Empty Homes Awards 2016 winners (Part 1)

Now the winners' euphoria has subsided, it's time to highlight all the good work reflected in the the results of the 2016 Empty Homes Awards.

Empty Homes Practitioner of the Year

Amongst the most coveted awards is the one which recognises the contributions of individual practitioners. This year we were overwhelmed by high quality submissions and the judging panel decided that three of these were so strong that they simply had to be recognised, meaning that there were three joint winners. The three Empty Homes Practitioners of the Year 2016 were Allyson Allison, Lynne Leach, and Frances Shieber. Their excellent work is well documented below:

Lynne Leach (formerly Campbell)

Empty Homes Officer, South Lakeland District Council

Lynne’s achievements range wider than her own district, she has over the years pulled together the various empty property officers across Cumbria, Lancashire, England, Wales and Scotland. She has tirelessly organised and chaired the Cumbria Empty Homes Officer Group meetings and promptly produced accurate minutes of the meetings. At each meeting Lynne has brought a fresh approach to addressing empty homes issues by introducing guest speakers in specialist areas of empty homes. Lynne contributes regularly to Empty Homes Network and Scottish Empty Homes Partnership discussions. Lynne regularly produces ‘Life in the Lakes’, a very informative and useful blog that other practitioners have appreciated across the UK.

She has contributed significantly to the formation of the Council’s first standalone Empty Homes Strategy, producing a useful pack for Parish Councils, consulting widely with a range of partners and empty home owners. She has introduced many successful initiatives and schemes, such as an owners and buyers match making service, producing an informative website for empty home owners and carried out EDMO’s. Lynne continues through her interventions to resolve the conflict in the Lake District National Park of second home ownership and meeting local housing demand. Her collaborative approach to her work has been instrumental in moving empty homes work forward, from ensuring close working with Council Tax colleagues and developing an empty homes grant management scheme with one of the main registered providers in South Lakeland.

Nothing is too much trouble for Lynne and she is always prepared to help a colleague within the Council or outside of the Council if this will help further the work to bring empty homes back into use. Lynne has displayed uncommon dedication to the cause of empty homes. She has achieved all this with her tact, diplomacy and a cheerful and positive disposition.

Finally, if this nomination is successful, I hope that Lynne can share with us her secret recipe for her home baked chocolate brownies, which are a regular appetizer at the Cumbria Group meetings.

Allyson Allison

Regional Empty Homes Officer, Forth Valley Empty Homes Project (Falkirk & Stirling Councils)

Since I set up the Forth Valley Empty Homes Project in April 2013, I have excelled my targets year after year. FVEHP has become the flag ship example of a successful Scottish Empty Homes Project.  Currently I have brought back well in excess of 300 empty homes and assisted in the recovery of in excess £300,000 local authority outstanding debt and I have another 300 empty home owners that I’m in regular contact with too.

 I am committed to raising awareness of empty homes work within my councils and across Scotland. I regularly attend Landlord Forums, Housing Investment Groups and Best Practice Group meetings.  I contribute by offering help and advice to new and existing EHO, including job shadowing. I also regularly "blog" on the Knowledge Hub to share ideas and good practice and highlight new solutions that may help others including FVEHP advertising boards, which are displayed in the empty property while renovation work is being carried out. I've also distributed posters, to local members and local authority building to highlight the FVEHP. There also have been several press releases from local and national newspapers and BBC Scotland also produced a TV news report too. (See Best use of Media nomination for further details)

I've also highlighted the issue of outstanding council tax debt recovery, which was never part of the empty homes project, but I identified that my input could/ and has resulted in a substantial amount of debt being recovered within my LA's. I shared this idea Shelter/ Scottish Empty Homes Partnership in an effort to make the post at least cost neutral for the LA's.

I set a very good example of enthusiasm and work ethic for other Empty Homes Officers across the country and currently have approximately 280 active cases. I hope my enthusiasm and love of the job, helps to support/ encourage other EHO and I regularly receive phone calls and emails from other officers looking to "pick my brains". I work hard to highlight that EHO are dealing with “owner’s lives”, not just an empty property.  As EHO I have been able to engage with new and existing resources to help me provide a “whole solution” for owners.  This enable me to work with some owners to bring their property to the market and then assist the new owner with the renovation, renting solutions etc.

I have also negotiated discounts from in excess of 7/8 new businesses, not only for FVEHP, but for all of the EHO across Scotland, in an effort to assist them too.

I've also been able to "unstick" empty homes where other staff members have tried previously to resolve. I've been told that my success is due to my enthusiasm, determination, "need to help" attitude and also being able to "think outside the box". One manager said “Allyson, you’ve made the impossible possible”, after the Private Sector Team had been trying to resolve a communal repair issue for years, that had resulted in an empty home.

Another example was when a property had been on the market and had failed to sell because there was no off street parking. I facilitated the removal of a bus shelter to allow the construction of a driveway.   All cost was borne by the owner, but she was delighted as the property sold quickly afterwards.

I regularly work “outside office hours” in an effort to engage with owner; even calling one owner at 7am over my rice crispies, because that was the best time to contact him.

As a result of the success of the FVEHP, both Local Authorities have now taken steps to employ a full-time, permanent, EHO, which is a great recognition of the projects achievements so far.

Frances Shieber

Empty Homes Officer, Newcastle City Council

Background

Frances Shieber was appointed as Newcastle City Council’s first Empty Homes Officer in December 2013. Regionally, Empty Homes Officers are a rare commodity and whilst Fran had a comprehensive job description and remit, it fell to her to forge a role for herself and to create a professional network so she could draw on expertise and experience.  Historically the responsibility for empty homes in Newcastle was shared across a number of sections within the council and was disjointed. Property owners were contacted by letter with minimal follow up unless the property was causing a hazard requiring enforcement action.

Communication and Cross Council Working  - On appointment Fran began mapping how the Council responded to empty homes; having determined which sections within the council were involved she agreed with them how she could be the intermediary for this process, avoid duplication and increase engagement with owners.

Having gained access to Council Tax records she developed a communication plan to contact owners.  As the Council had successfully secured funding to deal with Cluster Areas the communication plan initially focused on those areas but as this approach has been exceptionally successful it has been rolled out city wide. In 2015/16 Fran proactively contacted owners of over 1,200 long term empty properties in the city seeking information on their plans for the property and offering assistance.   

Fran then established monthly meetings with colleagues in Environmental Health, to discuss tackling problematic empties, where a joint approach of enforcement and engagement was agreed.

Data Checking and Consultation - Fran began interrogating data to establish the extent of the Empty Homes issue and she then carried out a physical inspection of the properties to check the reliability of the data; an approach which resulted in a number of properties being reclassified because Fran had discovered they were occupied.

Fran quickly developed relationships with landlords and property owners by attending forums, visiting letting agents and hosting promotional events. She gathered intelligence from them about how they viewed their empty properties and the barriers they faced in bringing them back into use.  She then researched best practice by networking regionally and nationally. Landlords were delighted to have a single point of contact at the Council.

Developing The Council’s Empty Homes Offer - Fran used this consultation to inform and develop a Council Empty Homes Offer and based on her evidence the Council approved capital funding which is used to provide modest financial incentives to assist owners to carry out works to bring properties up to a lettable standard. In 2015/6 £178,000 of grant aid was provided which resulted in £710,00,000  investment by owners and 61 properties returned to use. Fran’s enthusiasm has resulted in minimal outlay by the Council for maximum return and has removed the blight which empty properties can create.

To promote this offer Fran contacted numerous Estate Agents who were selling long term empty homes to advise them that the properties had an ‘in principle’ offer of financial assistance attached to them.  This resulted in properties being sold quickly and ensured that the new owners engaged with Fran upon completion.

Support and Advice  - Fran works closely with the Council’s Private Rented Service and regularly introduces owners who wish to rent out their property as the Service can provide advice and support to prospective landlords. She has gained her HHSRS qualification and she uses this knowledge to advise owners.

Investors List - Fran has developed an Investors List which gives details of investors looking to expand their portfolio including property type, size and value. She matches owners who wish to sell their properties with investors looking to buy and investors regularly contact her to update their requirements.

Long Term Empties - Building on her success Fran then targeted properties which have been empty in excess of 5 years and worked diligently tracing the owners to discuss their properties with them.  This was labour intensive as many of the properties were not listed on the Land Registry.  Fran proved very tenacious and when she was unable to locate the owner she negotiated a trial ‘complementary’ service from a specialist company.

A STAR IS BORN  - Fran has never missed an opportunity to promote the Empty Homes Offer and is very persuasive in her approach constantly encouraging owners to engage. As Fran’s profile has grown, media interest has increased and Fran welcomed the opportunity to discuss her work and to spread the word about how she can help owners of empty properties.

Press – A leading north east journalist Ian Wylie featured an article in The Northern Correspondent magazine on Fran and her work. This was Fran’s first public accolade and her reputations as a myth buster began as the article emphasised

Television – In 2015 Fran was invited by the BBC to star in their Inside Out programme. She was the focus of a fly on the wall documentary which highlighted the impact which empty properties can have on an area and the challenges the Council faces encouraging their owners to bring them back into use. Fran’s persuasive and professional nature meant that a landlord was keen to appear on the programme with her. The reporting team said she was a natural talent and her appearance resulted in a flurry of enquiries by owners who wanted to know more.

Social Media – Fran is a regular tweeter and regularly features in a video on the Council’s Facebook page promoting the Empty Homes Offer.

Going the Extra Mile

A recent media campaign resulted in enquiries from landlords who also owned properties in neighbouring Local Authority areas, due to Fran’s excellent networking skills and the contacts she had made, she was able to provide contact details for the relevant person in that authority.  Her hard work has been reflected has helped increase the number of empty properties brought back into use following action by the Council from an average of 200 a year to 476 in 2015/16.    

Success at a glance

In the past 2 years Fran has:

  • Established a definitive Empty Property Register including physical property checks
  • Developed a communications plan – contacting every owner of a long term empty annually
  • Consulted with landlords and used the consultation to assist the development of a comprehensive Empty Homes Offer and reviewed effectiveness regularly
  • Facilitated the 476 empties returned to use in 2015/16
  • Established an investors list
  • Developed a cross council empty homes network
  • promoted the Empty Homes Offer in the press, on social media and in person at events
  • starred in the BBC Inside Out documentary
  • engaged with owners who have invested £710,000 in their empty properties
  • facilitated the repayment of £15,000 of council debt by owners or empty properties

The three awards were presented by Dave Stott (standing left) with Mark Byrne of Grafton (standing right).

Best Use of Media Award

This award was new this year. It highlights the vital task of keeping the contribution made by empty homes practitioners to their communities in the public eye. Again, there were very strong submissions and again the judging panel felt it had no alternative but to declare joint winners, with the award going to Empty Homes Doctor in Leeds and to Newcastle City Council.  Fittingly, this award was presented by Helen Williams, Chief Executive of the Empty Homes Agency, which has lobbied so hard on the subject of empty homes for the best of forty years. The two Empty Homes Doctors are Sue Carpenter (centre left) and Jo Widdop (centre right), standing next to sponsor Mark Byrne of Grafton UK Ltd.

Empty Homes Doctor, Leeds

Since 2013, when Empty Homes Doctor began working with Leeds City Council, we have put a lot of effort into finding effective ways to communicate with people in Leeds, so that more people know about the work that we do. 

The primary aim of this work is to encourage more empty home owners to contact us for support.  A secondary aim is to ensure that Leeds citizens are fully aware of the work that is taking place in the city to bring empty properties back into use – and to give people a more broad understanding of the empty homes issue.

Use of social media

Empty Homes Doctor is active on Twitter (@emptyhomesdoc) and Facebook (EmptyHomesDoctor).  We use both channels regularly – primarily to share information about homes that we are working on, as we find that short stories of homes that we work on – accompanied by photos – work best.  We also promote posts on Facebook, and occasionally run promotions (such as a Christmas campaign – with Gingerbread Houses as prizes).  We currently have 451 Facebook page Likes, and 1600 Twitter followers. 

Our website http://www.emptyhomesdoctor.org.uk/ aims to make it as easy as possible for people to find out information about us – and to get in touch. 

We feel it’s important to have a strong presence on social media – as this gives people more confidence to contact us.  We know people are often anxious about getting help with their home – so our strong online presence helps people to feel confident that we can be trusted. 

Use of traditional local and national media

Empty Homes Doctor secures regular local and national media coverage – and has done since our original Call To Action in May 2012 – which resulted in empty homes being the lead story on BBC Look North. 

Recent media coverage includes:

Coverage on BBC Breakfast TV in September 2015 https://twitter.com/EmptyHomesDoc/status/644851494970331136

A feature in the Yorkshire Post in July 2015 http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/leeds-doctor-s-service-may-have-remedy-for-tackling-glut-of-empty-homes-1-7341321

We also encouraged the Yorkshire Evening Post and Leeds Community Foundation to include housing as one of the issues they were covering in a series of roundtable discussions.  The discussion was covered in the newspaper – and empty homes was the lead story on the front page the following day.  We also received coverage in the Leader Comment page, which described our work as an “inspiring solution to a social problem” http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/yep-says/yep-says-july-6-inspiring-solution-to-social-problem-of-empty-homes-1-7344677

http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/politics/radical-new-ideas-needed-to-tackle-leeds-housing-crisis-1-7542405

We are now well known as a social enterprise active in empty homes and housing, and we are regularly invited to comment on relevant housing stories.  Empty Homes Doctor co-director Rob Greenland is a regular guest on local TV station Made In Leeds’ news review programme Between The Lines – which gives us an opportunity to talk about empty homes and housing issues in the city.

Targeted mail campaigns

Over the past twelve months we have worked closely with the Council’s Empty Homes Team to improve the letters that are sent to owners.  The first letter an owner now receives focuses primarily on the Empty Homes Doctor – and the letter has our telephone number as the primary contact (although it continues to be on Council letterhead, as people recognise and trust a letter from the Council). 

This has resulted in a significant increase in enquiries from empty home owners – and lessened the pressure on the council’s Empty Homes Team, as we can handle more of these first enquiries.  All correspondence from the council’s Empty Homes Team now includes our professionally-designed colour leaflet. 

Alongside scheduled, monthly letters, we work with the council’s Team to target certain groups of owners.  Recent campaigns include:

  • Owners of homes that will soon be charged 150% Council Tax
  • Homes with a category F (probate) exemption
  • Homes with a category E exemption where owner has moved into care

Use of video

Our video channel - https://vimeo.com/emptyhomesdoctor has a number of short films about our work – including one that explains how our service works - https://vimeo.com/123722810

We secured funding from Nationwide Foundation to create a short film which follows the story of an empty home from the day we walked in until renovation by local social enterprise Latch.  This is available here https://vimeo.com/emptyhomesdoctor/latchhomeincsubtitles

We also host films created by other empty homes social enterprises, such as Hunslet Club.  This helps us to access their wider network of supporters (close to 4000 people watched their film on our channel in the week that it was made available).

The films on our video channel have been viewed over 6500 times in the last twelve months.

In conclusion

Empty home owners are such a diverse group – and as a result an effective communications strategy needs to include a wide range of approaches.  We have worked hard over the last three years to adapt and improve how we communicate with owners of empty homes in Leeds.  The improvements have helped us to increase the number of homes we have brought back into use – from 33 in 2013-2014, to 59 in 2014-15, to 77 in 2015-16 – all with the same £100,000 annual budget. 

Newcastle City Council

The Award was presented to Frances Shieber (Empty Homes Officer) and Colin White (Senior Housing Renewal Officer) of  the City Council.

Background

Frances Shieber was appointed as Newcastle City Council’s first Empty Homes Officer in December 2013. Regionally, Empty Homes Officers are a rare commodity and whilst Fran had a comprehensive job description and remit, it fell to her to create a professional network so she could draw on expertise and experience and to promote the Newcastle Empty Homes Offer.  Historically the responsibility for empty homes in Newcastle was shared across a number of sections within the council and was disjointed. Property owners were contacted by letter with minimal follow up unless the property was causing a hazard requiring enforcement action. There was no formal mechanism for reporting empty homes and limited assistance.

From the outset Fran has never missed an opportunity to promote the Newcastle Empty Homes Offer and is very persuasive in her approach constantly encouraging owners to engage. As Fran’s profile has grown, media interest has increased and Fran has welcomed the opportunity to discuss her work and to spread the word about how she can help owners of empty properties.

Local Press – A media campaign was undertaken in the local free morning newspaper which is a national paper containing articles of local interest and is available on the Tyne and Wear Metro on weekday mornings. Approximately 110,000 people ride the Metro each day and this afforded the campaign excellent coverage. The advert, which ran for 6 months, featured fortnightly and was packaged with an advert promoting additional services which owners of empty properties could be access free of charge from the Newcastle Private Rented Service. In addition this newspaper has an online and tablet edition.

This media campaign resulted in enquiries from landlords who also owned properties in neighbouring Local Authority areas, due to Fran’s excellent networking skills and the contacts she had made, she was able to provide contact details for the relevant person in that authority.

Empty Dreams – this article was featured in the Northern Correspondent which is a regionally produced magazine containing articles about issues affecting the region. Three pages chronicled Fran’s approach to empty homes, stating the reasons properties remain empties and contained several examples of her successes. 

Online – An online reporting facility has been developed to allow residents of the City to report empty homes.  A report is then produced for the Empty Homes Officer who contacts the owner. This is linked to the Newcastle Private Rented website which details the comprehensive, free service which landlords can access to help them find a tenant. 

A dedicated Empty Homes webpage is under development which will allow property owners to access information about the Newcastle Empty Homes Offer and apply online.

Television – In 2015 Fran was invited by the BBC to star in the Inside Out programme. She was the focus of a fly on the wall documentary which highlighted the impact which empty properties can have on an area and the challenges the Council faces encouraging their owners to bring them back into use. Fran’s persuasive and professional nature meant that a landlord was keen to appear on the programme with her. The reporting team said she was a natural talent and her appearance resulted in a flurry of enquiries by owners who wanted to know more.

Local Radio – Following the Inside Out programme the BBC received a complaint from a viewer that the Council was not tackling an empty home which was next door to her house. Officers from the Fairer Housing Unit and Environmental Health took part in a phone-in programme on BBC Radio Newcastle where they responded to callers questions.

Social Media – the Empty Homes offer is regularly tweeted and the Council’s Facebook page feed promoting the Empty Homes Offer.

Facebook – Fran provides regular Facebook updates confirming the Newcastle Empty Homes Offer and how to access this service.

Banners – Televisions are located in all customer service areas and libraries and the Newcastle Empty Homes Offer is advertised on the screen together with contact details for the Empty Homes Officer.

News in Brief – this is the Council’s fortnightly staff update and contains corporate information and initiatives.  In recognition that many employees know of or actually own an empty property, the Empty Homes Offer is included every month.

Success at a glance

In the past year we have:

  • Developed a communications plan – contacting every owner of a long term empty annually
  • Developed a database of landlords email addresses and send regular e-bulletins
  • Advertised in the local free morning newspaper which is available free on the Tyne and Wear Metro which has c110,000 users each day
  • promoted the Empty Homes Offer on Facebook via a video for additional impact
  • weekly tweeted the Empty Homes Offer
  • starred in the BBC Inside Out documentary
  • featured in a radio phone-in programme on BBC Radio Newcastle

Best Local Authority/Community Housing Group Partnership

The foregoing two awards were presented at the Awards Ceremony at the 24th May Empty Homes Conference 2016 in Birmingham, the Ceremony being sponsored by Grafton once again. The final award, however, was presented at an event held on 14th June in Leeds to celebrate and document the achievements of the Community Housing Organisations involved in creating homes from empty properties. The Best Local Authority / Community Housing Group Partnership Award, sponsored this year by Grafton, recognises the central  role that such partnerships play in achieving results.

Leeds Partnership

Leeds provided the winners this year, with the members of the partnership being Leeds City Council, LATCH, Canopy and GIPSIL. The winners were announced by David Gibbens (Policy Lead for Empty Homes Network) who also thanked Jon Fitzmaurice OBE, Director of self-help-housing.org (standing left in the photo), who played such an influential role in promoting and supporting the work of community housing organisations. Standing next to Jon, left to right, are Keith Gibson and Alex Leccardi (Canopy), Mark Byrne (Grafton), James Hartley (LATCH) and Mark Ireland (Leeds City Council).

The awards submission documents the effective work being done by the winning partnership:

Background

There is a long history of support for community-led housing (CLH) by Leeds City Council which started over 25 years ago and has continued to the present day. The people of Leeds have benefited as new homes have been created, homeless families have been housed, unemployed people have gained qualifications and jobs, areas have been regenerated, local economies stimulated and community cohesion improved.

So why is the partnership so successful?

Simply it makes a difference to people’s lives. The refurbishing of empty homes by Canopy GIPSIL and LATCH makes a significant difference to families and individuals. By supporting the organisations the Council is able to make a bigger difference for people than it could ever do on its own.

The Strategic Fit

Empty homes are a priority for the Council under its Housing Growth and Jobs for Young People breakthrough project. By working in partnership the Council and the CLH cannot just provide affordable homes from empty properties but in the process help train vulnerable people who without this intervention may remain on the fringes of society without work or a purpose to their lives.

The Partnership

The Partnership between the organisations has a clear vision as to what it wants to achieve and by working together is able to deliver a great number of benefits. Key are the relationships between the partners. There is trust, the ability to look at opportunities not just for individual organisations but sector wide and work collaboratively to achieve outcomes.

Regular meetings to share ideas and good practice, and promotion of the work that is undertaken are keys to its success. Whilst the support of the Council is key is it also equally important the support given to the city by the CLH. The reputation of the 3 CLH is a great asset to the city and their promotion of the work is equally important in the success. The joint championing of the work is essential to the partnerships success.

So what do we do in Leeds?

  • Joint working to ensure that we work in a coordinated way to maximise the resources available and the targeting of empty homes. This allowed the CLH to successful leverage in additional grant funding to support the work and maximising the impact. In particular it has allowed over £850k additional funding from the Nationwide Foundation and Land Aid including funding for 2016/8.
  • Regular meetings – this allows sharing of ideas and creates trust and mutual respect
  • Clear vision and strategy of what we want to achieve
  • Joint bids – the Council could not bid for HCA empty homes money but by working together over £4m came into the city and 56 empty homes were brought back into use. The city was so successful it was able to bid for and receive underspends from other areas of the programme.
  • Long term leases – CLH have traditional leased properties from the Council but by providing long term leases this allows the CLH to increase their asset base, improve their borrowing ability and increase their long term sustainability. This ensures that the homes remain as affordable homes and not subject to right to buy.
  • Loans – interest free loans using commuted sums to support the purchase and refurbishment of empty homes. This helps the Council spend its funds and not have to return it back to the Developers
  • Right to buy receipts – provision of 30% grant using right to buy receipts to support CLH empty homes work. The Council not only spends the receipt and not risk losing it but also gets nomination rights to affordable homes.

Conclusion

Whilst the financial aspect of any partnership such as this is important, as we all know money is a key factor in delivery; it is the actual relationship in the city between the Council and the CLH which is the real key. Without the excellent partnership between everyone none of the above would be possible. The promotion of the sector would not as strong without is being a single message from all, the delivery would not be as effective, the closer working and shared vision would not be possible and the city as a whole would not benefit from the way it works.

However, most importantly the partnership allows individuals and families who would not benefit if we did not work together, to have a home and a chance for a better life. This is the key to the success in Leeds.

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