Improvement Notices

Hi,

We are thinking of serving Improvement Notices on empty homes owners. Whilst the HHSRS enforcement guidance points out that that HHSRS can be used to assess an empty property, we are feeling slightly uneasy as to whether we could actually state that it could be a considered a hazard for a potential occupier within 12 months. Especially when many of these properties have been empty for 5 - 10 years.

So we would love to hear from authorities who have used this policy in their empty property work. We know Coventry do and we have had a look at their statement of reasons. But it will be good to speak to others who have used this policy also.

Thanks

Zainul

Forums: 
Housing Improvement Notices

We have successfully used improvement notices on empty properties. In February this year we  prosecuted an owner of a long term empty who we could not trace and obtained fines and costs of over £7,000. The owner was traced by the court bailiffs and appealed against the prosecution last month unsuccessfully. He is now co-operating, we have an address and telephone number and the property is up for sale. The same owner has two other empty properties in our district which are also being addressed and works being undertaken. The service of the improvement notice has therefore been very successful.

Hi Zainul
Just to confirm that we use Improvement Notices extensively throughout Kent.
When you inspect the property you always inspect it having regard to the member of the vulnerable age group for that hazard. So the HHSRS scores are what they are, either a Cat 1 or Cat 2 hazard.
The issue with empty properties is what would be the most appropriate course of action, which is when you need to take into account the current occupier or lack of.
The main courses of action are:
Hazard Awareness Notice (HAN)
Improvement Notices (IN)
Prohibition Orders (PO)
Demolition & Clearance
Emergency Remedial action
Emergency Prohibition Order
The argument will be between the three highlighted options above.
Usually you can discount the HAN on the basis of the owners previous non co-operation and the property causing problems to the neighbours or is insecure and risk of arson etc etc
On the one hand you could argue that there is no occupier and as the HHSRS is primarily a health and safety standard, then a PO would be the most appropriate Course of action. But of course if you serve a PO then the property will remain in poor condition and will certainly deteriorate further. This does not help us in our work, although we could charge for service of notice.
On the flip side we could argue that an IN would be appropriate, particularly if you have evidence that the property was previous rented or that the conditions of the property are causing a health and safety risk to local neighbours. The Guidance does state that if you are considering making a demolition order then you should consider undertaking a Neighbourhood Renewal Assessment to inform your decision. Consequently, it could be argued that the same approach should be adopted for all course of action. The NRA involves undertaking an economic. environmental and social assessment of each approach including a NPV calculation.
Therefore, the environmental impact could be a major element to justify your decision to serve an improvement notice. You would also use the argument of the problems associated with empty homes including nuisance, arson, crime, theft of copper and lead, risk of squatting, properties not being insured and the risk to the neighbouring properties. I would also raise the issue that this property is not their principal home (usually live elsewhere) and therefore is principally an investment property.
I would suggest that the argument can be made both ways and I am not aware of any RPT decision that has covered this aspect of the work.
However, we take a risk approach to the problem of empty properties.
1.      Is the owner about or likely to challenge the LA. To assess this you can look back at any responses to letter, we consult on the level of work and provide a copy of the schedule of works and a proposed timescale for the owner to comply with. We then require them to confirm their willingness to undertake the works in the timescale.
If the owner does not respond or cannot be traced then there is little risk to the LA in serving the notice. If the owner is very vociferous, then we would draft the notices very tight and may split the notices and suspend part based on the particular problems associated with the property.
For instance, if the property is in very poor condition and substantial works are necessary, which includes the property being insecure and slates coming off the roof onto a highway or neighbouring property. Then we may serve an IN under structural collapse and falling elements and entry by intruder, tight timescale. We will then serve an IN for the rest of the work, but suspend it until there was an occupant or change of ownership etc.
Obviously, the LA has to make a decision based onto the facts of the case as to whether serving an IN, which must give at least 28 days to do the work, is suitable if the property is insecure? and whether Section 29 LG (MP) Act 1982 is more appropriate. The difference being Section 29 LG (MP) Act 1982 debt is  not a local land charge and difficult to recover through the County Court using charging orders. A Housing Act 2004 debt, is very good for the enforced sales procedure as it binds all estates and interests and your charge takes priority (ways and means act)
I would then be able to show that the LA has been reasonable in trying to prevent the deterioration of the property, removing the risk to the public at large and the neighbours, plus protecting the owners interests in securing the property. The major ticket items are suspended.
I think that would be a reasonable approach by the LA.
We have done about 14 enforced sales in relation to debts created under the Housing Act 2004, (charging for service of notice Section 49 & IN works in default). The additional benefit of splitting the notices in this way, is that I am risking less of the LA money, in that it may cost me a few grand to do the works in default rather than having to spend the full £40-50K in renovating the property. It is often a job to justify this level of expenditure for a single property in the current financial climate.
2.      I take a practical approach, if I serve 10 IN and bring 9 properties back into use and the RPT come to the view that a PO is more appropriate than an IN in one case, then so be it. What is the risk to the LA? and what have you achieved in bringing those 9 properties back into use?
There are no cost either way at the RPT, so the decision goes against the LA its not the end of the world, it’s a few days works from an Officers point of view and little knock to our egos.
If the RPT came to the decision that a PO was appropriate,  then I may re-visit the Owner and state that we will now be pursuing a CPO or EDMO, by the fact that the PO is in place it shows that there is no reasonable prospect of the property being brought back into use in the near future. Housing Act Notices also precludes the owner from claiming Home Loss Payment, saving you 7.5% of market value upto £75K, when you CPO the property.
Lastly, how many notices are appealed against, a very small number.
I would never suggest a LA serve a notice that they can not defend, but there are arguments both ways in these type of cases.
So in summary, there are risks and I cannot say that you would be able to fully defend an appeal, but there are considerable merits in using IN in appropriate cases.
Look at the circumstances of the case, assess the risk and have a go. If your very lucky you may get a day out in the RPT, which if nothing else will be good experience for the future (win or lose).
Regards
Andrew Lavender
 
 
 

 
Hello
with reference to Andrews comment above - "On the flip side we could argue that an IN would be appropriate, particularly if you have evidence that the property was previous rented or that the conditions of the property are causing a health and safety risk to local neighbours"
We have a property where a large hole in the roof has caused significant damp to the next door home. This would constitute a health and saftey risk, and appropiate notices have been served.
However we would like to check that WID can be done to correct damage to the next door property, e.g. replastering etc, and charged to the vacant dwelling with the hole in the roof under the Housing Act?
Additionally we will potentially look at forcing the sale following this, and the property is full of furniture, how do we approach this, do we need to store furniture, or simply clear it, (assuming we have saved any potentially valuable and sentimental belongings.)
thank you

I have asked Andrew Griffiths (Principal Policy Officer at CIEH) if his organisation would produce a breifing note on the use of HHSRS+HA2004 Notices on empty homes. Andrew suggested that empty homes guidance exists within the Asset Skills guide to HHSRS, but I can't see it.
While many Empties Officers and their colleagues can and do use HHSRS+HA2004 Notices, some colleagues find that their enforcement colleagues don't want to use it. Some of these colleagues might take notice if guidance were published by their professional body (CIEH). 
Andrew Griffiths will be seeking opinion from experts in HHSRS.
It would help if you experts in its use on empty homes could give him your thoughts via a.griffiths@cieh.org or phone 02079286006

Nick P-G
Reading BC
01189373091

We  included the option to use IN within our Enforcement Policy and so far have issued 5.  Two actually went to one owner of two LTE properties within the same Kensington road.  He sold one for £3.4 million and is now having to use those proceeds to finance the refurbishment of the second.  No appeals and a very generic schedule of works - basically 'ensure property is brought up to Decent Homes and Building Reg compliance'.
I made sure that the service of the IN was a prelude to EDMO action.
Another owner served with a IN is submitting complex Planning applications and its unlikely works will be completed within the timescale set but I have been very upfront with this situation and made sure owners know I am prepared to extend the completion timescale but only once substantial works have been completed.
Another owner has gone very quiet, refuses to respond to me and no works seem to be in progress, but still no appeal so at least I know which way this one is going and the clock is still ticking rather than playing the game of 'works will be starting soon - honest!!'.....serve the Notices and get it all on a enforcement footing rather than letting things drag on for months.  Choices for this one may be works in default but in view of the likely costs for refurbishment in excess of £2 million the only real option is CPO.

I came across this in my occassional perusal of RPT decisions on the LACORS site. The LACOR precis says
An appeal against an Improvement Notice served by LB Haringey on XXXX, which had been vacant for about 10 years.  The council repeatedly wrote to the owner about the empty property attracting vandalism, crime and rubbish dumping but were ignored.  They served a compulsory purchase order against which the owner appealed.  They then served an improvement notice.  The Tribunal quashed the improvement notice saying they believed it has been served merely to bring the property back into use.
A long story but the final sentance is interesting.

The RPT decision notice has been added to our library. As it is sensitive material it is available to full members only, who need to be logged in.
Perhaps the most absurd aspect of the decision was that the RPT refused to endorse the HIN even though the property was occupied by squatters and had been for several months.  So much for protecting people against hazards.

Just to add.
I assume that the reason the LA was trying to serve an Improvement Notice was to avoid paying the basic home loss payment on the CPO?
Usually, I would suggest that Housing Act should be pursued before the CPO, as it reduces the compensation and helps justify the CPO
There were a number of issues raised in this RPT case including a lack of a Section 8 Statement of Reasons.
If anyone does come accross any other cases that relate to empty homes and Improvement Notices, then please let us know
Regards
Andrew Lavender