An Opposition Day debate on Housing Supply on the 9th July gives some indication of where the empty homes issues stands in current political thinking. The answer is not very far up the agenda - but in the context of Britain's housing need that is not altogether surprising given the widely-accepted view that the nation needs upwards of 200,000 new dwellings a year (and it's never clear whether that figure takes care of the backlog).
Buy-to-Leave and second homes
The motion was moved by the Shadow Minister for Housing, Emma Reynolds.
In an early intervention, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP for Islington North, asked a "friendly" question about buy-to-leave-empty in London (i.e. speculating on rising property prices and seeking to avoid any issues associated with the dwelling being occupied in the meantime: with new dwellings, hoping to sell them on in "as-new" condition), Reynolds completely ignored the question and responded by talking about the perceived issue of land-banking instead: not a great start, but in these cases speakers are likely to want to focus on the things they planned to say.
Buy-to-leave-empty was also a phenomenon at the height of the pre-crash housing bubble but in London the picture is confused by foreign investment that is associated not with buy-to-leave-empty but buy-to-visit-very-occasionally, so this might have been a good time to talk about second homes,
Subsequently Andrew George, Lib-Dem MP for St. Ives raised the issue of second homes directly. The response did not suggest much appetite from Labour to address the issue:
I think that this whole debate around second homes is difficult. How do we prove which is someone’s first or second home? Many right hon. and hon. Members here, for example, split their time pretty much equally between London and their constituency. I am not entirely sure that the measures suggested by the hon. Gentleman would be fair or effective.
There was no hint of at least following in the steps of Wales which has taken the significant step of changing council tax to align with that on long-term empties as reported by us here - effectively a 100% council tax premium. Nick Boles (at that time, before the reshuffle, Planning Minister) indicated that the answer to second homes might lie in Community Land Trusts i.e. to develop new supply that would be restricted to local people.
It proved to be Conserative MPs who had most to say about dealing with mainstream empty homes. For example Nick de Bois, MP for Enfield North, offered:
A considerable number of empty homes in London need to be brought back into use. Between 2008 and 2012, around 5,000 empty homes were brought back into use, and I am sure that we can do more. We have more funding to bring another 1,100 empty homes back into use. In fact, there are now about 25,000 fewer empty homes in London than there were in 2008. Supplying new homes is crucial, but so is work on decent homes—restoring the stock we have to make them liveable—and restoring empty homes.
The most significant contribution was by Heather Wheeler, MP for South Derbyshire:
Another reason why this glass-half-empty Opposition debate is astonishing is that they are talking only about new builds, and not about bringing properties back into use. The most imaginative scheme has come from a charity that looks after ex-service people. It has bought two rows of houses in the north-east for £1 a street. The houses are being brought back into use by the people who will live in them. That is not costing the public purse anything. Everybody had written off those houses because they are up in the north-east and stuff does not happen up there. That is not good enough. It is time that the Opposition decided to play a better and bigger part in solving this problem.
There are lots of empty homes in our country. Councils that are using their initiative are not just putting the council tax on empty homes up from 50% to 80%; they are charging 100%, then 110% if the home is still empty the next year, and 120% if it is still empty the year after
that. That can go up to 140%, because we want homes to be brought back into use. That is not about restricting people or taxing them out. The council wants the homes to be brought back into use, so it says to the people who own them, “Do you want tenants? Our council housing people will organise tenants for you.” That is done at private rent prices and can involve short-term lets, three-year lets or whatever they want. Innovative councils are bringing empty homes back into use.
These were the only MPs to flag up the potential of local empty homes initiatives.
Closing the debate for Labour, Shadow Minister for CLG Andy Sawford (MP for Corby) did at least include empty homes in the thumbnail sketch of Labour policy on the issue of housing supply:
The right to grow; use it or lose it on land banking; reform to the housing revenue account; backing small and medium-size builders; tackling empty homes; reforming the private rented sector; scrapping the cruel bedroom tax
Nick Boles, in response, did not mention the issue although, as noted above, he did refer to second homes.