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Empty homes, social deprivation and the housing crisis

It is one of the great dichotomies of modern society that we are currently experiencing a housing shortage, whilst at the same time around one million homes lie empty.

Patrick Harkness is lead consultant at Consult Capital for the Not-for-Profit sector.

‘We have seen how the issue of empty homes has accelerated the breakdown of community cohesion and contributed heavily to our housing crisis’, comments Patrick.

According to survey results from Shelter Cymru in 2010, there were approximately 22,950 empty homes in Wales, with Rhondda Cynon Taf experiencing the highest figures (3,300 long term empty). Figures released by Shelter Cymru have also shown that living next to an empty property can reportedly devalue a home by 18%.

On 12 July 2011, the First Minister announced that his Government intends to introduce a Housing Bill for Wales, including legislation to encourage more empty homes to be brought back into use. Since then the Welsh Government has now published its White Paper, which includes an explicit target to bring 5,000 empty homes back into use.

According to Empty Homes, an independent charity (www.emptyhomes.com), most of the empty properties in question are privately owned. Often they are rented homes that have fallen into disrepair; sometimes the owner has inherited the property. In many cases, the owner lacks the funds or the skills to repair and manage the property.

‘One of the key issues for Welsh Councils is to develop an Asset Management strategy for the housing stock including the private rented sector. This embraces the management of houses for multiple occupation. The objective is to bring empty homes in the private rented sector into use’, says Patrick.

Councils have a responsibility and have the legal powers to bring empty homes into use, but it is neither practical nor desirable for them to be involved in every case. However, where the owner is unable to return their empty home to use, there are various other agencies which may be able to help.

The government paper The Strategic Housing Role of Local Authorities: Powers and Duties (available online) sets out the context in which councils operate, in order to make the best use of the housing stock to provide for the needs of the population.

‘Councils have extensive legal powers to enable them to carry out these roles’, says Patrick. ‘In practical terms, the work of most councils in bringing empty homes into use does not rely on legal enforcement, but is a combination of assistance, brokering and negotiation with property owners and managers, like housing associations. However, when they need them, Councils have a range of powers available to help get empty homes into use, including Empty Dwelling Management Orders, Compulsory Purchase and Enforced Sale.

‘Understandably this is a tricky legal business, but in terms of the bigger societal picture it is a crucial strategy that must be followed through if we are to halt the spiral of community decline while tackling our housing crisis.

Housing associations are developing business models which can address many of these issues; and Welsh based funders see this as an appropriate issue for themselves, both commercially and in the context of their wider corporate responsibility initiatives’, Patrick concludes.

Empty homes: health and safety concerns

Mark Littlejohns is Director of Safety, Health and Environment at Consult Capital.

‘Putting aside the wider economical and political concerns surrounding the issue of empty homes, in the immediate sense they represent a hazard to the local community. The Welsh Housing Quality Standard applies to all housing in Wales – empty homes should not be exempt from assessment in this context’, comments Mark.

‘For the CIEH (Chartered Institute of Environmental Health) empty homes represent an extreme version of poor housing causing harm to health’, says Mark.

‘Evidence suggests that living in poor housing can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular and respiratory disease, largely thanks to problems like damp, mould and excess cold. Levels of anxiety and depression are also high in most cases. Structural defects leading to a higher percentage of accidents than in the general population are also cause of great concern among health and safety professionals.

‘Of course all of the above leads to blight, anti-social behaviour, pest infestations, loss of amenities, the devaluing of neighbouring properties and the strangling of local businesses.

‘Extreme cases can even result in total market failure and the death of entire communities as they simply become too toxic to live in.’

Patrick Harkness is a Lead Consultant at Consult Capital responsible for nurturing the relationships between Consult Capital, Capital Law and not-for-profit client organisations.

Mark Littlejohns is Director of Safety, Health and Environment at Consult Capital.

Consult Capital (www.consultcapital.co.uk) is a specialist consultancy and training business, working with companies and organisations to make them stronger and more successful.

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