The thinking behind the approach we’re developing through Leeds Empties is that complex social problems – such as bringing back into use long-term empty homes – require a range of creative solutions. You’ll all know that as empty homes practitioners. To make real progress, we need a range of different interventions, each helping to make progress on a particular aspect of the problem at hand.
Our background isn’t in empty homes. Over the last few years we’ve offered support to people setting up and running social enterprises – and in 2012 we decided to change how we worked to focus on one social issue at a time – rather than working with lots of different people tackling a wide range of problems. The issue we picked – thanks to Channel 4’s Property Scandal appearing on our screens - was how to bring back into use more of Leeds’ 5000 long-term empty homes.
Leeds Empties started with a “Call To Action” an event designed to gather together as many people as possible who were interested in tackling the empty homes issue. We struck lucky as George Clarke agreed to come along – with a Property Scandal film-crew in tow.
We were soon sold out – and more than 100 people spent the day exploring ways to bring more empties back into use – whilst more than 20 local businesses pledged support in a “Pledge-A-Thon” hosted by George. Leeds Empties was lead story on local TV news all day. We’d achieved what we’d wanted – to raise awareness and to involve a wide range of people in exploring how to bring more empty homes back into use.
But where should we go from there? It’s one thing getting people together for a fun day exploring exciting ideas – but how could we make that work in the longer-term? With a £10,000 grant from Leeds City Council we piloted a few of the ideas that had been explored at the Call To Action and came up with six main areas of work that we’d like to concentrate on over the next twelve months:
- Empty Homes Doctor– one-to-one support for owners of empty homes to help them to bring their home back into use
- Green Empties– exploring how to attract investment into green refurbishment of empty homes
- Support for social ventures– getting behind new and existing social enterprises and self-help schemes which bring empty homes back into use
- Empties Investment– exploring community share issues, Bonds and other forms of social investment to increase the number of homes brought back into use
- Jobs, Training and Apprenticeships– ensuring we make the most of the opportunities offered by empty homes renovation
- Ongoing marketing and engagement– continuing to engage a wide range of people in Leeds Empties so that we can bring more empty homes back into use.
We explored these themes during Leeds Empties Week in March 2013. More than 150 people attended a range of events – from a tour of two empty properties which are undergoing a deep-green retrofit – through to a launch event for our Empty Homes Doctor service .
We think there’s lots of potential in the approach – but it’s the Empty Homes Doctor service that excites us most. More than 40 owners of empty homes got in touch during Leeds Empties Week to ask for our help.
We know as well as you do that there are many complex reasons why homes are empty – and we’re not pretending we have easy solutions. However, by taking a person-centred approach – trying to work out what the owner wants to see happen – whilst understanding the reasons their home is empty – we hope we’ll be able to help a good number of people bring their homes back into use. We’ll let you know more about this as the service develops over the coming months.
And what does the Council think of Leeds Empties? It would be easy for a Local Authority to refuse to engage with us – to pretend that everything is in hand. Fortunately – partly, I imagine, due to the straightened times in which we find ourselves – Leeds City Council has been very open to finding different ways to encourage more owners to bring their homes back into use.
The Council recognises that there are things that we can perhaps do better than they can – such as engaging local businesses and local community organisations. And we’re very clear that the Council’s empty homes team remain central to how we tackle empty homes in Leeds. The trick is to work out how we can add to what they already do – so that, ultimately, more empty home owners are in a position to bring their home back into use. We aim to get into the detail of that over the next twelve months. We’ll let you know how we get on.
Rob Greenland is Co-director of Social Business Brokers – the social enterprise behind Leeds Empties. He'll be talking about the Leeds Empties initiative at The Empty Homes Conference on May 21st in Birmingham.
More information about Leeds Empties is available at http://www.leedsempties.org.uk/ and on Twitter at @LeedsEmpties.
Picture: George Clarke talks to a delegate at the Call-to-Action event.
Picture Credit: Thanks to Folkus Point CIC