£100million: a national empty homes strategy in the making?

We have learned that the Department of Communities and Local Government is preparing to launch a document setting out the government's strategy for empty homes. This will cover the New Homes Bonus, the role of enforcement as well as providing some high level funding criteria for the £100m included in the HCA’s Affordable Homes Programme.

It was trailed by CLG at a round-table meeting also attended by the HCA and the GLA that had been called by London's regional empty property co-ordinators to discuss the £100million.

This is a welcome development. It shows that we have a government that is now taking seriously the vision that we sketched out in our 2009 policy document From empty promise to national action plan: Creating a national empty homes initiative. We hope that the result is, indeed, an Action Plan with a focus on action.

How we got here

Shortly after the ending of the expressions of interest phase for the empty homes element of the Affordable Homes Programme a Ministerial Round-table was called by Andrew Stunell MP, the Minister with responsibility for empty homes. It was held on May 16th in London, Also present were senior officials from CLG including Director General Richard McCarthy and Sally Randall (the Deptuy Director with responsibility for empty homes policy) and a range of people from across the broad spectrum of empty homes organisations. Local authority representatives included Zainul Pirmohamed of Stoke and Nick Long of Lewisham. Darryl Lawrence of Rochdale Housing Initiative and David Gibbens attended for the Empty Homes Network. Also present were David Ireland from charity Empty Homes, Jon Fitzmaurice from self-help-housing.org, HCA Chief Executive Pat Ritchie and Fiona MacGregorand reps from the Housing Action Trust, B4box, Canopy and from housing associations Coast and Community, Metropolitan and Christian Action.

The meeting was held in part to discuss the position with the £100million but the most important part was the dialogue between Andrew Stunell and those present. It was made clear that the Minister was keen to get the best results possible from the £100million and was open to all ideas. This was welcome news to be set against the apparent constraints inherent in the HCA's Affordable Homes Programme.

A small amount of detail was released about the Expressions of Interest submitted to the HCA in connection with the £100million. We learned that there were 130 of them. The main points made by the Empty Homes Network at this meeting were that

  • we should stop looking for new solutions and instead "roll up our sleeves" to review and evaluate the many excellent solutions that already existed and decide which would be most fruitful to pursue
  • it was essential to get local authority empty homes initiatives working to their optimum given the strategic role of councils in their local areas.

Despite the open-ness to a wide range of ideas, Richard McCarthy nevertheless pointed out, in response to a question from EHN about the requirement for the ultimate landlord of a home brought back into use through the programme to be a Registered Provider, that there would continue to be "some limits" to the flexibility that would be available.

The London Round Table on June 14th gave an opportunity for the key representatives of the London local authority empty homes world to discuss the £100million with CLG, HCA and the GLA. This was less formal than the meeting with the Minister and allowed a good exchange of views.

Some further information emerged about the Expressions of Interest: they were split about a third each between local authorities, housing associations and community/self-help groups. There was an uneven geographical spread, with a preponderance of bids from the North West and London. (This may reflect the relative strength of regional organisations such as the North-West Housing Consortium and the London Empty Property Officers Regional Co-ordinators group).

The Empty Homes Network made various points to re-inforce the comments of the practitioners attending such as:

  • the need for flexibility to allow local authorities to work with the private sector (ie private landlords and developers)
  • the relative efficiency and value-for-money of the private sector
  • the paradox that a programme developed under the auspices of a Conservative/Lib-Dem government appeared to exclude many private sector providers
  • the need to recognise that the HCA was a creature of statute and thus the importance of establishing the legal constraints within which the HCA was obliged to operate
  • the potential unfairness of allowing local authorities to believe that a wide range of delivery options was available (eg loans, rent-and-deposit) if in fact they were not and never could have been supported with HCA funding because of statutory constraints
  • the need to encourage local authorities to invest New Homes Bonus in their empty homes work on a "spend-to-save" basis
  • the need for local authorities to be in a position to build sustainable work programmes that might encompass a range of types of properties and situations; thus the dangers posed by being too prescriptive around the length-of-time empty, lease length etc
  • the additional delivery achievable through grant recycling/loan schemes
  • the restrictions that focusing exclusively on affordable housing would imply for the range of properties addressed (some being unsuitable for affordable housing)

The Empty Homes Network undertook to conduct an initial review of the 2008 Housing and Regeneration Act and point out where the constraints around the HCA's operation might lie.

This was the meeting where Sally Turner of DCLG announced that they would be producing a "strategy document" to articulate the Government's position on empty homes and that working groups would be held shortly. As we understand it this will look both at the £100million and the wider picture. We have since learned that the first meeting of a group to take this forward is in London on 28th June with a similar list of invitees to that of the Ministerial Round Table.

Our Executive meeting in London on the following day provided another opportunity to discuss some of the issues raised at the meetings described above. We were fortunate in securing the attendance of Jamie Saddler, Political Adviser and Parliamentary Researcher for Andrew Stunell. Similar issues were raised to those brought up at the London Round Table. Jamie assured the meeting to the best of his knowledge that the Minister was committed to the £100million being used as effectively as possible and that he was determined to "get it right": a message welcomed by all those attending.

We'll keep you posted of further progress.

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