The Liberal Democrats have launched a campaign at local level to encourage councils to do more about empty homes - whilst criticizing local authorities for insufficient action to date. The campaign has been launched off the back of a Freedom of Information request, the outcome of which was reported in a front-page article in the Guardian newspaper on 1st January. In this case the Guardian seems to have been the chosen mouthpiece of the Lib Dems (in line with a very long history) as there seems to have been no general press release. The story was then picked up by other news channels such as the Independent, the Daily Telegraph and the BBC, all of which highlighted the 11,000 homes empty for over 10 years. Vince Cable is cited urging local authorities to do more, particularly with Empty Dwelling Management Orders [EDMOs], whilst noting the need to reform the measure.
The Lib Dems media campaign involves a template press release for use at local level, which was published on the Lib Dem Councillors and Campaigners website. Separately, access to a shared Google Docs folder with a campaign pack was provided via the main Lib Dems website. [Some of these links may cease to work soon]
The campaign pack includes, in addition to the template press release:
- a template article for local Focus newsletters
- instructions for setting up a local online petition, with various templates and image files
- an email to local supporters or contacts inviting them to sign the petition
- the spreadsheet containing the results of the FOI requests
The extent to which the campaign develops will then presumably hinge on the extent to which Lib Dem councillors decide to move forwards with it and issue the press release, which reads as follows:
[NUMBER] homes across [REGION] left empty for years
Over [NUMBER] homes in [REGION] have been sitting empty for ten years or more, research by the Liberal Democrats has revealed.
The figures, uncovered through Freedom of Information requests, show that there are over [NUMBER] homes across the country that have been empty for six months or more. Of these, [NUMBER] had been empty for two years or more, [NUMBER] for five years or more, and over [NUMBER] have stood empty for at least ten years.
[LOCAL AUTHORITY] has failed to make use of Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMO), powers used by local authorities to take over properties that have been empty for at least two years. This is despite the fact that some local families have spent Christmas without a home.
Nationally only 19 of the 247 councils in England and Wales that responded (the powers do not apply in Scotland) had used an EDMO in the past five years. Of these only six had used one in the past year.
“At a time when the homelessness crisis is worsening and more and more people are sleeping out in the cold on our streets, it is a scandal that so many homes locally are sitting empty.
“These homes could be turned into affordable places to live for those that need it across [REGION]
“The Government needs to urgently review the current system which is clearly not working and [LOCAL AUTHORITY] needs to be given the powers and resources to bring empty homes back
***ONLY USE IF YOUR LOCAL AUTHORITY HAS NOT USED AN EDMO***
“It is shameful that [LOCAL AUTHORITY] has failed to use existing powers to end this scandal. Local families have spent Christmas homeless because of [CONSERVATIVE/LABOUR] inaction and ineptitude.”
It is not clear how the REGION variable would be populated because the spreadsheet does not contain any figures at regional level: this is perhaps to be replaced by figures for the local authority.
Any focus on empty homes must be welcome. The Lib Dems are the only major party to have shown a significant interest in the subject even if the handling of the Empty Homes funding streams under the Coalition government was inept.
Key points to note in the template press release are the recognition that the local government powers are not in fact adequate to the task of bringing empties back into use (perhaps the exigencies of coalition can provide at least some excuse for the Lib Dems' propping up the government whilst Eric Pickles undermined EDMO powers); and that local authorities should be given the resources to tackle empties. As regards EDMO powers, it is noteworthy that some of the press stories claim that EDMOs are available for homes that have been empty for only 6 months: thanks to Eric Pickles, this figure is now two years.
It is to be hoped that resources are indeed made available to local authorities rather than via the bureaucratic mechanisms of the HCA. Failure to monitor or evaluate the Clusters of Empties funding is one example of the ineptitude of the Coalition government's management of its empty homes funding programmes, but anecdotally at least the flexibility involved provided a basis for more innovative solutions tailored to local circumstances.
What is certainly lacking at the moment in the Lib Dem vision is any commitment to creating a national initiative to tackle empty homes, spearheaded by an Empty Homes Unit in central government that could support and drive local initiatives and take ownership of whatever changes are needed at national level to push things forward. Until there is such a recognition there will be a postcode lottery around the effectiveness of local empty homes strategies and - regrettably - it can be predicted that local authorities will waste resources reinventing wheels, painfully learning lessons that have already been learned elsewhere or simply sitting on their hands and whingeing about how complicated it all is.
The table of information collected via the Freedom of Information request is interesting but does not warrant detailed scrutiny given probable discrepancies in how different local authorities will have answered the questions. [Note to anyone who wants to conduct FOI requests into the empty homes issues: do contact EHN as we can help you phrase the questions.]
Practitioners won't have too many difficulties spotting the potential for conflicting approaches in supplying answers to the following (our emphasis added) :
Under the Freedom of Information Act can I ask for the following information from your authority on the number of empty homes:
- How many private sector homes are currently deemed as long-term vacant in your local authority i.e. have been empty for over six months?
- How many of these properties have been vacant for over a) two years b) five years and c) ten years?
- In the year 2016-2017 how many empty homes have been brought into use? (By that I mean are now occupied)
- How many Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOS) has your authority used in 2017 to date; 2016; 2015; 2014 and 2013? Please could I have this information broken down by calendar year?
The most obvious issues in securing consistent responses would be:
- 'private sector homes' - figures are not kept by local authorites as council tax statistics cover homes of all tenures; did LAs the go through the sorts of processes needed to disaggregate private sector from public sector homes, which would either involve contacting all local public sector or relying on the incomplete statistics from the Local Housing Statistics return from the summer of 2017; and if such an exercise was carried out, so did Private Registered Provider homes count as 'private sector' or 'public sector'? And does the figure include exempt homes or not?
- As regards 'been brought into use...', this could mean
- which individual properties empty in the 2016 Council Tax Base [CTB] were now occupied according to the 2017 CTB;
- what was the net difference between the 2016 and 2017 CTB (there are no negative figures, suggesting that this interpretation was not used - but it may have been used by local authorities that did have net reductions on their CTBs); or
- was it specifically re-occupation following intervention by the local authority that is to be reported - in which case what criteria were the local authorities using to count a successful intervention?
Some of press reports do assume that the the figures indicate no. 3 above, but the figures themselves suggest different interpretations by different local authorites. Quite a few have not supplied the figures, for reasons we can only conjecture.
There is also an issue about whether the figures supplied refer to long-term empties, to match FOI question 1, or all empties.
Empty Dwelling Management Orders
What the FOI request does confirm is what practitioners already know, that very little use has been made of EDMOs. This is certainly an easy enough stick with which to beat local authorities. But even some (but not all) highly experienced empty homes practitioners are wary of using them, preferring to put limited resources elsewhere because of the high resource demand involved, difficulties with management of the EDMOed properties and above alll the inability to reclaim the up-front costs of securing the EDMO, which can be substantial.
The EDMO is certainly a measure that warrants review and improvement if it is to fulfil its potential, but there is also little doubt that even under the existing regime it has a lot more potential than is being properly explored.
At the same time, the FOI request overlooks the extent to which threats of EDMO action may be producing results. For example, Darryl Lawrence, EHN's new Policy Lead and Director of Rochdale Housing Initiative, has pointed out that Rochdale ‘serves loads of Notices of Intention* but only a few get to full EDMO as the Notice of Intention usually has the desired effect’.
The Focus article
This template article does include some further comment that suggests it has become somewhat unhinged from the rest of the material. Its headline contains the accusation that the local council 'fails to take cash to tackle homelessness'. It goes on to say:
Shocking figures have revealed that [LOCAL COUNCIL] has failed to take up funding from Central Government to help bring empty homes back into use.
It is unclear what this can be referring to and, potentially, will undermine local attempts to progress the empty homes issues unless the accusation is rephrased or withdrawn - or some clarity is provided.
As noted above, whatever technical criticisms might be leveled at the FOI request, the fact that the Lib Dems are promoting a campaign for more to be done about empty homes can only be positive and is greatly to be welcomed. We hope that it will provide a springboard for serious consideration of what improvements can be made in the infrastructure that supports local initiatives.
Members are invited to log in and comment on this news item if they have useful information to add. We will be informally monitoring the extent to which local Lib Dem party organisations pursue the empty homes issue.
* Local authorities have to give owners three months advance notice that they are intending to seek an EDMO. This is separate from any advance notices from tribunals that might hear the case.