Government Data Release: Your Opinions

Dear EHN Members,

Given the recent government statistics release, I wanted to court opinion as to whether the statistics released accurately reflect what is being seen by officers across the Country,  and whether there is much disconnect between what you as officers are seeing month to month, compared with what your CTB1 submission shows.

Knowing there is often disparity between an officer's databse and what is submitted to Central Government, I wanted to ask two questions to gauge a feeling of what may be happening and why the numbers are showing such an increase.

Quite simply:

1. Do the statistics and numbers submitted to, and released by central government, correspond with your locally held Empty Homes Database?

2. If you have seen medium to significant year-on-year increase in your local area, is this easily accounted for (for instance: unsold large housing developments, a less than buoyant property market etc)?

Any help or commentary on what you are experiencing in your areas will be greatly appreciated, and would be good to get a sense of feeling with regards to the statistics as to what is happening around the Country.

Many thanks, and take care

Adam

Secretary/Policy Lead

Forums: 
Official statistics - DCLG/CTB/LAHS/HSSA

The CTB1 return never matches our empty homes database. We always have a lot more properties on our books that in the CTB1 return. Our database also includes second homes that we are keeping an eye on, properties reported empty that are not registered so on council tax and those with council tax exemptions that are not included in the CTB1 count. 

It has been harder to meet our targets this year partly because owners have not been able to complete programmes of work, sell or let properties; cpos have also been slower to administer - and partly because of team members being moved into roles directly supporting the covid response, therefore we have had less capacity as a team to provide the required assistance, negotiation and enforcement.

We did our usual NHB exercise contacting owners and visiting properties so our figures would have been much worse if we had not done this. During this I did notice a large number of properties lying empty in our usual student areas so wonder if some of this was down to 2nd & 3rd year students not returning until the absolute last minute.

 

Sue Li

Compulsory Purchase and Enforcement Officer

Derby City Council

Primarily the work of the Empty Homes team in Cornwall is proactively focussed of properties that are categorised as Long-Term Empty for Council Tax purposes (although we are reactive to complaints about other properties, e.g. that are deleted, exempt, etc.). The biggest problem we have is that the Council Tax data becomes 'dirty' (inaccurate), mainly because owners do not update when a change of circumstances following discount, etc. We completed a very large data cleansing exercise prior to the snapshot for CTB form return to Government, identifying several hundred properties as occupied. We do this because we have a lot of pressure locally to reduce the headline figure for number of LTE properties and keep it under control. We also have a Service Plan measure to reduce the proportion of LTE properties in Cornwall to or below the national figure by 2022, and have made good progress in narrowing the gap. But if we hadn't done what we've done in terms of data cleasing the headline figure (and impact on NHB payment) would have been horrendous (worse that 4/5 years ago). Despite our efforts, our LTE total is still higher than last year, mainly because owners have not been able to sell or implement their plan of action due to Covid-19 (hopefully we'll see those come through later). Our proportion is also up, but because the national figure is also up (more) we've narrowed the gap. Fortunately we've had our eye on the ball, and the resources to tackle (although it was difficult and resource hungry). But probably other authorities haven't been so fortunate, and based on our findings the reported national figure could include around 20% occupied properties. So perhaps not quite as bad as it seems in terms of what is actually empty. But that doesn't seem to be mentioned in media reporting. Regardless, the problem is still that more resources are needed in empty homes teams. But the impact of Covid-19 may impact further on resources directed at empty homes.

David Clough (Empty Homes Team Manager - Cornwall Council)

In Nottingham City we have much lower figures on our empty homes officer database than Ctax, we carry out a survey based on ctax empties every couple of years and generally find that around half are actually empty but the survey takes us time so some of that is properties reoccupied in the intervening period (between running off the reports and visiting). However, we do think that Ctax arent v good at keeping their records up to date as lots of occupiers tell us they have been in and paying long before our lists were generated. Typically we have 600 to 900 properties whereas ctax may have 2K+. We tend to close off 'second homes' that are in reasonable repair. We are in the middle of another survey but now have only 1 empty homes officer and, as part of the pollution control team try to pull in resource from other officers when they are out on other jobs which makes for a very slow survey.

Overall both Faz our Empty HO and I think numbers are fairly flat here.

Martin Cooke, Nottm City Empty Homes

In Selby DC the figure reported by Council Tax corresponds with my database very well. I have good access to the database and can see fluctuations as they happen. There was a large spike in the numbers towards June then it has been subsiding but is still higher than last year.

I think the big reason for this is COVID. We had months where most people were not allowed to move followed by delays with completions, viewings, lettings, and actual moves. Works were delayed to void properties due to contractors not being able to work or purchase materials.

Around 90% of Councils have seen a rise in the numbers of empty homes. I hope that Government will take this into consideration when calculating this years New Homes Bonus.

Helen M Rhodes

Our experience in Brighton and Hove over the years has shown us that a large amount of LTEs recorded on the CTB1 every year are not actually empty but are merely properties that were once ‘coded’ as such, but are in fact no longer empty.  This happens when owners don’t update an LA when a property becomes occupied following an initial empty coding. This is made worse where no dedicated resource within a Council Tax Team exists to regularly follow up owners for updates to the current occupancy situation.  It’s also not helped that in most cases there is often no financial incentive for Council Tax Teams allocate resources to correct the coding because an ‘empty’ code still generates the same 100% rate of Council Tax as an occupied one.  From my experience, this is why so many Empty Property Officers’ own databases of ‘true’ empties, seem to differ so significantly from what is reported annually on the CTB1.

In order to address this though and specifically for New Homes Bonus (NHB) purposes, many Empty Property Officers (us included)  have historically undertaken a yearly ‘data cleansing’ project, working with their Council Tax Teams to ‘tidy and correct’ their LTEs codes, in time for the NHB ‘count’ every October.  In the past, this has (certainly for us) resulted in the figures on the CTB1 and Empty Property Databases matching much more closely and accurately and being a more genuine reflection of the ‘true’ number of empty properties out there. Hence, I believe,  the generally lower CTB1 figures across the board previously

However, this year, due to continued uncertainty and lack of confirmation from the MHCLG over whether the NHB scheme was still going ahead (see various EHN forum discussions) we, like many other LAs, took the decision not to carry out the usual data cleansing project over the summer, deciding instead to concentrate our limited resources on actual empty property work, i.e. assistance or enforcement of ‘genuine’ empty properties as appropriate, (quality rather than quantity perhaps?).  

Unfortunately, when the continuation of the NHB was finally confirmed at the last minute by the MHCLG, despite much genuine, successful and meaningful empty property work having been carried out during the year, the CTB1 ‘coded’ LTE figures had unsurprisingly risen since last year!   Multiply this by all the other LAs who took the same approach and I think that this, along with all the other Covid 19 challenges affecting the housing market during this year, was/is a big contributing factor to the significant rise in reported LTEs in the CTB1s, nationally. i.e. it’s not the actual empties; it’s the ‘codings’!

Finally I think it’s worth mentioning, certainly in our LA, since March, many Council Tax staff were, and continue to be, seconded away from their usual work to urgently help with Covid 19 related financial priorities such as NNDR (Business Rates) relief and hardship fund duties. As a result, the more routine Council Tax work, such as LTE ‘correction coding’ really had to take a ‘back seat’ with the limited resources and increased pressures they had in their teams. Obviously we can all understand this, but that did seem to be another contributing factor to the increase in CTB1 LTE figure for us.      

Patrick (Gordon)

Empty Property Officer

Brighton and Hove City Council