power station were closed in 1987, destroying the local economy.  Taking into account this tardy response from the masters of the region's infrastructure (whoever they are and have been), the thought occurs that perhaps it is not the houses that have fallen out of fashion so much as the people who live in them.  Hopefully a resurgent residents' association can put them back on the map.

Other stories and information

Canopy report reveals benefits of empty homes project

Canopy Housing CBA report - front cover

A report commissioned by Canopy Housing Project in Leeds and published early in 2014 shows the benefits that self-help housing can bring to a range of different stakeholders.

Written by Andy Bagley (Real-Improvements consultancy), this is a first-stage, preliminary report on the Social Return on Investment (SROI) provided by Canopy's project to bring empty homes back into use, a project which also draws in volunteers, provides homes, and helps people into training and work. 

A fuller evaluation is understood to be in the pipeline: the current report notes

Stage Two of this project, developing a full SROI analysis, will take a much more rigorous approach, and will test with volunteers, tenants and other stakeholders exactly what benefits they experience in practice.

On the basis of the more limited methodology used in the report, Canopy has produced £4.28 of social value for each £1 of external investment. Examples of social value include obvious measures such as reduction in benefits payments but extend also to less obvious and perhaps less-easily-quantifiable measures such as "better family relationships".

Under-estimates?

It may be that the current report does not take into account all the benefits of the project. For example the following are not included:

  • there is the widely-reported (but hard to access) research from Hometrack from June 2003 that found that neighbouring homes can lose up to 18% of their value if sited next to an empty property
  • housing benefit savings to the local Council seem not to have taken into account the possiblity that tenants were previously in much more expensive homeless accommodation.

Benchmarks for SROI/CBA

The diversity of sources drawn on for benchmarks from which to calculate the benefits is itself of some interest, suggesting the desirablility of robust, evidence-based datasets at national level that could then be drawn on for this sort of exercise. There are Cabinet-Office-branded documents available dating from 2009, but there seems to be no comparable material on the current gov.uk website - although perhaps this is just because thinking has moved on to the what-works network. The 2009 documents - no longer Cabinet-Office-branded and now featuring 2012 updates by the original authors   - are most easily accessible from the website of the SROI Network.

Further information

The report is downloadable from our library here.

For people blessed with unlimited curiousity, there is a discussion on the SROI Network website of the difference between Cost-Benefit Analyses and SROI here.

Empty Homes Network launches first Online Practitioner Guide to enforced sale

EHN screenshot of Enforce Sale Guide

The Empty Homes Network is pleased to be able to offer its first online Practitioner Guide. The new Guide to Enforced Sale has been written by Chris Skinner

Chris, a solicitor at Norfolk County Council's shared legal services nplaw, is known for his work on enforced sales and compulsory purchase orders and will be speaking at our May 20th Conference.

We expect to convert our other Practitioner Guides to the online format over the next few months.This will make them much easier to update, so members can always then be sure of looking at the latest version.

A new menu option has been added under the Practice menu linking to the (currently rather short!) list of online Guides - or simply click here.

NB: Most Guides will only be available to our Full Members so you'll need to have the necessary permissions and be logged in to access the material. For further information about our membership categories, refer to our About Membership page.

Council tax exemption B case clarifies the rules

Royal Courts of Justice

A recent court High Court ruling clarifies the position regarding the rules around Council Tax Exemption Class "B" and suggests that it will be very easy for charitable housing assocations or other charitable bodies to benefit from the exemption, regardless of the rent charged in most cases. 

For the record, Exemption Class "B" reads as follows:

"a dwelling owned by a body established for charitable purposes only, which is unoccupied and has been so for a period of less than 6 months and was last occupied in furtherance of the objects of the charity"

An important part of the background is that prior to its abolition in April 2013, housing associations could simply have invoked the 6 month exemption offered by Class C for any unfurnished dwelling: previously there would have been little need to rely on the Class "B" exemption, other than for the rare furnished property (perhaps in supported housing).  As the judge quaintly put it, "The repeal of Class C has caused Class B to be pulled into the sunlight" for those charitable housing associations able to claim it.

The case was heard by Justice Mostyn and involved vacancies following three tenancies granted by two different housing associations in three London Boroughs (for the details of the case refer to the full judgement in our Information Library  Full Members only).  The local authorities were appealing against a decision by Graham Zellick, President of the Valuation Tribunal.

What was at issue was the interpretation of the phrase "last occupied in furtherance of the objects of the charity" and in the background lurked the questions of how the previous tenant arrived there and the level of rent that might be charged in this era of "unaffordable" affordable rents.

Whereas Graham Zellick had apparently taken the view that by definition any tenancy granted by a charitable housing association would be of a "charitable" nature, the Judge on Appeal decided otherwise: there was a need for those claiming the exemption to provide a minimal level of evidence case-by-case and "inasmuch as the President
says otherwise his decision is not supported." 

He went on to rule that in two of the three cases, sufficient evidence had been provided, but not in the third. He also made it clear how simple it would be to create procedures that would meet the evidential requirement to claim the exemption:

In my judgment a short written representation by the applicant (which might usefully be done on some kind of standard form) which addresses all four conditions directly and which states (a) that based on the material held by the applicant the conditions are met and (b) that the statement is true to the belief of the representor, should normally be enough.

Students of the absurd, which most empty property practitioners necessarily are, might wish to reflect which of the three tenancies below were entitled to be regarded as meeting charitable objectives and which were not.

  1. 4-bedroom house, rent £154.53 per week, LB of Ealing
  2. 2-bedroom flat, let at a Fair Rent in 1990 at £25.86 per week plus £5.64 service charge, RB of Kensington and Chelsea (very complicated history here with transfers of tenancies and the like)
  3. 3-bedroom property, rent £420.00 per week (about £1800 per month), LB of Hammersmith and Fulham

Yes, the Fair Rent tenancy was the one that failed the test as the tortuous story of how the tenant came to be there and the rent came to be so low did not prove the charitable nature of the case; the £1800 per month property, being let via a leasing scheme to a homelessness prevention case, did fulfil a charitable purpose.

The judge suggested that there might be an amendment to the regulations to give a class exemption to charitable housing associations: this is somewhat counter-intuitive given his statement that charitable housing associations can also engage in non-charitable activities.

The fact that ALMOs and HRA properties can't benefit from Class "B" also creates some anomalies and suggests that a less arbitrary exemption might be appropriate that would cover all social housing equally and fairly. 

Picture by Elliott Brown

 

Creative Commons License
Elliott Brown picture is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

 

Scotland launches Town Centre Empties Fund

Screenshot - Scottish Government website story

The Scottish government has launched a new £4million fund to help address empty homes and commercial properties in town centres.  The funding can be used to bring long-term empty homes back into use or to convert redundant commercial properties into housing.  As with the predecessor scheme, the Scottish Empty Homes Loan Fund, the homes produced must be affordable.

There is little detail available about the Town Centre Empty Homes Fund at the moment. The press release states simply that it

will offer funding to regenerate both homes which have been lying empty for long periods of time, and to convert empty commercial spaces into residential accommodation. The properties will then be available for affordable rent or sale.

However one resevervation expressed by EHN with respect to the predecessor scheme does seem to have been addressed in that the fund consists of a 50-50 mixture of loans and grant, whereas the previous scheme was 100% loan with 60% to be repaid by 2019-20. 

EHN has previously pointed out that expecting empty homes practitioners to produce affordable housing purely on the basis of loans, given that affordable housing normally involves grant, is incoherent from the policy point of view and significantly reduces the number of deliverable schemes.  No doubt skilled practitioners will be able to negotiate schemes in some cases but having to pay the capital back leaves us operating with one hand tied behind our backs compared with registered providers who have received billions in grant to achieve comparable results.

Precise definitions of "Town Centre", "long periods of time", "empty commercial space", "affordable rent or sale" remain to be clarified as do the details of who would be eligible to bid for money. Meantime, the Scottish Government announcement can be found here and further details will be reported when they become available.    

Pickles plucks Liver Bird's feathers

[The views expressed in this article are the views of the author and not those of the Empty Homes Network]

It's back to the drawing board for the powers that be in Liverpool following Eric Pickles' decision[1] to over-rule his Planning Inspector and refuse the CPO and planning permission that would have allowed the redevelopment of the "Welsh Streets" to go ahead.

The redevelopment scheme in question, proposed back in 2013, involved saving some of the homes originally scheduled for demolition, including the (apparently) vital childhood home of Ringo Starr, the noted composer, singer, film star and erstwhile performer with the long-defunct pop group "The Beatles".  Despite these saving graces, the scheme would have meant demolishing 439 dwellings (to be replaced by 229 new homes) and retaining only 37, giving a net loss of 210 dwelings according to Pickles (paras 26-7). 

The Pickles' decision gives a lot of emphasis to the "heritage" aspect. This is not, as one might first suspect, just to rub salt in the wound by emphasising that Liverpool's destiny is controlled more by heritage campaigners than by the people of Liverpool: it is because it allows reference back to parts of Liverpool's own planning policy regarding the importance of heritage assets. Local planning policy is naturally a key factor in a planning inquiry. 

The emphasis on heritage also allows opponents of the scheme to pay relatively less regard to the views of the current local residents in favour of the possible views of a ghostly series of future generations who might want to know what some fairly ordinary red-brick terraced workers' houses look like or might really, really want to get to grips with the whole setting into which Ringo Starr was born and lived for a short period of time[5]

To many an outside observer, on the evidence cited, the heritage arguments against demolition are less than compelling, though SAVE certainly made a strong case. But in the context of meeting government policy, the "empty homes" grounds for refusal actually look more solid, less subjective: indeed it is fair to say that many of the SAVE arguments themselves are less about "heritage" as such and more about urban design and what could and should be done with empty homes.

Empty homes policy 

Inspector's report

The Planning Inspector, Christine Thorby, certainly seems to have done herself no favours in the way that she dealt with government empty homes policy. Eric Pickles raises the following points in his decision letter:

27 Demolition or re-use of empty homes: The Secretary of State has considered the cases put forward by the Council, the applicant, SAVE and other interested parties, including George Clarke, the independent empty homes advisor appointed by the Government, and the Inspector’s conclusions at paragraph 225-231 of Annex D to the I[ nspector's]R[eport] The Secretary of State has considered paragraph 51 of the [National Planning Policy] Framework and the documents listed at paragraph 27-31 of Annex D to the IR including Laying the Foundations’ A Housing Strategy for England DCLG 2011 (Laying the Foundations) which sets out the Government’s intention to increase the number of empty homes that are brought back into use as a sustainable way of increasing the overall supply of housing. The Secretary of State acknowledges that neither Laying the Foundations nor the Council’s H[ousing]S[trategy] preclude demolition of empty homes and their replacement as a method of achieving better housing (paragraph 227 of Annex D to the IR). However, the Secretary of State considers that the proposals have to be considered in light of the Government’s position as set out in the Written Ministerial Statement of 10 May 2013 and the acceptance of the recommendations in George Clark’s Empty Homes Review which makes clear that refurbishment and upgrading of existing homes should be the first and preferred option and that demolition of existing homes should be the last option after all forms of market testing and options for refurbishment are exhausted.

28 The Secretary of State accepts that all the options assessed in the Princes Park Neighbourhood Renewal Assessment Review and Update Report (‘updated NRA ) have a funding deficit and require a level of grant or gap funding to proceed on the basis of the assumptions made (paragraph 226 Annex D to the IR). However, in this case, the options assessed in the updated NRA did not include approaches such as that advocated by SAVE (paragraphs 121 – 123 of Annex D to the IR) or an intermediate scheme involving more selective demolition within a scheme of mass refurbishment as advocated by George Clarke in his letter to the Inspector of 24 June 2014. Whilst the Secretary of State acknowledges that not all possible forms of market testing and options for refurbishment necessarily need to have been considered he is not persuaded that the NRA was sufficiently broad in its scope and analysis, and therefore he considers that it did not adequately take forward George Clarke’s best practice recommendations on empty homes.

29 Overall, although some demolition within the Welsh Streets may be justified, the Secretary of State is not persuaded that the scale of demolition proposed in this case - has been demonstrated to be necessary and that sufficient forms of market testing and options involving more refurbishment have been exhausted. Consequently, though the proposal does not conflict with the Council’s HS and EHS (paragraph 31-32 of Annex D to the IR) and nor therefore does it conflict with paragraph 51 of the Framework, he concludes that the proposal does conflict with the policy set out in the May 2013 Written Ministerial  Statement to take forward George Clarke’s best practice recommendations on empty homes.

George Clarke's recommendations

In the context of this response, what stands out in the Planning Inspector's Report is that she makes no specific mention of George Clarke's best practice recommendations on empty homes in contrast to the emphasis given to them by Eric Pickles[2].  This can hardly have been an oversight because George Clarke made a submission to the Inquiry opposing the scheme and citing the specific recommendations that were being ignored.  In addition, David Ireland made similar points (though not on behalf othe Empty Homes Agency, which at that point in time he had already left to move to the Building and Social Housing Foundation). One would have expected the points to be addressed one-by-one: had the Inspector done this, she would certainly have found it harder to justify the proposed scheme. As a minimum a more thorough balancing exercise would have been indicated.

It is hard to resist the thought that the best practice recommendations were ignored by the Inspector precisely because she knew they would be difficult to comply with. On the other hand, perhaps the Inspector had concluded that they did not constitute government policy but were merely part of some kind of joint Channel 4/gov.uk media circus. 

Government policy

In this regard it may be relevant that the library of documents referenced in the Inquiry includes "George Clarke's 12 Empty Homes Review Recommendations" at CD6 - document reference CD6.20 (see http://www.programmeofficers.co.uk/Liverpool/ to find your way to this).  These are the original recommendations as published independently by George Clarke and containing no evidence of endorsement by DCLG . Separately, at CD6.19 is Mark Prisk's Written Statement to Parliament of 10th May 2013.  This merely acknowledges that the government is "working with our independent adviser George Clarke to take forward his best practice recommendations on empty homes", which is not quite the same as saying they had been officially adopted or endorsed.

What is not apparent from either of these two sources is that the recommendations were added to the DCLG website in a news item associated with an announcement by Don Foster (then the Under-Secretary with responsibility for empty homes) on 20th June 2013, in which the 12 recommendations had been substantially reworded and reduced to 10 in number. It is fair to surmise that from this point onwards, these have constituted official policy. But as policy goes the 10-point version of the recommendations is pretty hard to find unless you know where to look. To be fair, SAVE did point out at the Inquiry that the goverment had "accepted" all of George Clarke's recommendations but without offering a direct reference. In short, there are some grounds for doubting whether the Inspector was clear about the status of the recommendations and thus the finer details of the official policy she was supposed to be working to, given that she does not cite them anywhere.

But now we know: George Clarke's recommendations need to be treated as  government policy.  The developer, social landlord Plus Dane Group, did claim to have consulted with George Clarke about its plans and to have made some changes to the scheme as a result (see Liverpool Echo story here) but perhaps there was a degree of wishful thinking about how signed up Clarke was to the scheme, or they just assumed that minor changes would be an adequate sop to mitigate his concerns. If they proceeded without any written confirmation from him of his response to the amended scheme then that would, in retrospect, seem naive.

At the time of writing, George Clarke himself seems not to have made a public comment on the success of his intervention and the support for his recommendations, other than via a tweet.

Locals left in the lurch

The Planning Inquiry was a major exercise that took detailed evidence from many different sources on both sides of the argument. The three-week hearings started in June 2014 and it will be a major blow to most of the remaining residents to discover that they must now await the development of yet another plan for the area. 

Even last June, there were protests against the the Planning Inquiry with residents holding signs that read "All I wanted was a new home. Instead I got a new placard".  Depending what papers you read, it is easy to overlook the fact that there has been strong local opinion in favour of the scheme and its demolitions from the Welsh Street Community Champions, who wrote a very aggrieved letter to George Clarke when they discovered he was now opposing the Plus Dane proposals.  

Now, after a further six-month wait those protestors are back to square one, caught between the (not quite) unstoppable force of Liverpool Council and Plus Dane Group on the one hand, and the immoveable object that is Eric Pickles on the other hand. 

Originally strongly opposed to the demolition scheme, and the focus of the first attempts to resist it, the Welsh Streets Homes Group, led by Nina Edge, decided reluctantly not to oppose the latest plans put forward in the LCC/Plus Dane Group application—not because they thought it was the best solution imaginable but because they thought they and their neighbours had suffered enough over years of uncertainty and, like the Planning Inspector, could not see where the money would come from to sustain mass refurbishment. Their response to the Pickles decision was "shocked and speechless" and they issued the following press statement:

Eric Pickles refusal of planning consent for the Plus Dane proposal comes as shocking news to residents today. We have no way of knowing what will become of us now, or how long rebuilding our area will take. We call on the authorities to immediately resolve problems for residents in damp homes, and urgently progress with new plans for the Welsh Streets until they are restored or replaced. Our biggest worries are the continuing community stress, and the antagonism between LCC and central government that this decision creates. We hope all parties will find some common ground and come together swiftly. We need a plan to end our 11 year purgatory

EHN perspective

A tale as tangled as this one does not lend itself to simple judgements by people who do not have the full range of evidence available and do not know their Toxteth from their Croxteth. Unfortunately, at this point in time, it is debatable whether anyone could have the full range of evidence available, partly because it may never have been collected in the first place: the shadow of flawed consultation exercises hang over this story.

What is clear is that something needs to be done and that EHN does not oppose demolition in principle, whilst we certainly are opposed to homes sitting empty unnecessarily and blighting communities.

What is tricky is working out how to balance the history of the scheme, the current situation, and the possible future.

  • What weight do we give to the views of displaced residents who have long moved on?
  • What, in any case, do we really know about their views based on consultations, flawed as they may be, from many years ago?
  • To what extent do we hold LCC and PDG responsible for the long-term neglect of the properties they acquired (or already owned), given that they expected them to be demolished?
  • As regards future generations, how do we really weigh the supposed value of the Welsh Streets as "heritage assets" and as a focus of tourism- who was right, Eric Pickles and SAVE, or the Inspector?
  • And for any given heritage value, how many more years of despair for local residents might be justified in order to maintain that value?
  • Are the heritage standards being applied in this case consistent with those normally applied?
  • If there were lessons to be learned on the development side, how much longer should LCC and PDG be left in the pillory? To what good purpose? 
  • Was the minimal degree of retention proposed by LCC/PDG in their latest scheme a reasonable response to viability issues, made in good faith, or was it a political act of defiance deserving to be slapped down? 
  • Were LCC/PDG somehow led to believe that their proposal would be acceptable (and it was, after all, acceptable to the Planning Inspector) only for them to suffer betrayal at the hands of Eric Pickles, or was it entirely predictable and therefore essentially negligent in the context of the impact on the remaining residents? 
  • How do we assess the self-interest of LCC and PDG as "social landowners", seeking to maximise the value of their asset, as against their roles as custodians and protector of communities and as "social landlords"?
  • How do we balance the interests of owner-occupiers (often the only voices to be heard on the pro-retention side) against those of almost-invisible social and private tenants?

These are the sorts of questions that someone looking to arrive at a balanced view would need to find answers to: there are many more.

The responsiblity of central government

It cannot be overlooked, in the case of the ten-year Welsh Streets saga, that Liverpool CC and Plus Dane have gone down one route on one set of assumptions and within one policy context then had the rug pulled from under their feet by the withdrawal of funding and the introduction of another policy context following the change of govenment in 2010.  These twists and turns will also have affected the views of local people about what they have thought was or was not possible.

The "final cause" of the current impasse may well lie in the long shadow cast by flaws in the sheme that was originally proposed, with its widely-derided "neo-liberal" focus on "housing market renewal" (rather than just "housing renewal")[3] and with the highly dubious programme of "managed decline" which so incensed George Clarke and others, a programme the full implications of which may not have been apparent or spelled out to local people until it was too late. (David Ireland pointed out in his evidence specific and important ways in which Welsh Street consultation exercises seem to have been flawed by not painting an holistic picture of what the different options involved).

In our policy document we seek to counter unduly top-down approaches by stressing the need for truly effective consultation that really does look at all the options and their implications: this is along the lines proposed by George Clarke.  The "design diplomacy" promoted by WSHG is a commendable exemplar in this regard. 

But the "efficient cause" of the blight in 2015 must now be attributed to the refusal of planning permission for the proposed scheme, combined with the (apparent) absence of funding for alternatives that might be more to the government's liking.

Government funding to unlock the impasse?

A relatively simple and appropriate solution, therefore, would be for the government to work with LCC and Plus Dane to provide the funding that these government-preferred alternatives seem to lack. In other words, Eric Pickles should put his money where his mouth is.[4]

Lack of adequate government funding to support housing renewal is entirely down to decisions of the current government: it cannot possibly be laid at the door of a previous government that had allocated money to the renewal programme, a point which George Clarke and the entire heritage lobby, in their love affair with Eric Pickles, never quite seem to get round to making.

In our policy document's support for George Clarke's recommendations we have added the important proviso that any additional costs attached to retaining existing dwellings as opposed to demolition and redevelopment should be borne by the government. That seems a reasonable ask and particularly in a case such as this one. Common sense would suggests that if Clusters of Empties funding can save 37 homes, then further Clusters of Empties funding could save yet more dwellings: there doesn't seem to be anything about the dwellings scheduled for retention that makes them inherently more salvageable than others that are scheduled for demolition.

Perhaps further market testing of different scenarios will demonstrate— as Pickles and SAVE want to suggest—that actually there  is no funding gap, only a gap in creative thinking. But there needs to be a commitment in principle from the government to give such practical assistance as  might be required to achieve viabilty and draw the saga to a close and an acceptance of responsibility for the consequences of funding decisions it has made. At the very least, Eric Pickles could offer to fund the drawing up of a costed scheme by whichever guru - George Clarke or otherwise -  has convinced him that viable alternatives were possible against the views of his Inspector. Perhaps the Homes and Communities Agency could be jointly tasked by the government and LCC/PDG with producing costed alternatives.

But for their part, it would seem appropriate for LCC and PDG to take the George Clarke recommendations and the Eric Pickles ruling seriously. It is hard to believe (though lawyers may think otherwise) that a judicial review would find that the Pickles decision is flawed. The criticism that the LCC/PDG plans do not explore possible variants involving less demolition is hard to refute. It would defy common sense to suggest that demolition on this scale is the only solution (leaving current funding issues aside), that other schemes could not be developed. And if more money is required to alter the balance between demoliton and retention it is not likely to arrive unless LCC/PDG ask for it. 

A ray of hope may lie in what looks to be a very interesting forthcoming Ph.D thesis by Gareth Carr on the Welsh Streets architect Richard Owen. According to SAVE this will indicate that the Welsh Streets are of national and even international signficance in terms of master-planning of workers' terraced housing. This might unlock some heritage funding and give the financial boost that might enable the heritage lobby to demonstrate the practicability of its stance, perhaps allowing the government to inject more money without seeming to renounce its own economic policies. It might certainly help clarify the policy context because currently significant decisions are being made about retaining "heritage assets" that do not even constitute a Conservation Area, which one would have thought would be unusual.

As regards EHN's developing policy position, the key element in the context of national policy would be our belief that it would be advantageous for the government take genuine leadership of a national empty homes initiative rather than proclaiming "localism", pulling funding and then imposing central control whenever the mood suits it. Supporting 12 (or 10) recommendations without any practical framework to implement them does not constitute a strategy.

Housing Renewal Policies

Eric Pickles took the opportunity of hiswritten statement to Parliament (reproduced below) not just to announce his Welsh Streets decision but also to cancel any existing guidance which gave any support to demolition. The eye-popping list of cancelled DCLG/ODPM documents seems to include every single major piece of guidance on housing renewal in existence leaving a more or less blank sheet of paper with the exception of George Clarke's 12 (or 10?) recommendations. One might conclude from this that the government no longer sees neighbourhood regeneration as falling within its policy brief. 

Whereas the heritage aspect was the key focus of Pickle' decision lettter, the main emphasis of the Written Statement was on the government's empty homes policy.

Eric Pickles' Written Statement

Yesterday, as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, I issued decisions on a called-in planning application and a related compulsory purchase order in relation to an area known as the “Welsh Streets” in Toxteth, Liverpool. The proposal was for demolition of 439 small Victorian era terraced homes. After a public inquiry and careful consideration, the planning application is refused and the compulsory purchase order is not confirmed.

The decision letters fully explain the reasons for these decisions. Issues covered in the planning decision letter include: the heritage value of the Welsh Streets—including the effect on the appreciation of Liverpool’s Beatles heritage as the application site includes the birth place of Ringo Starr; the impact of the proposal on the setting of nearby listed buildings and a conservation area; design issues including local character, history and distinctiveness; and the extent to which the proposal is consistent with national planning policy on bringing back empty homes into residential use.

Revocation of outdated guidance

The Coalition Agreement outlined this Government’s commitment to introduce a range of measures to get empty homes back into use, reflecting the 2010 general election manifesto pledges of both Coalition parties. We want to increase housing supply, remove the blight that rundown vacant properties cause and help support local economic growth from refurbishment and improvements.

In the written ministerial statement of 10 May 2013, Hansard, Column 13WS, Ministers committed to revising outdated guidance issued by the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister which encouraged demolition. I can today confirm that the following pieces of outdated guidance no longer reflect Government policy and so are now cancelled:

  • Neighbourhood Renewal Assessment and Renewal Areas (DETR, 1997);
  • Private Sector Renewal Strategies: A Good. Practice Guide (DETR, 1997);
  • Running and Sustaining Renewal Areas (DETR, 2000);
  • Addressing the Needs of Run Down Private Sector Housing (ODPM, 2002);
  • What Works? Reviewing the Evidence Base for Neighbourhood Renewal (ODPM, 2002);
  • Housing Renewal Guidance - ODPM Circular 05/2003;
  • Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future (ODPM, 2003);
  • Assessing the Impacts of Spatial Interventions: Regeneration, Renewal and Regional Development The 3Rs Guidance’ (ODPM, 2004); and
  • Neighbourhood Renewal Assessment guidance manual (ODPM, 2004).

Instead, this Government are championing a series of policies to get empty buildings back into use. We have:

  • Provided over £200 million to fund innovative schemes run by community groups, councils and housing associations up and down the country to create new homes from empty properties, both residential and commercial;
  • Rewarded councils for bringing 100,000 empty homes back into use through the New Homes Bonus;
  • Given councils new powers to remove council tax subsidies to empty homes, and use the funds to keep the overall rate of council tax down. HM Treasury have also changed tax rules to discourage the use of corporate envelopes to invest in high value housing which may be left empty or under-used to avoid paying tax;
  • Taken forward the best practice recommendations produced by our independent empty homes adviser, George Clarke—such as refurbishment and upgrading of existing homes should be the first and preferred option, and that demolition of existing homes should be the last option after all forms of market testing and options for refurbishment are exhausted; we have embedded these principles in our housing programme funding schemes;
  • Cancelled the last Administration’s Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder programme which imposed targets on councils to demolish homes;
  • Amended national planning policy through the National Planning Policy Framework to encourage councils to bring back empty properties back into use;
  • Reformed Community Infrastructure Levy rules to provide an increased incentive for brownfield development, and extended exemptions for empty buildings being brought back into use;
  • Lifted the burden of Section 106 tariffs on vacant buildings being returned to use;
  • Introduced a Right to Contest, building on the existing Community Right to Reclaim Land, which lets communities ask that under-used or unused land owned by public bodies is brought back into beneficial use;
  • Funded a new re-occupation business rate relief to help bring empty shops back into use; and
  • Reformed permitted development rights in a number of ways to free up the planning system and facilitate the conversion of redundant and under-used non-residential buildings into new homes.

This approach is working. The number of empty homes has fallen year-on-year since 2009, and is now at the lowest level since 2004. Similarly, the number of long-term vacant properties has fallen by around a third since 2009.1 hope our programmes will further reduce the number of empty buildings.

For the avoidance of doubt, the call-in decision is not connected to the cancellation of the outdated guidance. I am placing a copy of the decision letters, attached, in the Library of the House.

It is also available online at: http://www.parliament.uk/writtenstatements.

Notes

[1] The original planning inspector's report and Eric Pickles' letter over-turning it and refusing planning permission can be accessed via our library here.

[2] The relevant paragraphs of the Inspector's Report read as follows:

The extent to which the proposed development is consistent with Government policies on bringing back empty homes into residential use

225. In recognition of the high level of vacant properties in Liverpool, LCC has identified as a priority in its Housing Strategy, reducing the number of empty homes. This is supported by their Empty Homes Strategy, which identified a number of initiatives and means for tackling vacancy and delivering refurbishment across the city, including the continuation of investment in housing renewal areas. The Housing Strategy recognises that refurbishment is an option where relevant and viable. Both the housing strategy and the Empty Homes Strategy support Government policy contained in ‘Laying the Foundations’ which seeks to improve the housing market. [58-63inc.,116,117]

226. The NRA update (2013) for Princes Park assessed options for refurbishment/ demolition for the Welsh Streets and found that in terms of viability and deliverability the best option to achieve regeneration benefits for the Princes Park area was demolition and rebuild. SAVE has put forward arguments about the nature of the NRA and the viability appraisal, but, even if these were accepted, it would not alter the conclusion that all options have a funding deficit and require a level of grant or gap funding to proceed. There is no doubt that obtaining funding for refurbishment would be a riskier option with lenders less likely to invest in the poorer properties, where refurbishment is piecemeal and the Welsh Street environment remains poor. [50,54,121,122,129]

227. The environment of the Welsh Streets has suffered significantly from the wait (some 10 years) for a deliverable scheme. The scheme has funding, with gap funding provided by LCC, and the securing of Cluster of Empty Homes funding to refurbish 37 properties. Therefore, it is a scheme which could be delivered and this is a very important consideration meeting the aims of the Housing Strategy and ‘Laying the Foundations’ to deliver decent homes. Moreover, neither document precludes demolition of empty homes and their replacement as a method of achieving better housing. [172,173,174]

228. Imaginative alternatives were suggested as were sources of funding. Nevertheless, there are no alternative schemes for refurbishment for the Welsh Streets put to the Inquiry that have funding and/or are likely to be deliverable within a reasonable timescale. All of the examples suggested, either in Liverpool or other parts of the Country, were small scale interventions and there is no evidence that they could be successful for a large number of houses, such as at the Welsh Streets. Additionally, starting a new process now with alternatives would only be likely to achieve piecemeal interventions and would not secure wider public realm improvements. Funding may not be forthcoming for alternatives and could leave the fate of the Welsh Streets to many years of further decline. [66,121,123,127,128,129,183,187,188,189]

229. The detailed funding circumstances of Lucerne Street and surroundings, and the area known as Bread Streets which have been renovated are not known. However, in contrast to the Welsh Streets, Lucerne Street is located next to a very vibrant commercial road, and the Bread Streets slope down sharply to the River Mersey close to the city centre. Therefore, their circumstances cannot be compared with the Welsh Streets. [66,137]

230. The demolition and rebuilding of empty homes in the Welsh Streets has to be seen in the context of the city as a whole, where it is only one of many interventions including refurbishment and environmental improvements undertaken in many renewal areas. Within the Princes Park renewal area, demolition of the Welsh Streets is similarly only one part of a comprehensive scheme encompassing refurbishment and tackling vacancy. Moreover, LCC and PDG have been able to secure funding from the Cluster of Empty Homes Fund awarded for various projects in need across the city, some of which has been allocated to the Welsh Streets, enabling 40 houses to be retained of which 37 houses would be refurbished. [56,115,180,182,]

231. Both the Housing and Empty Homes Strategies recognise that a variety of options may be necessary to achieve decent homes in Liverpool and bringing back empty homes is only one of many measures set out in ‘Laying the Foundations’ to improve the housing market. The application scheme would deliver a welldesigned scheme of decent homes which can be funded, together with an element of funded refurbishment meeting the aims of local and national housing strategies to deliver housing. [29,31,32]

[3] See Housing Market Renewal and Social Class by Chris Allen for a strong statement of this view.  Interestingly, Chris Allen appears not to have submitted evidence to the planning inquiry in any professional capacity. This may mean he has accepted the WSHG position of "resigned support" for the PDG proposals. Meanwhile, the Inspector's Report continues to tout the terminology associated with the "housing market" approach to regeneration .

[4] Putting money where mouths are seems to be a perennial problem with this saga. The National Trust, for example, wrote a general letter of support for SAVE and against demolition, but its enthusiasm was more muted when it came to direct intervention to do something about Ringo Starr's house, as reported in the Daily Telegraph in 2012. Ringo Starr himself has a net worth reputed to be $225million and apparently lives on a $20million estate in the Scouse stronghold of Surrey according to this story. He could probably sort the whole thing out without batting an eyelid.

[5] There seems to be some doubt about how long Ringo lived at 9 Madryn Street, with the Daily Telegraph article (see Note 4 above) claiming he was only there as a baby for 3 months. Other reports suggest he was there for five years. 

Massive boost for Scottish Empty Homes Partnership

The Scottish government has provided a massive boost to the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, both extending the funding for a further 3 years and expanding the available resource by a further 1.5 posts. 

Scottish Housing Minister Margaret Burgess announced the move on 23rd December. The story published on the Scottish Goverment website describes the initiative in more detail:

The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SEHP) will receive a three year extension backed by an additional £616,500 from the Scottish Government.

SEHP, which is run by the housing charity, Shelter Scotland helps councils and their partners pursue work to bring private sector empty homes back into use.

Overall, the number of unoccupied properties (second homes and long term empty) is falling. Currently, 31,457 homes are recorded as being empty for six months or more.

Shelter Scotland will use the extra funding to recruit additional staff to support the Partnership and allow up to an additional 12 councils to participate in the Shared Empty Homes Officer programme.

By the end of year 3, up to 28 councils in Scotland could have had access to an empty homes officer and approximately 1,200 empty homes per year could be returned to use.

In a monthly newsletter, Kristen Hubert, the national co-ordinator for the Partnership, provides further insight into what it will mean:

...we will also be increasing our capacity to support empty homes work across Scotland through the addition of 1.5 new posts to the central team. In addition the announcement includes an agreement in principal to expand the Shared Services Empty Homes Officer Projects to make them available to more councils. Previously badged as pilots this model has proved successful and we have amended it to create a Shared Services Incubator Model which is to be rolled out across Scotland.

 

Life in the Lakes

Life in the Lakes

January  2015

I was amazed to see I wrote my last blog as long ago as January 2014, so I thought I’d bring you up to date with what’s been going on in my ‘empty homes’ life.   Apologies for the long ‘silence’!

I started off  2014 working in our Housing Standards group, carrying out tenant (HHSRS) housing inspections.  That turned out to be a really interesting learning curve for me and was pretty full-on but with little time for empty homes work.   However I’ve learned a lot about  the repairs needed to bring a property up to a suitable letting standard.

Since then we have had a housing staff review and I am now in Housing Strategy, but doing my empty homes work full-time again.

About the empty homes grants management scheme which I mentioned in my last blog – it eventually took us almost a year and a half to get the legal agreements in place!  Persistence pays off!!  Originally we’d hoped for 6 months!  But I’m happy to say that the works are almost complete on the first empty home to be part of our new scheme.  What’s more, a tenant in priority housing need has also been found through Cumbria Choice, the choice-based lettings scheme.

We’re hoping that the tenant might want to take part in some press coverage, but if not, the story behind why the property became empty is also a good one.   And the landlord’s willingness to help ‘advertise’ the scheme to other empty home owners will be really helpful to launch this new scheme.  The best way to describe how I feel at the moment is like a proud mum watching her baby take its first steps(!)

We also have a Matchmaker Scheme here, but due to high house prices in South Lakeland, there’s a huge gap between what a buyer on a low budget can afford, and the price which the empty home owner wants to sell at.  So we’ve decided to look again at the scheme and how we can make it work better for our empty home owners and their buyers.  Watch this space…..!

I’ll let you know how I get on, but I’d love to know if anyone else is already running a scheme from the buyer’s perspective (and not the empty home owner’s)?

Lynne Campbell, Empty Homes Officer, South Lakeland District Council

Boris offers £10million for empties

London Mayor Boris Johnson has offered £10million under his Housing Covenant to Big Issue Invest (BII) who will in turn lend the money on to social businesses that can produce affordable homes out of empty propertiy.

The story on the Big Issue Invest website sums up the initiative as follows:

The Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is forming a partnership with Big Issue Invest to renovate empty properties into new affordable homes, whilst creating work opportunities for adults with a history of homelessness or long-term unemployment.

The Mayor has selected Big Issue Invest for an investment of £10 million from his Housing Covenant Fund. Big Issue Invest will invest in social enterprises which are seeking to renovate run down, empty homes or buildings and convert them into good quality affordable housing for Londoners to buy or rent.

The funding will revolve over a 10-year period and result in over 300 empty homes being transformed into good quality low cost housing. In addition it will provide long term unemployed people, veterans and out of work young people from across London the opportunity of employment and training in construction.

Gift horse or poisoned chalice?

Big Issue Invest has established a strong track record  of supporting social enterprises over the years and obviously has a strong interest in housing, particularly with regard to those who are vulnerable to street homelessness.  So if anyone can make this work, BII should be able to do so.  They can be expected to have done plenty of homework and indeed cite PHASES as one of their successful projects. Nevertheless there are reasons to be cautious about the potential of the fund as currently described.

Presumably, Big Issue Invest will receive its money interest free from the Mayor. But as with similar social funders (e.g. Resonance, Big Society Capital), it must be assumed that any social enterprises borrowing from the fund will do so on under an interest-bearing loan. Normal rates in such circumstances are around 5%, sometimes higher during the development period.  The question arises as to how feasible it will be in such circumstances for an organisation to provide "affordable housing", which for normal purposes (certainly those of the DCLG's Community Grants Programme) is supposed to involve rents which are 80% of the market rent.

Even the CGP , which struggled somewhat in London because of soaring rents and property values, was essentially about giving grant to community-led housing organisations not loans. This is the norm. Historically, social housing has always relied on (non-returnable) grant. Billions of pounds have been given to housing associations over the last four decades for just that purpose and the programme continues, now through to 2020. But somehow the idea has taken hold that where empty homes are concerned, affordable housing can be provided for free.  Scotland has the dubious distinction of having led the way here and it would be interesting to see how well that scheme is doing.  On the other hand, the successful large-scale loan schemes operating iIn Wales and Kent  make no requirement for affordable housing.  Similarly, schemes like Bristol Together, which do a magnificent job training and rehabilitating ex-offenders whilst bringing empty homes back into use for sale, do not generate "affordable home ownership": the homes are sold at full market value and this is essential to the model.

Grounds for optimism?

There are grounds for optimism, however.  Firstly, there is the option of using the BII fund as gap funding, with subsidy available from another source. A good example would be the funding provided by Resonance to support an affordable housing project in North Norfolk. Additional funding came in that case from both the Homes and Communities Agency and North Norfolk Council (see the case study in our Practice Library - sorry Full Members only). The Resonance-supported temporary accommodation fund for St. Mungos/Broadway is also a potential model.

Secondly, an important element of flexibility may lie in Boris's conception of "affordable housing", which might be different from that normally adhered to by the Homes and Communities Agency outside of London. It is understood that the normal requirements have already been set aside in London on the GLA's Empty Homes Programme, with rents allowed at "homeless accommodation" levels: it is doubtful whether these are as little as 80% of the market rents in most areas.  The case study cited on the PHASES website (a project dating from 2008) doesn't mention the rent levels but does talk about the tenancy of a previously-homeless family proceeding under the local council's rent and deposit scheme. This might be considered "social housing" but it would not necessarily count as affordable housing in most parts of the country unless the rent were also set at an appropriately low level.

Finally, there is no doubt that community-led housing organisations are capable of negotiating low rents with owners and renovating homes at much lower cost than bigger organisations.  There are certainly deals that can be done. The question is, how many?

Reality check

More information about this partnership is needed before any final judgment can be made. The aim is creditable but the devil is in the detail. The doubts expressed above may seem, and hopefully will prove to be, unduly negative.  But it is important that empty homes programmes are set up on a realistic footing. The Empty Homes Network has consistently called for proper research into what works and what doesn't work. The lack of well-researched templates continues to hold the sector back. Evidence-based policy in the empty homes field cannot develop without the evidence.

EHN has been keen to promote a further empty homes programme including a "CGP2" for community-led housing organisations. The fear is that London thinks that, in this new partnership with BII, it already now has a CGP2 in place.  It doesn't. Commissioners need to get the message: if you want affordable housing, pay the going rate. Social enterprises already provide added value through the training, employment and rehabilitation services they offer. It doesn't seem reasonable to place on them additional expectations such as producing affordable housing like a rabbit out of a hat. 

What would be positive would be for Boris to announce further funding in the form of grant to sit alongside the BII loan funding and put social enterprises on a level playing field with other providers of affordable housing such as housing associations.

Meanwhile, it is understood that rumours about Boris providing two fish and five loaves and inviting social enterprises to proceed to Parliament Hill to feed a multitude of 5,000 are actually unfounded.