Wales leads the way on national empty homes initiative

The Welsh Government is leading the way in its efforts to create an effective national empty homes initiative, as disclosed by an evaluation report published in May by the Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University.

You don't need to read much of the study - entitled Houses into Homes First Interim Evaluation Report (accessible via our Library here) - before you get a flavour of the Welsh approach. Paragraph 1.1 tells us

...a new empty properties initiative was launched in April 2012. The Houses into Homes scheme, conceived jointly by the Welsh Government and local authorities, makes available loans to bring privately owned empty houses or commercial buildings back into use as homes for rent or sale.

"Conceived jointly by the Welsh Government and local authorities"? That's a rather alien concept if you are on the Eastern side of Offa's dyke - indeed, somewhat beyond the wildest dreams of practitioners in English authorities. But an inspiring example which demonstrates the potential for central/local partnerships if central goverment is minded to work in that way.

Think first, act later

Developments in Wales have been guided by sound experience gained elsewhere. A key step was the production of the initial Houses Into Homes report by Lavender and Wilson (Housing Training and Consultancy Ltd.) published in June 2012. This followed on from the Welsh Government's May 2011 Programme for Government which included a commitment to set up an Empty Property Initiative.

By this time the Welsh government had already committed £5million of capital funding to help tackle empty homes (quickly increased to £10million) but they awaited the Lavender and Wilson report before finalising the details of how the funding should work. Drawing on Andrew Lavender's experience in Kent, the Empty Homes Loan Scheme is similar in most respects to the Kent No Use Empty model.

Nominally, the loan scheme went live in April 2012 but the first few months required the necessary infrastructure to be set up .

Building capacity

With all players moving in the same direction and the Welsh LGA providing an important co-ordinating role on behalf of the Welsh Government, an organisational framework was established relatively quickly. The Interim Evaluation Report noted that:

Most elements of the day to day delivery of Houses into Homes are locally determined. Advice and guidance has been provided, but each local authority has been free to tailor the specifics of its approach. This has involved some local authorities travelling a long way in a relatively short time. In particular, local authorities with a limited recent history of working to tackle the problem of empty homes have rapidly developed systems and processes in order to deliver the scheme.

Six regional groups were set up for mutual support, based on health service administrative boundaries. These seem to have provided importnat benefits:

All regional leads spoke positively about the role of the regional group in providing a forum for local authorities to discuss and interpret advice and guidance issued by the Welsh Government and to determine their approach to delivering Houses into Homes. This was reported to be particularly useful for local authorities with a limited history of empty homes activity and little experience of administering loans. Through the regional group, these authorities could up-skill quickly, utilising documentation (legal agreements, contracts etc.), copying processes and building on lessons learned by more experienced authorities. There were also examples of officers from different departments, such as legal services, meeting up to compare experiences and approaches.

The regional tier was not however just an optional bonus. In fact the government required "collaborative agreements" to be in place before they would release any funding:

These collaborative agreements represent an important development. Not only does the signing of a legal agreement represent a foundation for productive collaboration in delivering Houses into Homes by providing a protocol for how local authorities will engage and work with each other. It also represents one of the first examples of the enhanced cooperation between local authorities championed by the Welsh Government as a means for improving service delivery and reducing costs.

Again the Welsh Government deserves credit for recognising the contribution made by effective organisational infrastructure and taking active steps to promote it. In England cross-boundary working remains all too rare, though some consortium bidding for HCA funding has helped stimulate new developments.

Collecting Evidence

The Hallam University team have been collecting detailed data about applications for loans. This can be vital in shaping the parameters for future schemes. Certain figures jump out such as:

the total value of loans agreed so far is £486,789, an average of £37,445 per application

This works out at just over £15k per dwelling based on projected 24 units to be created. The current limits are £150,000 per applicant and £25,000 per unit.

It is also interesting to see how the loan finance fits in with other funding. Of the first 12 loans:

seven agreed loans will cover the full cost of the works and a further two will cover between 75 per cent and 100 per cent; three loans will cover less than 50 per cent of the cost of the works.

Some of the evidence being collected goes beyond just the loan scheme but looks at the overall pattern of interventions by local authorities eg advice and guidance, CPO. It will be interesting to see how this data set develops over time and how the loan scheme affects the figures.

Sifting the evidence

With such a small number of loans agreed when the Interim Evaluation was drafted, it is hard to draw firm conclusions about what works and what might be problematic.

The need for a hassle-free solution for some owners has already become apparent though, with the report quoting one Regional Lead as follows:

The experience we seem to get when we do adaptations or building work in the grants sector we found that if you left people alone there are some people will cope but there will be people who fall by the wayside and nobody wins out of that so we might as well say ‘we’ll help you through this process, you’ve got to pay for it cos we can’t cover it’ so you act as a project manager and manage the client through the process. We think there’s value in that but we’ll see.

The idea of an "all-in" voluntary package for owners anywhere in the country remains a key element in recent EHN policy thinking.

One of the few gaps in the evidence being collected that is relevant to this need is data about why applicants don't proceed with their applications. We hope the research team will address this important deficit going forwards.The evidence may be harder to collect but is absolutely vital in shaping future programmes.

Doing things properly

In short then:

  • a vision for bringing empty homes back into use;
  • a target to be achieved;
  • an analysis of existing practices and options by experts in the field;
  • a funding scheme designed on a proven model and with a great degree of flexibility built into it;
  • a partnership approach with local authorities;
  • a requirement that appropriate framework is put in place to secure efficiencies and promote best practice;
  • an emphasis on independent evaluation of the initiative

Let's hope that doing things properly catches on.

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