Empty Homes Awards 2019 - The Winners (Part 1)

Having had the time to reflect on this year's successful National Empty Homes Conference, it is time to celebrate the fantastic work being done across the Country, highlighted during our Annual Empty Homes Awards, presented in Birmingham.

In Part 1, we look at the stories and judges comments behind three of our winners.

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

WINNER - Derby City Council

‘The panel felt that this submission was the one which gave the most significant change from before and after. The neighbouring properties were badly affected by the state of the property and now the improvements have added value to their surroundings and improved the street scene."

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- The award being collected by Denise Gunn and Michelle Johnson of Derby City Council, presented by Bryan Baxter of Auction House UK.

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Best Parnership Award - Sponsored by Grafton Empty Homes

WINNER - Wrexham County Borough Council, The Treasury Solicitor & Wales and West Housing Association

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 The empty properties consisted of 3 large dwellings that were constructed on the site of a former garage and petrol station known as Victoria Garage and never completed. Countless attempts by the authority to engage with the owners were unsuccessful and the properties deteriorated significantly over a number of years. Due to their prominent location within the centre of the village they soon became magnets for antisocial behaviour which required the Council to intervene and regular complaints.  

The Community Council and County Councillors Cllr Dana Davies and the late Cllr Barrie Price were all keen to have something happen with these properties and they, along with members of their community, regularly expressed frustration with their condition and the wasted resource they represented in the village. There were also concerns that the land was contaminated and the possibility of there still being fuel tanks under the ground that hadn’t been properly dealt with when the now empty buildings were being constructed. The properties were referred to the Council’s Empty Homes Officer to see what work could be undertaken and for a while progress was still limited.

Despite many attempts to trace and find the owners (a Limited Company registered in Guernsey) there was no breakthrough and complaints were continuing to be generated on a fairly regular basis – understandably so. Eventually the Council was able to secure information from Her Majesty’s Greffier (equivalent of Companies House) which provided valuable information about the status of the company and the fact that it had been dissolved. This opened the door to potential action from the Treasury Solicitors.

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The Treasury Solicitors were understandably reticent to get involved initially due to the complex nature of the ownership of the property, the possibility that the land may have been transferred prior to the sale and the relatively low land values involved. However, eventually after much encouragement by the Empty Homes Officer and support from other officers from the Council (including Planning Enforcement and Public Protection Officers, the Affordable Housing Officer and colleagues in our Legal Services) an agreement was struck that the Treasury Solicitors and Wrexham County Borough Council would collaborate to enable the properties to be developed for much needed affordable or social housing in the village. External independent legal advice was then commissioned by the Council involving Haskins of Guernsey who were able to confirm that the company had been dissolved and that the properties lay with the company at the point of dissolution. However there were a few more months whereby the company could be resurrected by the previous directors so we had to hold our collective breaths for a bit longer!

Whilst we were holding our breaths, work was undertaken by the Council and Wales & West Housing Association, a key partner in the provision of good quality affordable and social housing in the County Borough to identify opportunities to secure this property for much needed residential properties in the village and agreement was struck between Wales & West Housing Association and the Treasury Solicitors for the properties and land to be purchased subject to the final piece of the jigsaw about the status of the company falling into place. 

Eventually this time passed and following further legal advice by Haskins of Guernsey we were able to confirm that the status of the company remained the same. At this point, along with the commitment of Wales & West Housing Association with support from the Welsh Government’s Social Housing Grant to purchase the properties for Affordable Housing, the Treasury Solicitors were happy to take steps to acquire the properties. 

As a result of the purchase of these properties by Wales & West Housing Association, the cost of the legal fees to Wrexham County Borough Council was gratefully fully reimbursed and the properties were demolished very soon afterwards (a brick from the property now stands proudly on the Empty Property Officers desk to commemorate the event) and the site cleared (including any issues with contamination). Work is now ongoing to develop high quality affordable housing units in a village with a particular housing need for this kind of accommodation. These new properties which have been built by local contractors Brenig Construction, boast a high level of energy efficiency and represent a significant and vital investment of by Wales & West Housing Association, and the Welsh Government in much needed high quality affordable accommodation in the area are due to be completed in early 2020. 

This whole project is also a good example of the potentially important role Registered Social Landlords can play in collaboration with Local Authorities to address the issues of long term empty properties in communities across the UK. This property can now be seen as a development that benefits the village and wider County Borough rather than a barrier to regeneration and a millstone on the necks of the community. 

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All in all the properties have taken over 10 years to get to this stage but without the tenacity of the Empty Properties Officer, the willingness of Tristan Williams from Burges Salmond to support action on their side, and the foresight, support and engagement of Wales & West Housing Association and their contractor Brenig Construction in taking this scheme forward it’s possible that the Council would still be responding to complaints now. 

‘This project demonstrated the persistence and tenacity often required in the role of an empty homes officer, and quite clearly displays how partnership working and using the specialist skills that different partners have to offer, can all play an equal role on bringing empty homes and derelict sites back into use.’

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- The award being presented to Sion Wynne of Wrexham County Borough Council, by Mark Byrne of Grafton Empty Homes.

The Innovation Award - Sponsored by Empty Property Solutions Ltd

WINNER -  City of Bradford Metropolitan District Council

Over the years the team have introduced new approaches and forms of assistance where we have identified a specific gap or issue in the cases we are dealing with. We offer an equity based, sharia compliant Empty Property Loan that we developed from scratch and that has been used as a model by other Local Authorities in the Yorkshire and Humber region. Where an owner does not have any equity, we offer a small grant to get a property brought back into use. We have an agreement with a local firm of solicitors to offer one hour legal advice, free to the client, to help unravel any legal issues such as probate or a defective title. Actually getting the owner or their family across that threshold, where they usually find there is a straightforward solution, is such an important step in beginning to address the empty property. 

‘This submission is an excellent example of how bringing empty homes back into use is not a one size fits all process, and by tailoring your support and advice to the needs and circumstances of the homeowner can bring its rewards. Having begun to offer Sharia approved equity loans, Bradford Metropolitan District Council have shown how being innovative in what they offer can bridge an important gap in helping a demographic return their empty homes to use.’ 

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- The award being collected by Frances North of Bradford MDC, presented on behalf of Empty Property Solutions Ltd, by Adam Cliff.

 

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