EHN Awards 2021: Our Winners

Having let the dust settle on this year's Virtual National Empty Homes Conference, we are now able to share the details of this year's winners of the EHN Awards. Showcasing the achievements of individuals and Local Authorities across six different award categories, these awards highlight the increadible work, dedication and progress shown within the field of empty homes, during what has been a challenging year for everyone across the Country.

Best Before and After Photograph Award - Sponsored by Auction House & UK Property Rescue

Joint Winner - Lisa Coutts, North East Lincolnshire Council

The property was owned by a gentleman who had lived there in excess of 30 years and was in a state of disrepair. The Housing Enforcement Team began to receive complaints from adjoining neighbours regarding pigeons entering their properties through the loft, which were attributed to holes in the slate roof and the condition of the overgrown garden attracting vermin. 

It was believed that the owner moved out of the property approximately 5 years ago, however continued to state that he resided there. Over a period of years the property deteriorated further and had a front window broken whilst the owner still claimed to live at the property. Subsequently Enforcement procedures were commenced, including obtaining a warrant to enter the property, following the owners lack of cooperation to address the issues which were causing nuisance to the adjoining properties. 

On inspection it was clear that the property had in fact not been lived in for a long period of time and was in severe disrepair. As the owner was still claiming to be living in the property a Prohibition order was placed on the property to ensure that the property remained empty. On internal inspection it was found that the property had major roof leaks, rotten floorboards on the ground floor, no heating or hot water, plaster missing off walls and unsafe electrics. 

The property had also been used for hoarding which contributed to it becoming filthy and infested with vermin & pigeons and which were gaining access into neighbouring properties. It was then brought to our attention that Police legal proceedings against the owner of the property were underway and as a result of this the property began to be targeted with anti- social behaviour and graffiti. 

At this point the owner reluctantly began to engage with the Empty Homes Team and were able to provide him with a list of active purchasers and investors who would be interested in purchasing the property as seen, including all of its contents. SUV Property Ltd completed the purchase of the property in September 2019 on behalf of their clients and have since undertaken a major modernisation and refurbishment scheme on the property. 

On judging the award, our panel said: ”Having an increasing effect on the neighbourhood and community due to anti-social behaviour, this property had been empty for over 5 years despite the owner’s insistence on the property being occupied. 

A full and complete refurbishment programme has now been carried out, and without the intervention of Lisa, would have undoubtedly remained a problematic long-term empty home indefinitely. 

A perfect example of how the worst looking house on the street can end up looking the best, and subsequently encourages a sense of pride and positivity within the community, along with an appreciation for the involvement and work by the Local Authority. 

Congratulations Lisa and the team on your efforts, and a worthy joint winner”. 

 

Best Before and After Photograph Award - Sponsored by Auction House & UK Property Rescue

Joint Winner - Susan Cousins, Durham County Council

The property in a 4 bedroomed detached dwelling located just outside the city centre.

The owner of this property was initially contacted in May 2011 after the council had been approached by someone wanting to purchase the property, later that year the council contacted the owner to enquire if they would be interested for the property to be put forward to be part of a leasing scheme which was being developed, they have regularly been contact to offer, advice, support and assistance to bring the property back into use and have always declined.  

The officer continued  to engage with the owner offering support, advice, and initiatives to bring the property back into use.  

The owner eventually decided that due to the extent of the renovation work, the best option was to sell, the property went on the open market and sold immediately.  The officer continued to keep in contact with the new owner throughout  the renovation again offering support and advice until the property was occupied.  This property also had major internal renovation completed and it has been difficult to choose six photos to show the extent of the work completed.

Our panel said: ”A clear advert for perseverance, this property had lay empty for well over 10 years, having initially contacted the owner back in May 2011. 

Despite repeated attempts to engage with them, the officer’s efforts were rewarded when the owner finally agreed to sell the property, having explained the extent and severity of the renovations work required to make it habitable again. Highlighting the difference from what once was an old and deteriorating property, a house of this size will have had undoubted consequences on the wider community, both before and after its refurbishment. 

Congratulations to Susan and your team for your efforts, and a deserving joint winner”.

 

The Innovation Award - Sponsored by Bevan Brittan

Joint Winner - The Syrian Resettlement & Empty Property Team, Bristol City Council

Bristol City Council is working with the Home Office to support the resettlement of vulnerable refugees. Five empty properties (including one empty House in Multiple Occupation) have been brought back into use and now provide accommodation for vulnerable persons here in Bristol, through the resettlement scheme. This scheme dates back further than the last year, however, the recent collating of the data relating to using empty properties for this scheme is worth celebrating and I hope we will be considered for the award. 

The Empty Property Unit make reference to incentives and services offered by the Syrian Resettlement Team in all letters and through other contact made with owners of Empty properties. This generates a number of enquiries for further information about the scheme and opens up dialogue for the negotiation stage.

The Syrian Resettlement Team used creative problem solving to overcome issues with using a third party organisation for sourcing and managing the properties, this was overcome by developing an in house management model and negotiating directly with the owners. In this system which was adapted from the original process, Bristol City Council takes on a similar role to a managing agent but aren’t actually the managing agent – the landlord remains the landlord and is responsible for the tenancy agreement.

In the case of some of the long term empty properties, where works were required and if the landlord was unable to afford them, the scheme paid for the refurbishment organised external contractors and then once it was occupied only started paying rent to the owner once the cost of renovation was paid off.

Many properties become empty through the death of the only occupier. These properties can become long term empty properties. The following example is how this scheme came up with a solution for such a property;

The owners had died and the children didn’t have any money to refurbish the empty property. The Syrian Resettlement Team organised and paid for refurbishment which was equivalent to 9 months rent. Rent was paid to the owners after 9 months of the property being occupied. The children of the deceased now receiving the income but didn’t have to make an initial repairs outlay.

Another excellent example of how the scheme is bringing empties back into use;

Due to the impact of Covid 19, the landlord issued a notice to quit to their tenants who had been housed there through the resettlement scheme. The family were understandably devastated. The 11 year old daughter noticed that a man kept going into the house next door which was unoccupied. She asked him who he was and he said he was the landlord, she took the initiative and asked to rent the house. The empty property owner contacted the Syrian Resettlement Team and who negotiated a rental and management agreement. The family are happy to call the once empty property their home.

Using an original approach to deal with difficult long term empty properties, 5 empties have been brought back into use. In total since 2015, 27 refugees have been resettled into the once empty homes.

On judging the award, our panel said: “By targeting empty home owners who have found themselves in difficult circumstances, the team at Bristol have been able to find an approach to assisting their Syrian refugee resettlement scheme, without detriment to the local or social housing markets. In providing long-term and often financial solutions to owners, the team have been able to bring 5 empty properties back into to use, housing 27 refugees supported through the Home Office-led service. 

Using in-house knowledge and expertise to overcome property supply issues with a third-party provider, the team have clearly built a reputation that will undoubtedly encourage more landlords to come forward to support the scheme, and further encourage empty home owners to engage with them. 

By developing marketing material, including a Youtube video featuring some of those who have been resettled, not only does this promote the fantastic work that has been done in Bristol, but also develops trust and an impression of reliability, which is key to working with empty home owners. A worthy joint winner of this award”.

For more information on the Syrian Resettlement Scheme run by Bristol City Council, see their recent press release here.

 

The Innovation Award - Sponsored by Bevan Brittan

Joint Winner - The Community Impact Initiative

The Community Impact Initiative C.I.C. (known as the Cii) is an award-winning social change organisation committed to the development, improvement, and sustainability of our communities.  We’re a not-for-profit organisation that innovatively combines skill development and learning with community regeneration to achieve positive socio-economic change.

  • Our vision: We believe in a future where our communities flourish and prosper
  • Mission: To improve our communities through innovative solutions, providing opportunities for individuals to make a meaningful contribution to society.

As a Community Interest Company, every penny we generate is used for the sole purpose of our activities, with all income invested back into our work to continue our community initiatives, allowing us to strive towards our vision and mission. We support people to improve their health and wellbeing, build their confidence and self-esteem, learn new skills, achieve qualifications, and make positive life improvements through the sympathetic renovation of empty properties in our local communities.

We regenerate and invigorate our physical communities, returning empty properties to the housing market in an environmentally friendly and energy-efficient manner, improving the living standards of our communities, and providing an affordable and effective solution to the housing and empty property issues of Wales. In doing so, we challenge our community members to take positive social action and become responsible for their own life journeys. 

We deliver innovative empty property renovations projects that support people and our communities to flourish and prosper. By doing this and involving our local communities, we aim to instil a sense of community pride, resilience, and ownership through our actions.

We support people ranging in age, gender, and background through our empty property renovations to make positive change, empowering them to take ownership of their journey.  Circumstances, background, and support needs are often unique and complex. Our support doesn’t discriminate - we help people who’ve experienced a range of life barriers, including, mental health problems, homelessness, domestic abuse, substance addiction, financial problems, social and economic isolation, low self-esteem, lack of skills and qualifications, and unemployment. We focus on a person’s future, not their past.

During the past 3 years, we’ve regenerated 6 empty properties across Wales and bought them back to the housing market. In doing so we’ve supported over 200 marginalised and hard-to-reach individuals to make positive life improvements. Over the next 3 years we intend to renovate another 6 empty properties across Wales, with plans to expand this innovative approach to empty property regeneration. 

On judging the award submission, our panel said: “Supporting vulnerable and hard-to-reach individuals, whilst engaging local communities in their efforts to bring empty homes back into use, The Community Impact Initiative is an exemplar model in how returning properties to use can not only be for the benefit of their owners or occupiers, but also to those whose time and efforts have been critical throught the refurbishment. 

Bringing 6 empty properties back into use over the past 3 years, the initiative has helped support over 200 individuals in developing their personal and life skills, along with the training and experience required to further their employment prospects. Instilling a sense of pride by involving local communities and encouraging social action, this in turn develops an attitude towards betterment and further investment in local areas often with problematic empty homes at their heart. 

A deserving joint winner of this award, and with a further 6 properties targeted for refurbishment over the next three years, this model should be applauded, if not mirrored in other areas across the UK.”

 

Meeting the Challenge Award - Sponsored by Empty Property Solutions Ltd

Winner: Helen Stevens, Arun District Council

Several complaints were received by the empty property officer regarding the external condition of a property that was suspected to be empty and the infestation of rats. After speaking with the neighbours, they advised of contact details for the owner and that keys to the property were held by one of them. Informal contact was made with the homeowner via email, they provided authority to enter the premises and advised they were not living there and were residing abroad due to the current pandemic. Access was gained to the property to investigate the initial complaint of penetrating damp and smell at the property, what unfolded following access was one of the foulest abandoned empty properties inspected.

Over the years the property had evidently become hoarded with enormous amounts of food waste, dirty sanitary ware and faecal matter. The food waste, which was over three foot high throughout the property had encouraged the presence of vermin and there were several infestations and nests found during the clearance. Over a significant period of time the food waste had rotted away floor boards, wall coverings and soft furnishings. Upon further inspection the 1st floor bathroom was found to have a collosal amount of faecal matter being stored in the bath, the contaminated toilet paper had been disposed of next to the bath and was over 4ft high.

The faecal matter had leaked down the internal walls to the ground floor kitchen and ground floor hallway, it had partially collapsed the ceiling to the kitchen contaminating the area and rotting away the kitchen storage facilities, plaster and floor coverings. The smell from the property was putrid and overpowering it was becoming abundently clear that this property had been left sometime ago due to its deteriorating parlous state of repair!

Following the formal inspection and subsequent HHSRS, the owner ceased to have any further contact and the notices were not complied with and therefore the Council pursued with works in default at the property. Joined up working with specialist companies were key to completing these works in a methodically smooth manner. Access could not be gained for the drain specialist until the garden was cleared to the back door, the garden works could not commence until the rear door had been replaced (it had rotted away and was no longer secure) the door could not be measured up until a safe access route had been created internally, it was problematic at the least and key that everyone adhered to their schedule to ensure access and completion.

A specialist clearance/cleaning company and drain/pump specialist were appointed to carry out works under the Public Health Act Notice, a separate building contractor was appointed to carry out works to the garden to comply with the PDPA Notice and remove the category 2 hazards under the Improvement Notice. The works took three weeks to complete with over 10 tonnes of waste being removed.

In order to re-coup the council’s debt the empty property officer pursued the adopted Enforced Sale Procedure. Determination was key to this case which has resulted in the property being in the final stages of the Enforced Sale and will imminently be bought back into use as a three- bedroom family home. The adjacent properties were very thankful with our involvement and concluding the matter quickly they stated it is allowing them to utilise their gardens and open their windows as they should and has made a significant difference.

On judging the award, the panel said: ”Helen’s work in tackling a property left empty due to the pandemic, led her into dealing with a filthy and verminous house, hoarded with food, rubbish and human waste.

Increasingly common in the work carried out by empty homes officers, Helen dealt with this impeccably, through strict project management and planning, with contractors only brought in once access to their areas of work on the property were available.

Helen’s work, has enabled the neighbours of the property to be able to enjoy their gardens again and open windows, without the issues caused by the empty property, and is a deserving winner of this award”

 

The Partnership Award - Sponsored by Grafton Empty Homes Ltd

Winner: Isle of Anglesey Council

A house and old snooker hall, located next to a new build, state of the art school, were an eyesore and a source of constant complaint to the Council.  The friendly owner would always willingly undertake any urgent repair works e.g. boarding broken windows, attending to slipped slates and broken guttering but this did not provide a long term solution to the problem and dealing with recurrent problems was a waste of officers’ time.  

Next to the property lay some disused land, which had been used by contractors building the school and by local residents for parking.  This, in itself, was also an eyesore. A search of the Land Registry revealed that this area of land was owned by the Council’s Housing Services.

Discussion took place with the Housing Development Manager who agreed that, if both sites were put together, this may become a viable social housing development. This was a huge opportunity for the empty homes team and all the years of working across departments paid off as it enabled them to draw on the expertise within other departments of the Council to enable them to start putting the jig-saw together.

After many months, Housing Services secured planning consent and purchased the property.   The eyesore properties were demolished and replaced with 4 x 1 bedroom flats and 2 x 2 bedroom semi-detached properties. 

As a direct result of the award of the contract, subcontractor and supplier contracts were awarded to local contractors and companies as well as supporting local small businesses. Working closely with Coleg Menai and the Job Centre, work experience opportunities were provided to local construction students and unemployed people trying to get into the workplace.

A safety awareness presentation on the dangers of entering a construction site was made in the local Primary School and the Council made contribution towards the play area at Ysgol Cybi, who had agreed to provide a small strip of land to the rear of the proposed development to provide amenity spaces for the flats. With the onset of Covid 19, the site was closed down for a short time due, but the work was completed by following appropriate safe working guidelines.

On completion of the development, all properties have been let to persons from the Council’s waiting list at affordable rent levels and positive feedback has been received from residents within the community as the development has enhanced the surrounding area and the blight has been removed.

Upon judging, the panel said: “Led by the Council’s Empty Homes team, the Isle of Anglesey Council utilised a number of internal departments, enabling the purchase and demolition of an empty and derelict house and snooker hall.

Working with property services, planning, highways, Environmental Health, Housing and Elected Members, the Council were also able to benefit from the input of local construction students and those currently unemployed, seeking to gain vital experience in trades in preparation for more secure employment.

Along with the adjacent land, owned by the Council’s Housing Services Department, the Authority has been able to build 6 flats, all now let at affordable rent levels to those previously on the Council’s Housing Register.

This award epitomises the importance of working in partnership with internal departments to reach a common goal, and one that will benefit the local area as well as the tenant’s housed for years to come. A deserving winner”

 

The Rising Star Award - Sponsored by Fraser & Fraser

Winner: Denise Gunn, Derby City Council

Denise came to empty homes work from a surveying and customer service background. Denise has quickly picked up the technical side of empty homes work and has a strong personal passion to see the most being made of empty homes.

In terms of work Denise is professional, efficient, co-operative, empathic and has thrown herself into increasing her knowledge and ability to offer the various forms of assistance we have and learn the ropes in the basics of enforcement.

What puts Denise in a league of her own is her personal skills. In what has been a dark year for many, she has been a ray of sunshine. Her people skills are outstanding. Many owners appreciate time spent speaking to Denise about their options and in what can be a remote and faceless time, a conversation with Denise reminds owners that there are humans out there; that we are available to help or just there to coach an owner to see through their own problems and reach their own solution about what to do with the property. Denise has encouraged many owners to sell property to us, to consider selling, to get on top of their personal affairs, to tidy land and has guided owners through complying with warnings of enforcement action.

On judging the award, the panel said: ”Coming from a surveying and customer service background, Denise’s speed and ability in picking up the technical side of empty homes work has seen her grow into being a key member of the team.

With a passion for seeing the most made out of the opportunities empty homes present, Denise’s personal skills, professional and efficient way of working and empathetic nature, has seen many empty home owners turn to her for help and support both with their properties, but also their personal circumstances which led to their property becoming empty.

Denise’s approach to engaging with owners reminds them that there are people out there who are willing to help, in what can often be a faceless and thankless task. 

A worthy winner of this award, Denise’s approach to engaging with owners in such a way should be the industry standard for empty homes officers across the Country”

 

The Empty Homes Practitioner of the Year Award - Sponsored by No Use Empty: Kent

Winner: Adrian Anderson, Amber Valley Borough Council

The property in question was a 2-story semi-detached house in a quiet residential street barely a five-minute walk from the Council’s offices. There had been some initial attempts at contact made by the previous Empty Property Officer, but it was not until I received a phone call from the neighbour that we became fully aware of the property and the issues it presented.

The neighbours were elderly and wanted to report that they had heard noises from inside the vacant property over a course of several nights. They had reported it to the police who said that the Council may also want to be notified. Upon speaking to the police, it tuns out that the property had been broken into and used as a drugs den and squat and was in a state of disrepair internally. Empty bottles and cans, drug paraphernalia, mountains of pornographic material were scattered throughout. The internal copper piping had been ripped out and presumably sold for scrap value and many of the rear windows were smashed. All in all, a bit of a state.

A quick check of Council Tax records showed a single occupier in residence at the property. I don’t think so!! (This highlights a particular issue with Council Tax in that, if the Council Tax is being paid, it doesn’t show up as unoccupied on their system. Be warned!)

So, off to the land registry to see if they could do better. A check came back with the same single gentleman owner but this time with a lady as joint owner.

A subsequent door knock and notice posted on the door revealed no further information, but I received some important news from a colleague in the Housing team. As it turned out, she recognized the gentleman’s name because her husband used to work with him……in the police force! A quick call to the police ensued and I was eventually given a phone number for the male owner – He still worked for the police in a civilian capacity. The owner subsequently agreed to meet me at the Council Offices to discuss the property.

At the meeting the owner revealed that he had bought the property in the early 1990’s with his then partner. He was deeply reluctant to talk about what happened, but they split soon afterwards, and she vacated the property. He continued to live there on his own until 2009 when he too moved out. From 2009 to 2016 he continued to claim single person discount on the property, despite it being empty and not qualifying. (He subsequently paid off the arrears).

I requested that we carry out a joint visit to the property which he refused to do. It was clear that he was suffering from poor mental health and that something had occurred in the property which traumatized him greatly. He simply refused to enter the house. He willingly gave the keys to me and stood outside whilst I carried out an inspection with fellow officers.

In addition to the general waste associated with squats and drug dens, there were a number of deficiencies identified with the property itself -problems with the roof, security, no heating, smashed windows, overgrown garden etc. The owner assured me he would arrange for the work to be done and then sell the property at auction with the Councils assistance. Finally, I thought we were getting somewhere and that the property would soon be sold, and issues resolved. How wrong can you be?

Despite having his new address and contact number and promises from the owner that work would be carried out, I didn’t hear from him again for three and a half years. I left countless messages and wrote endless letters. I even camped outside his new address for a day in the hope of catching him, but nothing.

During this time, I served a Housing Act Improvement Notice for the works identified in the initial inspection that the owner had said he would do. These were subsequently carried out in default of notice served and not complied with. The owner and mortgage company (Identified as a charge on the land registry title) were subsequently informed of the intention to enforce the sale of the property to recover the debt incurred from carrying out the works in default. The Council eventually sold the property at a local auction company early in 2019. It was bought by a local developer and subsequently refurbished and sold to a family now in occupation. Once the debt had been paid and the outstanding mortgage settled, there remained c£50,000 available for collection by the owner. This was held by the Council in an interest-bearing account.

Incredibly, it took a further 6 letters and 12 months before the owner came forward to collect the proceeds.

Lessons learnt

From start to finish, this case took nearly 5 years to resolve, from initial complaint to collection of sale proceeds, so be prepared to be in it for the long haul. Once I had made contact with the owner I really believed that the property would be sold within 6 months and I could close the case. It wasn’t to be. It wasn’t that he was obstructive or in any way objectionable. He was just incredibly unresponsive which in addition to being hugely frustrating just made the whole process much longer than it could have been.

Points to note

  1. It is essential to have an enforcement budget to carry out works in default and “create the debt” to facilitate Enforced Sale further down the line if necessary. Otherwise it’s just an empty threat.
  2. Don’t be put off by a difficult or unresponsive owner. There is a clear legal process to be followed. As long as you do everything in the right order and in the correct manner you should be good to go.
  3. A supportive legal team familiar with the legislation is massively helpful. Whilst there are external agencies that can provide this service, it is generally easier (and cheaper) to keep it in-house if possible (Sorry NP Law!)
  4. Get your service of notices right first time. Saves time and effort further down the line. I never discovered the whereabouts of the joint owner, so served duplicate notices at the property to cover all bases.
  5. Finally, and most importantly…Persevere. These cases are never easy or straight forward, but you will get there in the end.

On judging the award, the panel said: "For Adrian’s tireless work and persistence over several years, through to the completion of an Enforced Sale of a Long-Term Empty Home in Ripley, Derbyshire.

When offers of support and assistance were met with limited engagement, Adrian followed up with the appropriate enforcement action, the perseverance and commitment required to see the property through to a satisfactory conclusion.

Engaging the relevant departments and following a clear processes, Adrian’s persistence to find a solution along with an appreciation of the lessons learned throughout, stands him as a worthy winner of this award”