I would be very grateful if anyone could try and provide some definitive advice about the long-standing question of what constitutes an ‘Empty Property'. Any comments are gratefully received
We have recently been subject to an Ombudsman investigation following a neighbour complaint about a property which is claimed to be empty. The owner claimed that they were in occupation. I was of the opinion that on balance, this particular property was not lived in all the time but thought the owner may use it as a ‘second home’.
The Ombudsman found that we were at fault and we have therefore been asked to complete a review of our existing empty homes approach to see if we can “encompass a better definition of what is an empty home and how the Council will decide this”. The case crossed multiple departments including, Housing Enforcement, Building Control, Environmental Services, Conservation Team, Planning Enforcement, Council Tax and the Empty Property Service.
We have explained that there is no legal definition of an empty home. Our policy has cited Government advice from 2003 contained in guidance “Empty Property – unlocking the potential” which defined an empty property as one which is:
• unoccupied for six months or more;
• occupied but where the space is capable of better use;
• which has no ‘reasonable prospect’ of being brought back into use by the
owner working alone.
The 2003 guidance also says, “a property does not need to be used all of the time to
be ‘occupied’. Properties that are used infrequently, such as a second home or a
holiday home are not covered in this guidance”.
Not surprisingly the Ombudsman also looked at the Council Tax definitions via the Local Government Finance Act. This imposes two tests. First a property must be ‘unoccupied’. Second, a property must also be “substantially unfurnished”. Their guidance says if a property is substantially unfurnished then it is “unlikely to be occupied or capable of occupation”.
The Ombudsman has stated that he does not consider the Council could properly treat as an ‘empty home’ one that is unoccupied but capable of occupation; i.e. substantially furnished with all the essentials of living or in a state fit for habitation. For example, one where the owner chooses to spend most time elsewhere and so treats the property as a second home. He also states that he finds the judgment on whether the property is empty, rests more on if it is capable of occupation than whether it is lived in.
NB. I am unable to provide a copy of the full decision due to specific instructions from Ombudsman regarding confidentiality.