Interview: Chris Bailey of Empty Homes

Empty Homes is a charity that was established in 1992 to try to ensure that empty homes in England are brought back into use for those in housing need.

Thomas Barrett went to London to meet their regeneration campaign manager, Chris Bailey, where they discussed why the amount of empty homes in England is rising, and how councils can better incentivise landlords who leave their homes empty.

Describe the work that Empty Homes does?

We work with community-based organisations such as social enterprises, community land trusts and charities, often in partnership with local authorities, to bring empty homes back into use. It’s taking undervalued property and turning it into an asset for its neighbourhood and solution for local problems.

The amount of empty homes has gone up to 205,293. Last year it went up 2.6% a year which was the first rise in a decade and that’s significant. However, it doesn’t reveal the full figure as houses in dereliction which are not fit for human habitation will not be counted in those figures.

If you have a high number of empty homes on your street it will have an effect on how you feel. We’ve found that those areas with a high concentration of empty homes have particular characteristics such as high levels of antisocial behaviour or crime and high levels of private rented accommodation which is of a low standard.

These are often in what is sometimes called ‘left behind’ communities, I don’t really like this term. I prefer to call them under-invested. The reason they are in that state is lack of investment and nothing else.

42% of the homes that are empty in England in the lowest council tax band. We hear a lot about buy-to-leave which can be an issue on how it can soak up development land, but only 0.9% of empty properties are in the top council bracket.

Why do homes become empty?

People don’t generally want to leave properties empty for a long time. Sometimes people will buy a property at auction and leave it because they don’t have the money to do it all up at once, or the returns aren’t right. Often people will just buy ill-advisedly, where the value they pay is too close to the refurbishment cost.

Aren’t homes an asset like anything else, and shouldn’t people be free to leave them empty if they want?

In British property law, there is an implication that people should be allowed to do that. But there is a national housing crisis and there are a series of enforcement powers which councils can take up.

Councils I’ve spoken to say the threat [of enforcement] is almost more effective than the use of them. County councils are reluctant to use powers that put them at high risk of legal fees.

In the most recent autumn statement, the chancellor offered councils the opportunity to increase the council tax premium on properties that have been left empty for two years, which we welcomed, but I don’t think it’s going to be a silver bullet to address the issue.

We think while some homes are being left unscrupulously the majority are for a variety of other reasons. It’s not simply a problem of asset owners leaving them.

It’s more effective to have a portfolio of powers available, of carrots and sticks. Councils that make the most of the carrot approach, like Newcastle, who have loan schemes for landlords to bring a property back into use, find that they are effective.

It was reported that 1,652 unoccupied properties nearby Grenfell, which shocked a lot of people. Did this help bring the issue of empty properties into the mainstream?

Kensington & Chelsea and Westminster have extremely high numbers of empty homes.

I know from my own experience its an issue. To be fair to the councils they are aware of it, but enforcement has been tricky. They represent a rich area and they may be reluctant about enforcing against rich voters.

The reality is the majority of empty homes are in low-value markets. A lot of people will say they are low value because there’s low demand and nobody wants to live there. That’s not actually true. There’s a housing crisis. 300,000 homes are meant to be built a year, which we’re not managing. It’s very unusual to see local authorities where there’s a diminishment in supply. There are housing waiting lists everywhere.

I spoke to a local authority who said 20% of homes are empty, yet they have a housing target of 1000 homes a year and are only building 500 or 600. They are very keen to address this issue understandably.

What legislation would you like to see?

There’s been too much focus on enforcement such as compulsory purchase en-masse. You do need that as the ultimate lever but you need carrots to work with the reality of the market. The legacy of austerity means councils are not going to be in a position to engage in massively expensive large-scale enforcement.

How do you solve the housing crisis?

The national housing crisis is a crisis of supply and affordability, which policy makers don’t always understand. The job of government shouldn’t be to chase the highest returns of the market, it should be to do what’s needed for the housing needs of the country. Unfortunately, we’ve had a series of intentional or unintentional decisions which haven’t delivered for the housing needs of the country.

For me its all about those under-invested communities. Government has to stop throwing petrol on an over-heated southern housing market and start showing that it takes the idea of an economy that works for everyone seriously. Communities don’t end up economically ‘left behind’ because they aren’t enterprising enough.

This is about a failure to invest, frequently made worse by a legacy of decline and a lack of interest in places seen as more of a cost than an opportunity.


Thomas Barrett
Senior journalist - NewStart Follow him on Twitter


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