Residential Accommodation: Empty Homes - Question

– in the House of Lords at 2:58 pm on 23 October 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Bakewell Baroness Bakewell Labour 2:58, 23 October 2023

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to convert empty homes into residential accommodation

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

The Government are continuing to take action to bring empty homes back into use and empower local leaders to address the impacts of empty homes. We are halving the time from two years to one year before councils can apply 100% council tax premium on empty homes. We also intend to reform empty dwellings maintenance management orders, cutting the minimum period for action from two years to six months for empty homes that attract anti-social behaviour.

Photo of Baroness Bakewell Baroness Bakewell Labour

I thank the Minister for that, and I recognise and appreciate the changes being made by the Government. However, there is more to be done. The number of long-term empty properties in England has increased by 24% since 2016, and in 2022 it reached a quarter of a million such houses. Scotland and Wales have a national empty homes strategy. Can the Government launch an England strategy similar to that, possibly in the Autumn Statement?

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I wholeheartedly agree with the noble Baroness that we need to drive down the number of empty homes across every part of the country, and as a former councillor, I am all too familiar with the issues of getting those properties back on the market. The Government have put in place incentives for local authorities to act. As I just mentioned, they will be able to double their council tax on those homes after one year rather than two years to fund local services, and, through the new homes bonus, local authorities also receive the same funding reward for bringing empty homes back into use. Of course, we will continue to engage with local authorities to drive down numbers. Some statistics on the devolved nations may be of interest to the noble Baroness: 1% of properties in England are currently classified as long-term empty, whereas in Wales the figure is 1.7% and in Scotland 1.6%. Therefore, all nations in the devolved system are trying to get these numbers down.

Photo of Lord Naseby Lord Naseby Conservative

Would an easier opportunity not be to look at all the empty shops in every town and city in the United Kingdom? Those shops will not come back into use because of the increase in direct-sale opportunities. Will my noble friend therefore take a close look at finding an incentive for local authorities to convert those properties into flats, particularly for our younger people?

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank my noble friend for that question. The reality is that the Government have taken many steps with regard to permitted development rights to try to get some of those non-residential properties into residential use. I am sure that my noble friend is aware of some of them, but I would be delighted to give him some statistics from the department in writing.

Photo of Baroness Thornhill Baroness Thornhill Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Housing)

My Lords, there is ample evidence that the threshold for a council to prove that a home is empty is too high, either for compulsory purchase or, as the noble Baroness mentioned, to use empty dwelling management orders. Will the Government seriously consider removing the need to prove that there has been either vandalism, anti-social behaviour or dangerous dereliction before a council can even begin to take action? Often, once the action has started it can take years to complete. That is a significant barrier to councils taking important action.

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank the noble Baroness for her question; I am sure she is aware that the LGA published a report in September which clarifies and helps focus on the practical tools that councils can use to bring empty properties back into use. However, not only the measures I just referred to are available to local authorities; they can of course use money from the £11.5 billion affordable homes programme to bring empty properties back into use. They can benefit from the new homes bonus, incentivising them to find ways to reduce the number of empty homes and to make sure that they remove as many barriers as possible. Local authorities can also use compulsory purchase orders to acquire empty properties where there is a compelling case in the public interest. Lots of tools are available to councils, and we are trying to make it easier by working with them to identify what those barriers are and how we might eliminate them.

Photo of Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Baroness Watkins of Tavistock Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, the recent Crisis report indicates that if we had a national empty homes initiative, at least 40,000 genuinely affordable homes could be brought back into service by 2028, enabling families to move from bed and breakfasts, and indeed some homeless people to find single accommodation. How will the Government ensure that this happens?

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

As well as all the measures I referred to, joined-up thinking is going on with regard to those homeless initiatives and policies. The support is there for councils to make sure that they have all the tools they require to bring as many of those policies together and free up as much of that accommodation as possible, so that we can make sure people are not homeless or sleeping on our streets.

Photo of Baroness Hayman of Ullock Baroness Hayman of Ullock Opposition Whip (Lords), Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), Shadow Spokesperson (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Bakewell mentioned that the number of empty homes is increasing. The Minister mentioned a number of measures that the Government are bringing in or that are available to local authorities. Our concern is that, on paper, local authorities have a range of powers and incentives to resolve this, but it does not seem to make any difference. Can the Minister explain why that is the case and why the new measures they are bringing in will work any more effectively?

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I agree with the noble Baroness that things are not moving as quickly as we would like. However, the statistics I have here are that since 2010 the number of long-term empty homes is down by more than 50,000. It is still much too high at 248,000 but is following a trend downwards, given all the measures being taken. As well as the measures I have outlined with regard to secondary council tax and EDMO action that is going on, we estimate that the changes we are making in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill could bring a further 71,000 to 85,000 properties into scope of the premium and potentially raise up to £120 million for local authorities. We hope that all these initiatives together, along with the work that the Local Government Association is doing, will empower councils to do what they need to do to get as many homes as possible back in use.

Photo of Lord Greenhalgh Lord Greenhalgh Conservative

Before we get to an understanding of what the best solution is to the number of empty homes we have, can my noble friend the Minister explain why we see such stark regional variations? A lot is made of the number of empty homes in London, but the proportion of dwelling stock that lies empty is greatest in the north-east. What is driving this increase in parts of the country?

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank my noble friend for the question—some noble Lords will be aware I inherited this file this morning from my noble friend Lord Evans, who is stuck on a train from Manchester. In terms of long-term empty homes—that is, those which have been empty for six months or more—as well as looking at the statistics I have given for England, it is interesting to look at the differences. Empty homes are found in both deprived and affluent areas. As a proportion of housing stock, for example, Middlesbrough has 1.9% and Kensington and Chelsea has 1.7%, so it does not seem to follow that there is an overall trend in terms of long-term empty properties. As I stated, the national average is 1% in England, 1.7% in Wales and 1.6% in Scotland. There are differences, but everyone has the same problem. They all need to find ways of empowering local authorities and giving them the tools to get those properties back in use.

Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour

My Lords, we have heard various statistics from different questioners. I would like to know what the Government’s figure is, not for percentages but for the absolute number of empty houses in England. The Select Committee on the Built Environment gave an estimate of nearly half a million in its report a couple of years ago. Surely there should be a tremendous incentive on the Government, with their 300,000 target, for making more homes available to speed up this process massively, bearing in mind that it is not just that empty houses are a gross waste of resources when there are huge numbers on the waiting list but that empty houses do not just frequently blight near neighbours but can sometimes blight a whole neighbourhood. It really is time that the Government—in their own interests, I suggest—got on with this.

Photo of Baroness Swinburne Baroness Swinburne Baroness in Waiting (HM Household) (Whip)

I thank the noble Lord for his comments and question. The number I have here in the file for England is 248,633 empty homes by the definition of six months empty.