Published: 24th Feb 2016

emptyhomesafterSocial problems cannot be fixed by one agent, but need collective creativity at the local level. In Leeds, Social Business Brokers has been focusing the energy of the city on the issue of empty homes

You don’t have to look very far to find a complex social problem that we could do with solving. Loneliness among older people. Obesity among the young. Dangerous levels of air pollution. Sky-high housing costs. Climate change. Floods. Gridlock.

Leeds is a great place, and has plenty going for it. But like anywhere it has its problems. What interests me is how we can get better at tackling some of these problems – together. And, maybe stop some other problems happening in the first place.

You might call that resilience.

At Social Business Brokers we’re interested in working out how to solve social problems. Our starting point is that social problems are complex – and that we need to find creative, collaborative ways to solve them. We won’t have the solution on our own, but working with others, we’re hopeful that we’ll find one.

Our story goes back to 2011. We’d previously mainly provided start-up support to social enterprises. But we decided to change how we worked – partly because the money for that kind of work dried up, and also because we were a bit restless. We did good work – but it was a bit scattergun – two days with a start-up over here, a marketing workshop over there. We fancied getting stuck in to a problem – to see if we could really make a difference, over time.

All we needed was a problem that needed solving. Fortunately you don’t have to look very far for one of those. To try out our new approach we settled on one of the big issues that Leeds – like any city – faces. Housing. And in particular, empty homes.

Solving the empty homes crisis

Empty homes were big news at the time. The architect George Clarke was on TV with The Great British Property Scandalhighlighting how many homes were empty in the country, at a time when millions of people were struggling to find a decent place to rent or buy. And in one programme he focused on Leeds. People – including us – were shocked at the scale of problem.

This felt like the complex social problem we were looking for, in order to try out our new approach. So we decided to hold a call to action – a day where we’d try to get 100 people together to explore what we could do to tackle the empty homes issue in Leeds.

We wondered if people would come. We needn’t have worried. We were soon at capacity – no doubt helped by the fact George Clarke asked to come along. In May 2012 we were stood at the front a room packed with estate agents, architects, social entrepreneurs, council officers, local citizens, painters and decorators – all sorts of people who wanted to see how they could help to bring more empty homes back into use.

An empty home in Leeds

Now we just had to work out how to harness the desire that people had to help. Following the Call To Action, we continued to chat with people, and delved deeper to understand the empty homes problem in Leeds. We eventually came up with the idea of an Empty Homes Doctor service – an idea that we tested further during a six-month pilot.

Our hunch was proven right – there were plenty of people out there who had an empty home, but didn’t know how to bring it back into use. People who’d inherited homes. People who’d moved away from Leeds for work. People who’d previously rented out a house but had had a bad experience with tenants. While some situations required enforcement action by the council, there were plenty of people who just needed a helping hand.

The key to the Empty Homes Doctor’s success is our ability to involve a wide range of people in helping to bring a home back into use. In a typical week we may work with solicitors, estate agents, roofers, decorators, the council tax department, adult social care, the police, a furniture re-use charity, a locksmith and, of course, the council’s own empty homes team.  It’s this ability to focus on the problem at hand – a long-term empty home – and then work with whoever can help, to help bring the home back into use – that makes our service work.

This approach brings lots of knock-on benefits too – for example our social impact report highlighted how we generated close to £350,000 of trade for local businesses through bringing 59 empty homes back into use.