Empty Homes Practitioner of the Year Award 2015

This year's Empty Homes Awards attracted a wide range of impressive submission and were presented at our May Conference at a ceremony sponsored by Grafton UK Ltd. We'll be highlighting the details of winning submissions over the next few weeks.

Empty Homes Practitioner of the Year 2015

The first award to be presented was for Empty Homes Practitioner of the Year. This award, sponsored by Grafton itself, is now the longest-standing award to be presented at our Conference. There were two entries this year that were so strong that the Panel felt it had little option but to announce joint winners: Benard Goren of Hull City Council and Zainul Pirmohamed of Stoke City Councit. The awards submissions speak for themselves:

Joint Winner: Benard Goren

Position: Project Liaison Officer, Housing Strategy and Renewal, Kingston-upon-Hull City Council

The programme

Since 2012 the Hull City Council and six community organisations have worked to tackle empty properties across the city and to deliver neighbourhood transformation in three areas with ‘clusters’ of empty homes through refurbishment including external solid wall insulation, frontage improvements and tackling all empty properties. The programme has successfully delivered improvements to almost 900 properties and has resulted in 585 empty homes being brought into use, which represents more than 10% of the properties brought into use across the national programme.

This could not have been achieved without the determination and tenacity of the Council’s Project Liaison Officer, Benard Goren.

Role

Ben’s role is wide ranging covering landlord engagement for both the empty homes programme and for sign up to frontage improvements and external solid wall insulation schemes. Using his exceptional negotiation and engagement skills, Ben has secured more than 98% sign-up to improvements in the three clusters areas, and has:

  • Secured 44 leases against empty properties;
  • Secured 121 owner self-refurbishments;
  • Supported delivery of a further 176 purchase and repair refurbishment (commercial conversions/residential refurbishments)

To achieve this Ben has been extremely pro-active in his approach to ensure that properties are brought into use. Ben has worked tirelessly with mortgage providers to gain their consent to lease agreements and has been unrelenting in his engagement with key contacts to ensure that any barriers to consent have been addressed. This has resulted in consent being provided by two large providers and a number of smaller lenders. Without Ben’s commitment to addressing this barrier the majority of the 44 leases would not now be complete and back into use. Additionally he has also paved the way for future leases for Hull City Council and housing providers/local authorities across the country.

Another key element of Ben’s work has been linking with the Private Housing enforcement team and starting enforcement action where owners are unwilling or unable to bring their properties back into use. Ben has worked successfully with the team to secure 5 Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs) and progressed enforcement against 56 owners. More than 50% of these are now back into use and enforcement against the remainder continues.

Ben has also been the key co-ordinator of the empty homes partnership, made up of the Council and six community organisations which won the Empty Homes Award for Best Local Authority/Community Partnership 2014. Ben’s landlord engagement activity resulted in a constant flow of empty property referrals to the 6 community organisations and has resulted in a further 243 empty homes being brought into use. Ben has maintained communication between the Council and the community partners and has provided advice and support and unlocked access to other Council teams for partners.

A key risk to any empty homes programme is securing utility meters in order to let properties upon completion of refurbishment. With very long term empty properties this is particularly challenging. Ben has tackled this issue head on and has successfully built a strong relationship with a utility provider which means that meter installations are no longer a significant risk to re-letting.

Ben has taken a pivotal role in addressing barriers to bringing empty homes into use. Without Ben’s dedication, innovation and excellent organisations skills Hull’s citywide empty homes programme would not have been such a success and 585 empty properties would not now be quality homes. Furthermore, without this track record, the Council would not have secured further grant funding of £6.2 million to continue the programme for the next three years.

[Below - Dave Stott of Grafton presents the award to Benard Goren]

Joint Winner - Zainul Pirmohamed

For Zainul, this is the second time around - Zainul won the award a few years ago. This time the Panel recognised her excellent work around Stoke's £1 house initiative that has captured so many headlines.

Job title: Project manager, £1 houses, Stoke-on-Trent City Council

Stoke-on-Trent’s innovative ‘£1 houses’ project has become one of the biggest news stories the city council has ever been involved in. The renovation and sale of a cluster of empty terraced houses in the Cobridge area of the city last year has fascinated readers and viewers locally, nationally and in places as far afield as Russia, China and Scandinavia. More importantly, the project has stimulated debate here in the UK about the problems associated with empty homes and how local authorities can intervene to mitigate and ultimately reverse the damage that derelict properties inflict on communities.

In Stoke-on-Trent, our Clusters of Empty Homes team has not only succeeded in bringing 33 empty properties back into use through the £1 houses project, but has used them as a tool with which to effect social uplift as well as physical regeneration. The result is a holistic intervention aimed at revitalising the local community and giving residents old and new a sense of ownership – not just of bricks and mortar, but of a stake in their own futures.

However, this unmitigated success story could so easily have ended with the auction of 33 boarded-up properties to the highest bidders. Such would have been the traditional method of disposal when confronted with empty homes in an area of traditional low housing demand and market failure. It took a unique individual to see the merit in trying a different and riskier approach. Instead of viewing the cluster of empty houses around the Portland Street neighbourhood as a problem, Zainul Pirmohamed saw an unprecedented opportunity to effect real and lasting change that would benefit not only the new buyers, but also the existing residents. She saw that by bringing so many homes back into productive use in one go, the city council would achieve a critical mass of change that would amplify the resulting social impact on the area and create its own momentum to spur continuing improvement.

The risks involved were considerable, but Zainul realised that the risk of not taking any risks was greater. Doing nothing, or at least nothing different, was simply not an option because the costs of failing to intervene were likely to be far greater than the financial risk of proceeding with a hitherto untried policy initiative. Selling the properties at auction was likely to see them fall into the hands of private landlords, thereby perpetuating the very cycle of underinvestment, poor housing quality and social deprivation that had contributed to housing market failure there in the first place. Zainul understood very early on that ultimate success would depend on two factors: the simultaneous sale of all the properties and the attitude of the buyers to achieving and participating in positive social change and community regeneration.

Zainul and her team devised a set of criteria for selecting potential buyers which ensured that applicants would have to be able to demonstrate strong local connections, modest incomes through employment and more importantly a passion for the project itself. This step ensured that the £1 houses scheme would effectively recruit a sizeable contingent of engaged volunteers with the enthusiasm and commitment to drive progress, champion community involvement and help to shape a lasting legacy of sustainable urban regeneration. Zainul also worked behind the scenes to establish an informal communication network for the new residents to make sure that the incoming residents had formed a cohesive group and had already set about devising improvement ideas for the area long before the renovation work on their future homes had been completed. As these bonds strengthened, Zainul worked to create tentative links between the £1 house buyers and the area’s existing residents to pave the way for future integration and reinforce the sense of a revitalised community, rather than a transplanted one.

Zainul richly deserves to win the award for practitioner of the year, not only for what she and her dedicated team have already achieved in such a relatively short timeframe, but for what she has set in motion. She would be the first to say that the £1 houses project is far from complete – it is a 10 year vision of urban and social renewal and we are now in the just the second year of implementation. But what she has achieved goes far beyond the boundaries of Cobridge and has implications for all communities affected by the common blight of empty homes. The £1 houses project has not only brought 33 empty homes back into productive use and transformed the lives of the families living there. It has also developed a new cost-effective, sustainable and replicable blueprint for how local authorities can exploit their empty homes issues to deliver urban and social renewal and reframed the debate about how we use the powers at our disposal to maximum effect.

[Below: Dave Stott of Grafton presenting the award to Zainul]

Dave Stott of Grafton presenting the award to Zainul Pirmohamed

Highly Commended - David Sanderson

But that wasn't all, this year. David Sanderson of Carlisle City Council had stiff competition in Benard and Zainul, but the Panel thought his submission was strong enough to warrant a "highly commended" award:

Role: Empty Property Officer with Carlisle City Council

David started at Carlisle City Council in November 2013 and has been a real asset to the Private Sector Housing Team. In April 2012 we were fortunate enough to secure government funding through the CLG cluster funding for empty homes, although Officers worked together from Allerdale, Copeland and Carlisle to put together the bid, the City Council needed an officer in the vacant empty property officer post, who could drive forward the vision we had to deliver the scheme in Carlisle.

From the start of the project David worked tirelessly to build up his knowledge on empty homes and develop his local knowledge of the empty property problems in the district. David had previously worked with mainly registered providers as a charted building surveyor, so joining the Council he also had to learn the workings of a Local Authority environment and the subtle political differences at play in the organization.

David has developed excellent relationships within the Council with internal departments, collectively improving systems of working to get the best end result for empty home owners and break down barriers that improve customer service. David takes a real passion in his work to go the extra mile for empty home owners, providing them with a whole host of advice and assistance but more importantly he gives the owners the positive support they need to encourage empty home owners to bring their properties back into use.

By the end of March 2015, Carlisle City Council had successfully delivered 54 empty homes back into use through the cluster bid program, exceeding the target of 45 homes. Looking forward David is increasingly looking at new ways of working from empty homes finance models to positively networking to get the best deal for Carlisle, he is also keen as a non enforcement officer to learn the available tools should they be required.

A particular project that David worked on recently to promote the Empty Homes in Carlisle was the empty property info graphics material which I have attached to the e-mail. David developed the concept following involvement with the Local Plan, he then carried out the data analysis to draw down the actual values in the material and pushed it forward to get the information leaflet. I think the material clearly helps the Council demonstrate the worth of bringing empty homes back into use, but it also send out a really positive measure about Carlisle as a whole and the area. Since the leaflet was produced we have been able to share this information with Colleagues, Council members, key stakeholders and empty home owners to raise awareness of empty homes in the district and push the empty homes agenda firmly on the Councils list of priorities.

[Below: Dave Stott of Grafton presenting the award to David]

Dave Stott of Grafton presents Highly Commended award to David Sanderson

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