Empty Homes in Scotland
Empty homes are a significant problem in Scotland and they are worse in some places than others. Rural locations and deprived areas have a particular problem with empty homes.
Empty homes can be a symptom of decline. Often, the underlying problem is that the market for housing a community is moribund. Often times, the problem goes hand in hand with years of declining industry and in these places the fundamental problem can be that there are more homes than there are people who want to live there. On other occasions, houses can become empty for very personal reasons that have little to do with prevailing socio-economic conditions, such as through bereavement or family problems. This could happen anywhere.
Different problems require different solutions and it is clear that there is no one size fits all solution to the problem. Some problems are also harder to solve than others, given that some communities do not so much have an “empty homes problem” as an economic decline problem, which has caused many empty homes in the area.
On the other hand, what all empty homes have in common is that, if left to decay, ultimately they can be a blight on a local community and on neighbours, and the problem multiplies if there are more empty properties. Overall, they can bring a community down. Particularly in communities with a housing shortage, they are a wasted asset. So there is a huge public interest in bringing them back into use.
We support the valuable work that the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership provide at a national level and the high quality of the advice, training, guidance and workshops they provide to the network of Scotland’s Empty Homes Officers.
The Committee agrees that councils are best placed to deliver change on the ground. And they will do this best if they all have an Empty Homes Officer, who has key knowledge of the local housing environment and markets, and relationships with local developers, solicitors and others who can assist in associated housing services. It is welcome that the majority of local authorities now have an Empty Homes Officer in place and we would hope that those without one will consider their appointment as a priority.
Councils' empty homes strategy should be part of a joined-up bigger picture of using their powers to encourage and support vibrant communities. For instance, there should be express linkage between council policies to revive town centres and to encourage families to come back to live in town centres and attract people to shop, eat and drink. To their credit, some councils are seeing that bigger picture and already doing good work in this area. We also agree that work to “map” empty homes more thoroughly at a granular level is welcome. If we understand the problem better, we are closer to solving it and solutions can be tailored to meet the needs of each local area.
The Council Tax levy on empty homes, is a useful and necessary tool, but some councils are using it to the point that they are actually making the empty homes problem worse and not better in some cases. This is not acceptable and the levy should not be used solely as a revenue raising tool. We encourage all councils to take a sensible approach to applying the levy and ensure that those taking active steps to bring their property back into use are not being penalised.
Evidence indicates that existing methods of public funding are being used and do some good but there is a degree of frustration with aspects of their operation which limit how useful they can be. We welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to review the role of funding in bringing empty homes back into use.
The low take-up of Compulsory Purchase Order powers tells its own story and more needs to be done to make the power more usable. Recent improvements to the process may go some way in making these powers more attractive to local authorities and we welcome the Scottish Government’s commitment to keep their use under review. We urge the Scottish Government to introduce Compulsory Sales Orders as a complementary power for local authorities to use in the quest to solving empty home problems in their area.
Committee Members in Newmilns