We are very grateful indeed to Carson Millican, trading as Empty Property Solutions, for his continuing support of the Empty Homes Awards. This year, he sponsored the newly configured ‘Meeting the Challenge’ Award, which aims to emphasise the case-work aspect of what practitioners do by recognising a particularly challenging case.
What, in turn, is challenging for the judging panel is that the whole empty homes practitioner universe is awash with difficult cases and singling out a winner can only leave other worthy contenders disappointed.
So it needs to be emphasised that the recognition ultimately awarded by the Panel was not based on identifying the most challenging case, nor was it a matter of deciding what was the oustdandingly ‘best’ response to a challenging case: it was about rewarding the type of response that the Panel most wanted to highlight, illuminating a particular aspect of the varied approaches employed by practitioners, all of which have their place.
In the event, the award was won by Sue Li of Derby City Council. The certificate was presented by Carson Millican at the October Conference in Birminham.
As to what caught the eye of the judging panel, Sue's award submission, reproduced below, needs no further amplification – it speaks for itself.
Meeting the challenge of pursuing action when the emotional and vulnerability stakes are high
As enforcement officer, I received a case about a property that had been left empty for about seven years with very little information other than the owner had left due to a police incident and had been informed she should not return to that property. Enquiries with the police drew a blank, they would not reveal the address she had moved to and they would not reveal why.
There was a large council tax debt and a charging order. This was unusual, as our council tax enforcement action normally stops at liability order. Legal were unwilling though to enforce the order, firstly as they had never done one and secondly because they feared that because there was a mortgagee, we would end up doing the enforcement work just so the lender's debt could be paid. Legal were unable to get any information from the mortgagee about the level of debt and were not really interested in pursuing it anyway. The Legal position was that because there was a charge against the property for our debt, we would receive it at some point so it was not a priority.
Frustrated with what I thought was the most expedient solution I started to look at the merits of pursuing a Compulsory Purchase Order. The location of the owner was proving difficult to ascertain but we resolved to move forward by communicating via the property. We had contact details of a social worker in another part of the country but they had lost contact with her as the owner had moved and stopped engaging with them. They were good enough to advise that she had fled domestic violence and had been advised to never return to Derby. The owner's elusiveness was starting to make sense. Trawling through old paperwork I came across a random mobile number in the file and gave it a call. It belonged to the owner. As EPOs we often listen to owner's stories about why properties have remained empty and I often seem to deal with upset individuals but this is the first call that has made me cry afterwards.
The owner had been a manager of a well-known store, was raising her children single-handedly but then found a partner that destroyed her life. During his time with her he began to control everything; came between her and her friends, undermined her with the children, took over the finances, controlled incoming post and then started to beat her. On her last day in the empty property she had been beaten and stabbed and taken to hospital. She was then moved to a different part of the country. The partner served time for his offence and she has not seen the children since. Talking about this was still very difficult and very raw for the owner. She advised me that she had been so proud of her house before she met her partner and was so sad to not be able to return. She had been out of work since leaving Derby and had used up her savings meeting the mortgage payments on the empty property but now they were gone and she was behind. The mortgagee was talking about repossession. The owner's health was failing as well. She had developed a brain tumour and was receiving treatment.
After having been undermined and having her confidence stripped over the years by her former partner, the owner had been convinced that although she needed to continue to pay the mortgage, he now had more rights to the property than her, that she had no right to do anything about the property and that she had no access to the house to be able to retrieve documents in order to sort the issue out. My initial conversations with her were about building her up again and convincing her that she was the sole legal owner of the property, that the former partner had no claim, that she could gain access or ask others to do it on her behalf. We also arranged together that myself and her mortgagee could freely discuss the mortgage account and empty property. The staff on the legal team of the lender were superb and worked in partnership on this.
We arranged that the owner would voluntarily surrender the property and that they would give additional time for the owner to arrange for paperwork to be searched for and certain personal items and things relating to the children to be removed. The owner no longer had keys to the property so we paid for a locksmith to gain entry. The owner was also unable to travel as far as Derby so arranged for her remaining friend in Derby to attend and retrieve what she needed. I had to form a plan with the police, her friend and my accompanying colleague about what would happen in the unlikely event that the ex-partner turned up. Although residents had repeatedly confirmed that the property was empty we had no idea about whether anyone else in the locality was in contact with the ex.
The day of entry came and went without a hitch. It was emotionally stirring though to enter a property that had been fled from, with all possessions there. Apart from a little dust and cobwebs and a build up of mail the inside was modern and immaculate – very different from most empty properties I see. With new keys to the property, the friend was able to arrange removal of paperwork and emotionally valuable items and clearance of the rest – including the owner's car that had been left on the drive all these years.
Although clearance of the property and voluntary surrender dragged on a little, due to good communication and negotiation, the mortgagee was understanding and has now been able to put the property up for sale.
In the end, I'm really pleased that Legal wouldn't pursue the charging order. It could have been a faceless, impersonal enforcement exercise. Instead, it was carried out with empathy, with a bespoke personal solution addressing the needs of the owner, the council and the lender and probably the best result for the owner, given that it would have been appropriate for various forms of formal enforcement action to have been pursued to their conclusion. But, better than all of this, it helped build the confidence of someone who thought they had lost all right to decide what happened to their property or be part of a negotiating process but still retained the financial responsibilities of property ownership.