Empty Homes Awards 2019 - The Winners (Part 2)

In part 2 of our award winners story, we look at the successful submissions for the remaining three awards, presented at the 2019 Empty Homes Conference in Birmingham.

Meeting the Challenge Award - Sponsored by Action on Empty Homes

Winner: City of Bradford Metrolpolitan District Council

Bradford has the highest proportion of empty homes in Yorkshire, with 19 in every 1,000 homes laying empty for at least six months. We also have the highest number of empty homes in Yorkshire (4,090).

Bradford has a large and rapidly growing population. Over the last decade the District’s population growth has been much faster than the national average, growing at a rate of 11.1% compared to 7.1% nationally.

This population change and consequential increased housing demand , together with  the issue of quality (or lack of) within the private rented sector presents considerable housing pressures within the District. 

Bringing empty properties back into residential use helps to meet a number of objectives within the Council’s Housing Strategy notably on reducing the number of empty homes, reducing neighbourhood blight, improving housing quality and the provision of safe, healthy homes, and meeting housing demand.

Elected members recognise the importance of a dedicated team to meet the challenge of empty homes and are realistic and patient with regard to expectations timescales and results. 

As we know the reasons properties are empty are varied and often complex. The team aims to address these by offering a range of approaches and forms of assistance. 

Bradford Council’s Empty Homes Team has two Environmental Health Officers, who deal with the highest priority cases. They are backed up by two Empty Homes Advisors who deal with lower and medium priority cases using Council Tax records as a starting point. Their role is to trace the owners and try to encourage, support and keep momentum going with regard to bringing the houses back into use. They make regular contact, with a dedicated Action Plan produced for every case. Only when they have exhausted all efforts will the case be passed to an Environmental Health Officer. This early work in trying to help owners is so important, especially if the case later results in compulsory purchase action. 

We have a capital budget that is recycled and allows us to purchase properties by agreement where we conclude that the owner is not in a position to arrange the sale, such as age, distance and other pressures in their lives. This works extremely well and sale of these properties on the open market with a condition regarding being renovated and brought back into use in twelve months has, without exception, been successful.

There are always cases where compulsory purchase becomes necessary. The team has gained considerable experience in this field over the last eight years. A recent report by Womble Dickinson into the use of compulsory purchase powers showed that Bradford have submitted 18 Orders between 2003 and 2018, the highest by far in the Yorkshire and Humber region, and all relating to individual empty properties. This year alone we have held three Public Inquiries and so far two of these have come back positive. Although we would prefer to avoid these, we know it sends out an important message that we are serious about bringing empty properties back into use and improving the Bradford District.

In some cases, one or two empty and neglected properties cause blight to spread through a neighbourhood. When we identify these clusters, we step in to identify the cause and tailor a solution. We have employed various approaches in this area. In one small street eight of the twelve houses were empty and some derelict at one time and it looked like there was no future for the houses. We purchased the four worst houses, which encouraged the owners of the other properties to bring them back into use. We sold these properties on to a local charity that provides building apprenticeships and then the houses are let as affordable housing. This completely changed the outlook for the whole neighbourhood. In another case an unadopted footpath in front of the houses was a magnet for fly-tipping and drug taking. We worked with the Police and our Highways section to see what could be done. On their advice, this has now been adopted, re-surfaced, street lighting installed and closed at one end, using empty homes capital funding. This scheme is close to completion. In another cluster case, we identified the high proportion of poor quality private rented housing on the street as the cause of high tenancy turnover and consequent number of empties. Here we pro-actively inspected all the private rented houses to ensure they met housing standards. The improvements in living conditions have stabilised the area by providing a home where people want to live. 

Large properties that we purchase either by agreement or through CPO powers, pose a possible challenge with regard to responsible disposal to ensure they are brought back into use. We carefully consider disposal of these and approach local charities or other partners where appropriate. We are currently selling a large derelict property split into five flats to a charity that houses people with learning difficulties. This involved helping them decide whether the area was a suitable base for their clients. 

Another challenge is dealing with the vulnerable people that we so often encounter. We understand that a lot of empty home owners have some level of mental illness or are vulnerable. The EHOs in the team are both registered Mental First Aiders, training that helps us to recognise and deal with a person who may be unwell. We have also received training in dealing with hoarders and Bradford Council have recently established a Hoarding Framework and a Hoarding Panel to provide a holistic approach to hoarding cases. We also use advocates and support workers whenever we feel there is a need. 

All of the work that we do would not be possible without the benefit of cross team working through the Council. We have a dedicated Legal Officer, funded by the Housing Service, and the constant input of an in-house Chartered Surveyor and Property Management Assistant who ensure smooth conveyancing in the purchase and sale of houses and on-going management of purchased properties until they are sold. Without their work we would not be able to purchase any properties which is such a large part of the work we do. 

All in all, we are very proud of the achievements of Bradford Council in meeting the challenge of bringing empty properties back into use in such a diverse and often difficult environment. 

'With a strong award submission, highlighting that offering a variety of tailored solutions to meet the empty homeowner’s needs will undoubtedly prove fruitful, this year’s winner is a perfect example of there being no ‘one size fits all solution to the empty homes problem.’

- The award being collected by Frances North of Bradford MDC, presented by Will McMahon of Action on Empty Homes

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The Rising Star Award - Sponsored by Orbis Protect

Winner: Diane Broomfield, Dorset Council

"The property is situated overlooking the small coastal, resort town of Swanage, Dorset on the south coast of England. Due to the location and the surrounding attractions in the Dorset Council area, Swanage is a much sought-after area for second homes and holiday accommodation and therefore property prices in and around Swanage are high in relation to the employment opportunities for local people. Consequently there is a high demand for 2 and 3 bedroom properties.

This terraced property is currently set out as a 2 bedroom, however when originally built in the 1960’s it had 3 bedrooms and the 3rd bedroom could easily be re-instated. The property is in need of modernisation throughout and a new kitchen and bathroom as the ones currently installed are the originals. There have been two major leaks within the property - one in the bathroom resulting in the shower being removed, leaving a hole in the stud wall and the other a leak from the bathroom into the kitchen leaving the soil and vent pipe exposed in the kitchen.

The Property was purchased by Mr. X Senior when it was newly built. Mr. X Senior lived in the property with his wife and son. Following the death of his wife Mr. X Senior continued to live in the property until he unexpected passed away in 2015.

The property was then left to his only son Mr. X Junior who had married an American lady and had made his home in America with her. He had no interest in the property in Swanage and had never returned to the property following the passing of his father. This is the reason the property still remained in the exact condition you see in the before photos as it was left in 2015 by Mr. X Senior. In late 2016 Mr. X Junior had instructed solicitors in Swanage to deal with the probate and the selling of the property.

Unfortunately then in July 2017 Mr. X Junior passed away leaving the property to his wife in the United States of America, who again had no interest in the property and as the property was part of the estate of both Mr. X Senior and Mr. X Junior it stayed in probate.

During 2018 some efforts were made to contact Mrs. X by previous Council Officers to discuss the situation and what action might be taken to bring the property back into use. One such action resulted in Mrs. X instructing a new solicitor who was not local and then no further action was then taken until 2019.

In January 2019 I was contacted by the neighbour of one of the adjoining properties, regarding a drainage and damp issue emanating from the empty property into her property. I telephoned the lady and agreed to make some initial investigations. I made an appointment to visit her address and then go to the empty property next door to make a quick assessment.

I carried out a Land Registry Search, which brought no results as the title had never been registered when purchased. Looking up the details of the property on the council tax system I found useful information on the system including the most recently instructed solicitor’s details. I telephoned the solicitors and left a message, but didn’t get a callback.

I visited the neighbour on the 16th January and explained the processes that we would have to follow. She explained that she and other neighbours had been in contact with the solicitor, but hadn’t received aresponse.

With this in mind I went to assess the property externally. The garden was overgrown with brambles and weeds. The fence panels were broken and there was an accumulation of rubbish in the gardens. I also discovered that there was a garage in a block that belonged to the property. This is when I took the external before photos.

On returning to the office I had been contacted by two other neighbours. One issue was from the adjoining neighbour on the other side of the property who was concerned about the general condition and disrepair of the property. The other complaint was concerning the garage in the block. As the garage belonging to the property was at the end of the block the outside wall adjoined his garden. A crack had appeared in the wall giving the neighbour concern that the wall may fall into his garden.

Throughout the rest of January I tried again to contact the solicitors via telephone and email, but without luck and so at the beginning of February I served a Section 16 notice requesting information and I updated the neighbours and awaited a response.

At the beginning of March no information had been forthcoming from the solicitors and I therefore started down the route of an Empty Dwelling Management Order (EDMO). I wrote a letter to the solicitor informing them of a date I intended to inspect the property internally and externally which at this point was in the middle of March. It was this letter, which drew the first action from the solicitor. I received an email the day before the inspection date from the solicitors requesting an alternative date when they would get a local representative to meet me at the property.

I agreed an alternative date with them for the 9th April. I attended the property and met with the local representative, which was a local Estate Agent. He was very helpful and gave access to the property. Interestingly he had originally sold the property. At this inspection I took the internal Before Photos.

I carried out an internal and external inspection and sent this to the solicitors, copying in the estate agent. The estate agent emailed back confirming receipt of the inspection report, but again nothing from the solicitors. At this point it was the end of May. I spoke to the estate agent who was very helpful and suggested that he contact the solicitors, as they had originally instructed him. I agreed to a timescale of 2 weeks in order for him to come back with an update.

Within that time the estate agent informed me that the solicitors had been changed and the owner had now instructed a local firm of solicitors who were awaiting the documents from the previous solicitors.

I agreed that I would now hold off on going down the route of the EDMO, but requested that I be updated by the end of June. The new solicitors then advised that the owner had agreed that the property be cleared and the garden be brought under control. Quotations were sought and the work was done at the end of July. I meet the Estate Agent on the 30th August once these works were completed and this is when I took the after photos.

I have since met the Estate Agent at the property and informed the neighbours of the outcome. The Property is now due at auction shortly where I will attend and speak to the successful bidder to give advice on help available to bring the property back into use.

‘This award aims to celebrate someone’s achievements in the field of empty homes, who may not have necessarily worked in the field for very long but shows promise and enthusiasm in order to find a resolution. It is clear that in this submission the Diane has invested time, effort and great tenacity throughout what was quite clearly a difficult case to deal with, including overcoming a number of extremely challenging hurdles.’

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- The award being collected by Diane Broomfield of Dorset Council, presented Louis Fordham of Orbis Protect.

 

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

Winner: Helen Stevens, Arun District Council

Arun District Councils Empty Property Assistance Programme has been in place since I joined in January 2015, after the Council was provided with £150,000 of funding to enable owners of empty homes to bring their properties back into habitable use.

To date Arun District Council have utilised all of this money, and more, through works in default and homeowner loans and grants to help improve the empty properties both internally and externally, ensuring they can be re-occupied by local people in need of housing. This money has assisted in bringing more than 200 empty homes back into use and created over £1.5 million from the new homes bonus.

Coming into the position 5 years ago I had no idea of the range of enforcement tools available to us under the Housing Act 2004, I went on a number of courses and gained as much knowledge as I could of the housing Act to allow me to use the most effective enforcement option available. I’ve learnt that every empty property has its own story and no two properties are the same the one consistency with them most of them is that the owner (when traced) is almost thankful for the ‘interference’ as a majority just don’t know what to do with them or they live the other end of the country or they don’t know of any tradesmen and where to start with the mountain of work they have in front of them. I try to reassure every single home owner that there isn’t anything with an empty property that cannot be dealt with and if worse comes to worse then they have the choice to sell the property – make a bit money – and pass the headache onto another who generally has the right intentions and thoughts to make the empty house a home.

I have written the Empty Property Strategy 2018-2023, I have implemented an empty property database which allows me to mailshot every single empty home in the district on a monthly basis in order to prompt home owners into contacting us. I have implemented a report an empty property eform allowing the general public to contact me with problem and unsightly properties and I have tailored a number of information leaflets to send to empty home owners offering help and assistance. I have implemented a Guaranteed Rental Scheme along with our financial Assistance programme – which allows empty home owners to apply for funding up to £10,000 in return we get the nomination of the property and the owners get a fully managed property with guaranteed rent from a local agent. The key for any empty property officer is a close working relationship with your council tax department as they hold all the information that you require in order to deal with the empties, in turn you’re also assisting them with getting the most up to date information for their records.

I have dealt with an array of empty properties, that have been squatted in, vandalised, used as drug dens, hoarded, rat infested, fox infested, water damaged and left for years, properties that have been so densely covered in vegetation you wouldn’t even know they were there……every single one of these properties are now back in use either being used by our Housing Options Team or on the private sector being used as homes. All these properties and more have contributed to me serving over 100 enforcement notices including Improvement Notice, Emergency Prohibitions, Emergency Remedial Works and Demolition Orders. This does not include notices that I have had to serve under the public health act due to filthy and verminous empties, vermin infested properties and hoarded properties. If the homeowners choose not to comply with the Notices/Orders then it allows us to step in and carry the works out in default which in turn creates the necessary charge on the property to allow us to Enforce the Sale something which I have done on more than a handful of occasions now. Don’t get me wrong I’ve had my fair share of Residential Tribunal Appeals but to date I have had every single one of them upheld in favour of the Local Authority which shows we must be doing something right!!

‘Throughout this submission, it was extremely clear that Helen has made a significant difference to empty homes work since joining the authority in 2015. Implementing a working database, the guaranteed rental scheme as well as looking at how improved customer reporting can bring to light empty homes cases are all critical factors in delivering an exemplary empty homes service.’

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- The award being collected by Pamela Cunningham on behalf of Helen Stevens, presented Andrew Lavendar of No Use Empty: Kent.

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