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Empty Homes

– in the Scottish Parliament on 7th January 2020.

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Photo of Kenneth Macintosh Kenneth Macintosh Labour

The next item of business is a Local Government and Communities Committee debate on motion S5M-20280, in the name of James Dornan, on empty homes in Scotland.

Photo of James Dornan James Dornan Scottish National Party

I am pleased to open this debate on empty homes in Scotland, on behalf of the Local Government and Communities Committee.

Today’s debate reflects on the findings of a short inquiry that we began in spring 2019, and on which we reported on 10 November 2019. I thank the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning for responding to our report in time for today’s debate. I note that work is on-going in relation to some of our recommendations and that he has committed to providing updates as the work progresses. We look forward to receiving those updates over the course of the parliamentary session.

Communities face their own unique challenges when it comes to empty homes. In some areas—some of our small towns, for example—large numbers of empty homes can be symptomatic of industrial and population decline, with there being more homes than people who now want to live there. That can cause a downward spiral that leads to loss of amenities including schools and bus routes, which in turn can affect the health and wellbeing of communities. That often causes more people to move away because the community cannot support their increasing support needs, which further increases the number of empty homes in the community—and so the cycle can go on.

In other areas, the problem is very different: economic decline cannot explain the existence of empty homes in desirable places to live where there are housing shortages. In those cases, empty homes almost always have a back story that involves personal issues—for example, a bereavement or family problems. Someone might have purchased a property to renovate, but ran out of money before they could complete the repairs.

Whatever the cause, the common threads are that empty homes being left to decay can be a blight on communities and that there is strong public interest in bringing them back into use. In areas of high housing demand, empty homes are also a wasted resource.

The committee gathered information on the impact of empty homes and on potential solutions using a number of means. The committee is always keen for our work to be largely informed by the views of people with lived experience, so we invited individuals with personal experience of the issue to chat with us over lunch in the Parliament. We thought that that provided a comfortable space in which people could speak to us freely about their experience of empty homes. We also travelled to East Ayrshire to see for ourselves the impact that large numbers of empty homes can have on communities and to speak directly to people who have been affected. Anonymised accounts of those discussions are available on the committee’s website.

Following an open call for views, which attracted a number of interesting and informative responses, we followed up on issues that had been raised in public formal oral evidence sessions with Kevin Stewart, the Minister for Local Government, Housing and Planning, and a number of experts—although I am not suggesting for a second that the minister is not an expert. On behalf of the committee, I thank everybody who engaged with us during our inquiry.

An early theme that emerged from our inquiry was the importance of every council having a dedicated empty homes officer, with local knowledge, to deal with the issue in their area. We heard strong evidence that having a dedicated officer leads to more empty homes being brought back into use. It is therefore extremely disappointing that some councils do not have an empty homes officer and that some of those do not appear to have plans to recruit one. We believe that all councils should have an empty homes officer and that the evidence suggests that that is the case.

A key role for the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, which is the lead agency in helping to bring private sector empty homes back into use, is in providing valuable training and support for empty homes officers. The partnership advocated strongly for every local authority to have, as standard practice, at least one dedicated EHO, so it is encouraging that its funding has been doubled until 2021.

It was also welcome to hear the minister’s commitment to continuing to encourage councils to appoint empty homes officers and, through the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, to facilitate sharing of best practice in their empty homes work in order to achieve maximum benefits. We look forward to receiving an update from the minister on progress in that regard in just less than a year’s time.

We recognise that each area has its own unique set of circumstances and that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to tackling the problem. That is why having in each area an EHO who knows the local issues and can build local relationships is crucial. That means that, in turn, solutions will be locally led by people who have on-the-ground knowledge. Those solutions should read across to local regeneration plans so that there is a joined-up strategy to regenerate areas that are blighted by empty homes.

Restoring some buzz to our town centres is sometimes as much about encouraging people to move back to and stay in them as it is about supporting local businesses. More people living in our town centres helps to create safe and vibrant places for people to live, shop, eat and drink in. Therefore, I am pleased that the minister will work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities to encourage councils to adopt a more strategic approach to town centre regeneration and related policies. We will follow progress with interest.

The possibility that current datasets might not provide an accurate picture of the scale of the issue of empty homes was raised. It was therefore encouraging to hear that the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership is working on a method to map the locations of empty homes at granular level in order to provide a more detailed picture and to allow solutions to be targeted at meeting the needs of each area.

That was to be welcomed, but we heard that local recording of empty properties is largely reliant on a mixture of local council tax records and local knowledge, and that some people fail to disclose their empty property in order to avoid paying council tax surcharges. The assurance that the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership’s new website will make it easier for members of the public to report empty homes in their neighbourhood, and to identify those who seek to abuse the system, is therefore welcome. The committee would be grateful to have updated figures on the scale of the problem once that work has concluded.

Councils have powers to apply an additional council tax levy on properties that have been empty for some time in order to encourage property owners to bring their empty homes back into use. In some cases, that involves removing council tax discounts and applying an increase of up to 100 per cent, where appropriate. We support the levy as a method for bringing empty homes back into use, so it is welcome that some councils have been using their discretion to delay application of the levy for house owners who have been taking active steps to bring their properties back into use.

However, it was extremely concerning to hear that some councils take a far less discretionary approach, and appear to be using the levy as a revenue-raising tool by taking a blanket approach to its application and, in some cases, penalising people who are taking steps to bring their houses back into use. As members will appreciate, that is usually completely counterproductive. It is absolutely not what any council should be doing with the power, and it should stop.

I therefore welcome the fact that the Government will work with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities and local authorities to ensure that best practice is shared and that the levy is applied as intended. We look forward to hearing back from the Scottish Government on the outcome of the exercise.

We also heard about existing public funding or financial incentives for bringing empty homes back into use. Evidence indicated that such incentives do some good, but there is a degree of frustration that some aspects of their operation limit how useful they can be. It is encouraging that the Government will use the evidence and views that were given during the housing to 2040 consultation to reconsider the provision of financial incentives such as the rural and islands housing fund. I understand that discussions about empty homes loan funding and flexibility have already begun: again, the committee looks forward to receiving an update on those issues.

Councils have the power to bring empty homes back into use through compulsory purchase orders, which they can use to buy properties in their areas without owners’ agreement. Obviously, that power should be used as a last resort for empty homes, such as when a property is a considerable blight on the community, the owner will not constructively engage, and weighing up whether there is a strong public interest in making such an order, taking into account the rights of the landowners and others with an interest in the land, is required.

We heard that there has been very low uptake of CPOs. Councils’ reluctance to use them was put down to a number of factors, starting with the complexity of the CPO process and the time that is needed to do one. Other related factors that were mentioned included competing resources and councils’ risk aversion to using court proceedings against private individuals.

We note that recent improvements have been made to the CPO process, but it is probably too soon to assess how they have impacted on bringing empty homes back into use. I note that the Government will continue with measures to promote their use while keeping them under review, identifying where there are barriers and producing additional guidance when required. I am interested to hear from the minister what the Scottish Government can do to encourage councils to be less risk averse when it comes to such court proceedings. The evidence suggested that some councils seem to find CPOs much easier to use than other councils, which are not willing to take their chance in court.

The Government has also committed to longer-term measures to reform the CPO system as part of a wider package of proposals that will address how authorities can assemble land, tackle problem properties and capture land-value uplifts. However, we are a little disappointed to note that we are unlikely to see concrete proposals until the next session of Parliament.

A lot of the evidence called for the introduction of compulsory sale order powers. As an alternative to CPOs, they would force problem properties on to the open market and remove the requirement for councils to purchase them. The Government had committed to proposing such powers during the current parliamentary session, but we have heard from the minister that they will now be delayed because of other legislative priorities and Brexit. That is disappointing.

Although we recognise the increased workload that Brexit has created for the Scottish Parliament, our report calls for reconsideration of that point. The Government has not accepted our recommendation to introduce CSOs during the current parliamentary session, but the minister has clarified that the work will be rolled into the wider package of proposals that I mentioned a moment ago, including consideration of how councils can assemble land, tackle problem properties and capture land-value uplifts. I hope that the package can be implemented early in the next session.

To sum up, although there has been progress on tackling empty homes and their impact on Scotland’s communities, it is clear that there is still some way to go. The committee will follow with interest how the problem is factored into the Government’s wider housing strategy. I note that that is being consulted on as I speak.

I thank the committee’s clerking team and my fellow committee members, as always, for their support. There is never a cross word on our committee.

I move,

That the Parliament notes the conclusions and recommendations in the Local Government and Communities Committee’s 10th Report 2019 (Session 5),

Empty Homes in Scotland

(SP Paper 618).

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Happy new year to you and to everyone in the chamber.

I welcome the Local Government and Communities Committee’s recent report on empty homes. I have considered it in detail and am pleased to accept the recommendations. My response to the committee sets out the actions that we are already taking and those to be progressed over the year.

I am pleased to say that the committee is generally supportive of our approach. I thank the committee for the useful evidence that has been gathered. I also thank the stakeholders who participated and took the time to respond.

The debate gives us a great opportunity to focus on the priority that we, in Parliament and in the Government, place on empty homes and the actions that we are taking to bring them back into use. We all, I think, agree that too many homes are empty. Empty homes can be a blight on communities and are a missed opportunity to increase the supply of safe, warm places to call home—this at a time when we need more homes across Scotland.

Homes become empty for a number of complex reasons. Privately owned homes are often inherited or transferred as a result of the owner’s care needs. That can have an effect on the ability to take action to bring those homes back into use. It is a sad fact that homes will always become empty. The key for all of us is to prevent that from happening as much as we possibly can and to support owners to return them to good use as people’s homes.

We have been engaging extensively with a variety of stakeholders to shape a draft vision and principles for housing in Scotland by 2040—that vision includes, of course, reducing the number of privately owned empty homes. I want to ensure that no homes are left empty for significant periods without good reason.

Stakeholders want existing stock to be better used. That point came through strongly in their responses to the committee. I want to maximise the number of homes that are occupied. However, it is equally important that we consider how empty homes can also help us to meet some of the other challenges that we face as a nation. A good example would be equipping them for the future by making them more energy efficient and adaptable. To help to achieve that, I want local authorities to take a more strategic, joined-up approach. I know that many members share that view.

I am very pleased that the Local Government and Communities Committee recognises the benefits of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership approach and that the committee shares my view that local authorities are best placed to deliver change on the ground. The Government’s role is to retain overall policy responsibility and national oversight, but delivery should always be done at the local level.

As a Government, we continue to invest in that successful partnership approach. As James Dornan outlined, in April 2018, we doubled funding to the partnership to more than £400,000 a year, enabling an expansion of the service. That is showing real results. Some 1,100 long-term empty homes were brought back into use in 2018-19, and a further 700 homes were brought back into use in the first half of 2019-20. That is an increase in the supply of good-quality homes at a rate of more than 100 a month. Over the course of the partnership, 5,000 homes have been brought back into use. What is the key to that success? The resounding answer has to be the network of dedicated empty homes officers. More than 90 per cent of the homes that are brought back into use are directly attributable to their work.

Committee members will recall the evidence that was given by South Lanarkshire Council, which homeowners had criticised for its lack of dedicated support and advice. I am very pleased to announce that the council has been working with the partnership to rectify that and will shortly be recruiting an empty homes officer.

There are now 24 empty homes officers in Scotland, working across 21 local authorities. That is good progress, but I want to see an increase in the pace of recruitment. I would like councils in the Lothians to follow in Edinburgh’s footsteps. I want warm discussions in Highland and the Scottish Borders to come to fruition.

It is hard to believe, but we still have councils that do not consider empty homes to be a problem.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

Has the minister had any discussions with the councils that are point-blank refusing to take on empty homes officers? Have they said why they will not do so?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I have talked to many councils over the past wee while, and I will outline those discussions in some depth later. I have not spoken to every council on the issue, but I commit to Parliament and the committee that I will continue to endeavour to persuade all those councils to do what is right, which is to recruit empty homes officers.

Vacancies need to be filled quickly when they arise. I recently met with Orkney Islands Council and I am pleased that its post will soon be filled. Dundee City Council has also given me an assurance that recruitment to its vacant post will shortly proceed. That is important, because its award-winning service has been without an officer for too long.

I ask all members to join me in encouraging local authorities to recognise the benefits of that approach and bring empty homes officers to the communities that we all serve. The partnership stands ready and waiting to develop bespoke solutions that work for our constituents and for housing in our areas.

Great work is taking place across Scotland, but we cannot be complacent. It is widely acknowledged that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and no silver bullet. We must ensure that local authorities are making best use of existing levers and that officers working on the ground have access to the right tools for the job. That is why we are reviewing our empty homes policy. The evidence that was gathered during the committee’s inquiry will usefully feed into the review and will inform our approach to housing to 2040.

I would like to touch on some of the issues that were raised in the committee’s report. There are concerns about the application of the empty homes levy—we heard that again from Mr Dornan. A lack of flexibility hinders private home owners who are trying to bring their homes back into use. Those powers rightly lie with councils, and I have been clear that they are intended to act as an incentive and not simply as a revenue-raising tool. I often cite examples of councils with progressive policies. For example, Dumfries and Galloway Council has used levy money and other funds to invest in its town centre fund, in order to bring housing in Dumfries town centre back into use. Other local authorities can follow suit. They should look at the example that is being set in Dumfries and follow it, because that approach is good for all.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

It is not only residential properties that are a problem in town centres; commercial properties are a problem, too. Is the planning system too inflexible to allow those properties to be brought into residential use?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I do not think that there is inflexibility in the planning system. Often, local planning policies do not take account of what is happening in particular communities. I would be interested to hear from Mr Findlay about where he thinks that there are difficulties in the areas that he represents.

Frankly, what we see in certain places is that inflexibility has been built in and that somebody needs to come in and crack that, which is what is happening in Dumfries at the moment.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

On empty homes and the council tax surcharge, concerns were raised in the committee that some councils do not even bother to inspect the situation on site. As well as being hugely discourteous to the individuals concerned, that shows a really quite worrying approach to fairness. Will the minister comment on that?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I agree with Annabelle Ewing that that is extremely discourteous. The councils that do such things look at the initiative as a revenue-raising tool, rather than what it was designed for. That is what we need to change, and we need to encourage local authorities. If they took up the advice that is available from the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, they could get it right, and we would be able to see change in every part of the country.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Will you wind up in a minute or so, please?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I am conscious that I have taken a lot of interventions, Presiding Officer, and there are a lot of areas to cover.

I would like to cover one point relating to compulsory sale orders and compulsory purchase orders. I know that the planned compulsory sale orders are greatly anticipated. However, I have said that, given Brexit and the pressures on the legislative programme, there is very little parliamentary time to bring legislation forward, and we cannot do so in the current parliamentary session. I remain committed to introducing compulsory sale orders for local authorities, and we are also committed to the long-term reform of the compulsory purchase order system. We will bring forward a package of proposals to show how we can address those issues—how authorities can assemble land, tackle problem properties and capture land value uplifts. Those proposals will be ready for the next Administration to consider legislating on early in the next parliamentary session.

I will leave it at that, Presiding Officer. I will cover some of the other issues in my summing up. I thank the committee again for the comprehensive inquiry that it undertook and the work that it has done on an extremely important issue.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Graham Simpson to speak for around nine minutes, please.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

I will do my best, Presiding Officer. I wish you and other members a very happy new year.

It gives me great pleasure to kick off for the Scottish Conservatives in the first debate after the recess. We have to be honest: there is a mountain of work still to do in this area before we get it right.

Just before we trotted off for our festive break, we learned that the number of empty properties and second homes has increased to its second-highest level since 2005. The latest figures show that in 2019 there were just over 65,000 second homes and empty properties. If we strip out second homes, the number of properties that have been empty for over six months stands—as it has done for a number of years—at around 40,000. We are making very little impact on the number of properties that are not in use. When we have a homelessness crisis and young people struggling to get their foot on the housing ladder, that is not good enough.

Before I move on, I also thank the clerks for their work in steering the committee through an important topic, as well as my fellow committee members: our very fair convener, James Dornan; his deputy, Sarah Boyack; Annabelle Ewing, Andy Wightman, Alexander Stewart and my good friend Kenny Gibson.

Why is this an important topic? Well, as the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership and Shelter said in their recent letter to the committee, investment in empty homes can prove an effective way to boost the local economy and support community regeneration. Bringing empty homes back into use can be a sustainable way of increasing the housing stock across the country, benefiting the local community as a consequence.

Empty homes work can help to sustain fragile communities, and bringing homes back into use brings value for money. The average cost of renovating an empty property is between £6,000 and £25,000 compared to an estimated average cost of £120,000 to build a new home.

I am going to talk about the committee’s inquiry and report. For me, there are two key recommendations. The first is that every council should have a dedicated empty homes officer—we have heard about that already. The second is that the Scottish Government should meet its manifesto commitment to bring forward compulsory sale order powers in this parliamentary session.

On the first recommendation, I can report a local success that we have heard about already. South Lanarkshire Council came in for some criticism in our report, as it was one of 11 councils not to have an empty homes officer. Another council in the area that I represent—Falkirk Council, which is much smaller—has two officers, and it is to be commended for that.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I, too, commend Falkirk Council for the efforts that it has made. I visited it recently in that regard.

Bringing in an empty homes officer can make a real difference very quickly. Murdo MacLeod is the new empty homes officer in the Western Isles, and he has been in post for a little over a year. He has brought 94 homes back into use in that very short period. Does Mr Simpson agree that others should look to the Western Isles and South Lanarkshire, follow them accordingly and do what is right for their communities by bringing blighted homes back into use?

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

They should certainly look to the Western Isles, but not to South Lanarkshire—maybe to Falkirk, which has been ahead on this.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

In our evidence taking, South Lanarkshire also stood out as a council that took a hard line on applying the empty homes surcharge, and it was rightly criticised for that. Scottish Land & Estates expressed its frustration at the inconsistent way that discretion was being applied to the levy. Its representative said that, in a number of local authorities, people with empty homes with active repair plans, some of whom are waiting for building warrants from the council, have had the 200 per cent levy applied without any discussion and, in some cases, without the council sending a representative to visit the property.

That view was echoed at an informal session that we held with people from South Lanarkshire, who said that the council applied the levy rigidly without sending anyone out to see properties. That meant that those struggling with repairs were put in an even worse position. There was a sense that some councils were using the levy as a revenue-raising tool.

I return to the local success that I mentioned. After our report was published, I commented in the local press and—I will take some credit for this—South Lanarkshire Council is now looking to take on an empty homes officer. It will be good if it does. I also hope that it will reconsider its approach to the levy, because that is not helping.

The council has a very poor track record. For example, in East Kilbride, which is in the area that I used to represent as a councillor, there is a house that is boarded up. It is fire damaged and has been empty for about 10 years. That is an example of the kind of thing that should be tackled.

Kevin Stewart’s response to our recommendation on compulsory sale orders was disappointing. We said:

“Given the strength of support for the development of CSO powers, the low uptake of CPO powers and a manifesto commitment to bring CSO powers forward in the current Parliamentary session, it is disappointing that draft proposals or legislation pertaining to CSO powers have not emerged.

Whilst acknowledging the Minister’s views on legislative priorities and the impact of Brexit, the Committee recommends that the Scottish Government brings forward strong proposals for the introduction of these powers and fulfils its manifesto commitment to bring them forward in this Parliamentary Session.

In view of the commonly cited issues associated with CPOs, the Committee would welcome an update from the Scottish Government on the development of CSO powers and how it will ensure that CSOs are less complicated, less resource intensive and less financially risky for Councils to use as an alternative to CPOs.”

The minister responded only to that last point and his response was, sadly, rather woolly. He said:

“We will bring forward a package of proposals that addresses how authorities can assemble land, tackle problem properties and capture land value uplifts ready for the next administration to consider legislating on these matters. This requires careful consideration and we will keep the Committee updated as this work progresses.”

Members should note the lack of any real timescale. That is not what we asked for, so perhaps the minister could flesh out the issue when he makes his closing speech. The proposal could be game changing with regard to getting empty homes back into use. I can see the issues and how it could be controversial, but, so long as there are checks and balances built into the legislation, councils should not be able to get ahead of themselves and order everyone to sell up. As we heard, there are lots of reasons why homes are empty. We deliberately did not look at second or holiday homes. An owner could be in hospital or in prison, or they could be abroad for a long period or mentally incapable and unable to sell.

The issue is a complex one that requires different solutions. That is why the work of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership is so important, why having empty homes officers in every council matters and why giving councils more powers, to use with discretion and wisely, matters. Other members will focus on other parts of the report, and I look forward to hearing their contributions.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I join others in wishing members a happy new year. It is 7 January, but it still feels a bit like a new year to me—so far, anyway.

I congratulate the Local Government and Communities Committee on its report “Empty Homes in Scotland”, which is an excellent piece of work. As Graham Simpson said, to bring 40,000 homes back into use would be a game changer. Of course, the issue is much wider than that. Empty homes are often an indicator of decline and they help to drag neighbourhoods down, particularly when they are allowed to fall into disrepair. I say “allowed to” but, as has been highlighted, in many cases owners are simply struggling to find the time and resources to act.

I also pay tribute to Andy Wightman, who is a member of the committee and who has written on the subject. His report on the issue in 2018 states:

“it is apparent that the greatest number of empty homes can be found in areas of high multiple social and economic deprivation”.

The committee also highlighted that important point.

The committee’s report clearly and helpfully sets out the diverse reasons why we have so many empty homes. As the committee says, it is worth noting that there is a very human element to that, with depopulation, market decline and bereavement all playing a part in the reasons why people do not want to sell property. Emotional attachment can also be a factor, and there can be legal issues. An owner may have plans to renovate their property but might unexpectedly suffer the loss of their employment. Homes over shops seem to be a particular problem requiring a particular solution, so perhaps the minister will address that in his closing speech.

As we know, rural areas face acute and specific challenges, with historically declining populations and a possible shortage of jobs affecting the vibrancy of communities. There are huge connections between empty homes and the vibrancy of communities.

I put on record my thanks to the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership for its work and to the empty homes officers, who have helped to bring 4,000 homes back into use over the past decade. There is a consensus that those officers are absolutely key to bringing more homes back into use, not simply because they manage the empty homes in local authorities but because they are excellently placed to use their knowledge of the local housing environment and market to establish good relationships with local developers, solicitors and property owners in a holistic way that helps decisions to be made about how to bring homes back into use.

Reports about the use of empty homes officers show that there are positive experiences. As we have heard from the minister, 21 local authorities have an empty homes officer, although perhaps we now have 22, thanks to Graham Simpson. It is clear to me, from reading the report and listening to the debate, that those officers are a critical aspect of making a bigger difference. The local authorities that have not appointed such an officer need to do so.

There is a housing context. More than 130,000 people—probably a lot more—are on housing waiting lists. We are already in a housing crisis, with homelessness on the rise. Local authorities are the key driver and they must be adequately resourced to carry out the role. They are the lifeblood of regeneration.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

Ms McNeill mentioned resources. My argument—the argument of the partnership and of many other stakeholders—is that, by employing an empty homes officer, local authorities will make a saving. In some cases, they will make big savings and, by bringing those properties back into use, they will bring in more income.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

That is a valid point. I am interested to know why the other local authorities have not made such an appointment. Perhaps the case for that needs to be made to them, too. Throughout the report, it is clear that the connection between empty homes and the regeneration of communities becomes a vital aspect of the work. Bringing empty homes back into use is a much wider issue.

I found it useful to read the committee’s report about its members’ visits, particularly to Newmilns, where they spoke to a couple who had inherited a home in the area but had trouble in selling it. The members also spoke to an owner in South Ayrshire who had a home that was unoccupied because, for four years, the flat above had serious recurring issues with water ingress, making their home uninhabitable. Those people were charged the council tax empty property levy, which indicates that there needs to be a rethink around that policy, because they had a problem to overcome. Property can be an asset but, in many cases, it can be a burden. Owners need the assistance of experts in local authorities to manage themselves out of those types of problems. That is the human element of empty homes.

The council tax levy is a crucial tool in the box, but it must be used for the purpose for which it was intended. We need a more consistent approach to its application. Councils can apply it with discretion but the current approach does not seem to be consistent. It might be deterring investment in empty properties. Scottish Land & Estates briefed the members before the debate. Some members, including Graham Simpson, have expressed concern that, although owners have on-going repair plans, the 200 per cent council tax levy was applied without any discussion. I am at a loss to understand why any local authority thinks that that is acceptable. Perhaps more work needs to be done with local authorities to make it clear that the levy is there to help bring homes back into use and is not a revenue-raising power. That does not apply to every local authority, but some of them seem to lack common sense.

Compulsory purchase orders are an essential tool in the regeneration of communities. In the previous parliamentary session, which I was not part of, the Government introduced the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015—a specific act on regenerating communities, with additional powers. It was a good piece of legislation. However, it is disappointing that, despite that commitment and a commitment in the manifesto this time round, we hear that that work will probably not be done in this parliamentary session. Indeed, we do not know whether or when it will be done under the next Administration. That point was also made by Graham Simpson. Using a compulsory purchase order is a significant legal issue for authorities, and rightly so. There should be a high bar for authorities that wish to remove property mandatorily from an owner. However, at present, the process of setting the bar is too difficult or expensive. There are clear blockages to the use of the tool.

Photo of James Dornan James Dornan Scottish National Party

Does the member accept that the evidence from some local authorities was that it is not as complicated as some other authorities made out? Often, just the fear of taking owners to court causes the problem.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

Yes. I noted that, in his opening remarks, the convener made the point that local authorities fear an adverse risk in going through a legal process.

I have some experience of the process in my constituency. The bar is high for obvious reasons, particularly when we are regenerating communities in which there is a split decision and it can be controversial.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

Glasgow City Council is a good example of an authority that is doing very well, with an increase in the number of CPOs being obtained. It is working well with developers and registered social landlords, back to back, to ensure that compulsory purchase orders are progressed. I do not have the relevant statistic, but I have been told that the council now has a dedicated solicitor to deal with CPOs. I think that other local authorities should follow suit. Does Ms McNeill agree?

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I agree that local authorities require legal expertise to inform them about and talk them through the risks, which might not be as adverse to their positions as they think they are.

I will conclude on this point. Last September, the minister confirmed that there had been only nine CPOs in three years, but that figure seems rather low. Notwithstanding that there are possibly misapprehensions or misunderstandings about the use of compulsory purchase orders—and, of course, the fact that compulsory sale orders are a good alternative to them—it is possible that we will see out this parliamentary session before there will be a chance to legislate on them. That is disappointing, because CPOs are such an important tool in our toolbox.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Andy Wightman, for a generous six minutes.

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

Thank you, Presiding Officer. I beg your pardon—was your request for a short six minutes?

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

A generous six minutes—excellent.

I thank members who have already spoken in the debate. The committee’s work on this subject has provided a fascinating insight into a problem that continues to bedevil Scotland. I was particularly pleased to hear in detail about and to pay attention to the work of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, which has done vital work in this area.

As other members have said, given the housing crisis that we face—people with no homes; others paying too much for housing; people living in unsuitable accommodation; the extent of second home ownership; and the rise of unlawful short-term letting—we should be seeking to use our existing housing stock, including empty homes, as efficiently as possible.

I note from the statistics on homelessness that, in 2018-19, 36,465 homeless applications were made across Scotland and 29,894 households were assessed as being homeless. Those figures equate to one household losing its home approximately every 17 minutes. There are more than enough empty homes to meet the housing needs of those families but, of course, they will not always be matched up. Kevin Stewart mentioned the 1,128 empty homes that were brought into use last year, but I note that, since 2016, we have had a 33 per cent increase in the number of empty homes. At that rate, 35 years will pass before they are all brought into use.

Last year, I was also intrigued to read Shelter Scotland’s empty homes value report, which managed to highlight very well the range of benefits that would accrue if we were to make better use of our housing stock. It includes a useful overview of the costs and benefits that are associated with taking action.

As other members have said, there are many reasons for houses lying empty. As our convener James Dornan mentioned, hearing direct testimony from home owners as well as case studies from professionals was particularly illuminating for the committee.

From the evidence that we took, it is clear that there is real value in councils having dedicated empty homes officers. I agree that all councils should have officers with such a function, but it is important not to get too hung up on their job titles: some of them do such work but are not called empty homes officers.

The committee also paid attention to the idea of council tax being raised. Our investigation has revealed mixed views on the powers that are available to local authorities to vary the levels of council tax that they impose. As the minister and others have said, a discount is provided with the intention that such homes should be brought back into use. The committee heard widespread criticism of the levy being applied in ways that did not take account of people’s individual circumstances. However, we also heard from authorities such as Perth and Kinross Council, which did recognise such variations. I welcome the minister’s commitment to review, in a year’s time, how the guidance in relation to this power is working. Ultimately, the council tax is a tax base that belongs to local government. Neither this Parliament nor ministers should interfere in the freedom of councils either to set tax rates as they see fit or to implement statutory variance powers.

In his intervention, Neil Findlay mentioned non-domestic properties. Councils can increase the council tax on empty homes by up to 200 per cent, but the owners of empty listed buildings or derelict land with no buildings pay no rates at all. Nor are rates paid if the owner is a trustee or a company that has been wound up. The owners of non-domestic properties that are empty in the long term enjoy a 10 per cent reduction in rates, which seems disproportionate in the relationship between the non-domestic and domestic sectors.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

Andy Wightman is knowledgeable on the subject, so I wonder whether he thinks that there are any planning barriers to commercial properties coming back into residential use.

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

I thank Neil Findlay for his intervention, because it reminds me that I asked the minister during a committee evidence session about the town centre review and I think that he committed to go and look at it again. That review was conducted in 2013 by Malcolm Fraser and others; Pauline McNeill mentioned it, too. One of the problems that was identified by the review was that there is a 20-year limit on residential leases. A lot of commercial owners of property happily lease the commercial property and would like to lease the property above the shops and businesses for residential use, but they want to lease it for longer than 20 years and they are prohibited in law from doing so. I think that it is time to look again at that legal limitation.

Other powers, such as compulsory purchase and sale orders, have been mentioned. I was intrigued when the minister told us in committee that 13 empty homes had been purchased using CPOs. That is welcome and there is a widespread understanding that the figure could be much greater.

I will briefly mention compulsory sale orders, because they were a recommendation of the land reform review group in 2014. The Government consulted on compulsory sale orders in the summer of 2015, and in its 2016 manifesto it committed to:

“bring forward proposals to modernise and improve powers for compulsory sales orders.”

It is disappointing that the minister has dropped that commitment. He said in committee that that was due to pressures of Brexit on Government time. He said in his remarks in this debate that it was due to a lack of “parliamentary time”. I cannot comment on the timescales—

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

I will complete my point and then perhaps the intervention will be more meaningful.

I cannot comment on the lack of time in Government—that is a matter for Government—but there is no lack of time in Parliament as we have a five-year session. The manifesto commitment was to “bring forward proposals”, not necessarily to introduce legislation. I and other members of the committee would be keen to see the proposals in this parliamentary session. We would perhaps be quite relaxed if the legislation followed in subsequent years.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

There is no lack of will on the part of the Government to change the situation, but there is a lack of time and resource, because civil servants and others have been working very hard on Brexit and other matters. As Andy Wightman is well aware, more so than many others, compulsory sale orders relate to a particularly complex piece of law and would involve unpicking mid-19th century legislation to ensure that we get the CPO and CSO powers absolutely right. I am quite sure that no-one in the Parliament wants to introduce legislation that will not work. The issue is complex and it requires time. There is no lack of will, but there is a lack of time.

Photo of Andy Wightman Andy Wightman Green

I understand the lack of Government time and I am not seeking legislation during this session.

We would like to see a paper that outlines the proposals and the problems that have been identified by the Government—that would be useful to us, so that we can interrogate them. I encourage the minister to put forward proposals before this parliamentary session is over.

The inquiry deliberately did not look at second homes. As we know, the impact of second homes on local markets is a long-standing issue in rural areas and also in some urban areas. In our view, all second homes should be subject to planning consent.

More fundamentally, we need to re-orientate how we conceptualise housing. It is in the public interest to make sure that there is investment in the long term, well beyond the period of occupancy or ownership of anyone’s private interest. Such a perspective lies at the root of issues that we have seen during our work on the maintenance of tenements. Housing is not simply private property; it is part of public infrastructure. When we see it in that light, we might eventually sort the problem of empty homes.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We will move to the open debate. I have been generous with interventions in the opening speeches and we have a little time left, but nothing too lengthy, thank you.

Photo of Kenneth Gibson Kenneth Gibson Scottish National Party

We all see empty homes in our communities, with houses sometimes lying empty for months or even years on end.

The Local Government and Communities Committee set out to discover how many homes are empty in Scotland and the reasons why, and it worked collegiately and in a collaborative way to realise the answers.

It is deeply frustrating that, while people are homeless, tens of thousands of homes in Scotland lie empty and unused. Changes in the law that have allowed councils to increase council tax on certain types of empty properties do not appear to have helped in many local authority areas—of which, more later. The impact on neighbouring homes can also be significant. Just one empty home can bring down the overall image of an area and make other properties harder to sell. Such a problem grows when more and more homes in an area are empty.

According to recent figures, as is outlined in our report, 83,435 of the 2.62 million homes in Scotland lie empty and, of those, 39,110 had been empty for six months and 24,471 had been empty for 12 months or more. The problem is particularly bad in parts of rural and island Scotland with, for example, 5.8 per cent of homes in west Arran, in my constituency, lying empty.

As this is a problem for all of Scotland, it is in everyone’s interests to resolve it. Before we can deliver solutions, it is best to try to understand why we have empty homes. That has been touched on already by a number of members. An obvious reason is bereavement. Perhaps someone has passed away and their family is too attached to the property to sell it, or there is no family. The property owner may be unwell and in hospital or a care home. They could be abroad for long periods, or in prison, and therefore physically unable to do anything about their house lying empty. It is clear that there can be no simple answer to such varied and complicated problems. I believe that James Dornan put it best when he said that there is no one-size-fits-all solution.

The Scottish National Party Government has funded the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership since 2010, through Shelter Scotland. In evidence to the committee, the minister confirmed that the Government had recently doubled funding for the partnership to more than £400,000 a year until 2021. The initiative gives advice to home owners and works with councils to develop empty homes services that help to put empty private sector homes into use. It also provides training services and guidance for empty homes officers, support for local projects that bring empty homes back into use and support for councils to develop empty homes strategies.

During the committee’s inquiry, many witnesses commented on the valuable work that the partnership has carried out and the high quality of the advice, guidance and workshops that it has provided to the officers.

One of our recommendations is that every council in Scotland should have an empty homes officer who is responsible for identifying empty houses in their area and bringing them back into use. As we have heard, 24 of Scotland’s 32 councils have empty homes officers, but I hope that they will all have them by the end of the year. I think that any local authority that is listening to the debate and that does not have such officers will find that the evidence that is presented on the matter today and in our report is compelling.

The committee heard first-hand evidence from people who have had direct support from empty homes officers, and most stressed the benefits that can be brought, not only to those with an empty home, but also through the officers dealing with and acting as a go-between for other council departments, solicitors and bodies such as community regeneration organisations. The minister outlined their success in returning empty homes to habitation.

I will expand a little on council tax. The “Empty Homes in Scotland” report states:

“Some empty homes can be exempt from council tax ... for example where the owner has to move out of the house to receive long term care or ... where a house has been legally re-possessed by a mortgage lender.”

It also states:

“On homes which would normally be eligible for council tax, such as those which become unoccupied and unfurnished, there is an initial exemption on council tax for up to six months”.

If the house remains empty for six to 12 months, the local authority may offer a discount on council tax of between 10 and 50 per cent. The extra revenue must then be used by the authority to support the provision of new housing.

Since April 2013, local authorities have also had the power to remove the discount or increase the council tax by up to 100 per cent for certain properties that have been lying empty for 12 months or more. That is known as a council tax levy. If the owner is attempting to sell the property, the surcharge can be applied only after 24 months. The extra money can then be dedicated to whatever project the local authority chooses, and not just the provision of new housing.

As colleagues have mentioned, some authorities that have not had empty homes officers have taken a blanket approach to the application of the levy and have charged it immediately as soon as a property has been empty for 12 months, in some cases with no discussion and no council representative being sent to assess the situation. That has caused considerable distress to those who are struggling to refurbish, who have been hampered by that additional taxation. Owners of empty homes who gave evidence to the committee echoed that. They explained that the levy had been applied to their homes automatically and that they were struggling to complete repairs on the empty property so that it could be habitable while also trying to pay the council tax bill. Surely councils should be more flexible when it comes to such varied and complicated individual cases, rather than automatically applying double taxation.

The Scottish Government certainly has much to consider following the report’s findings and recommendations. As we have heard, all committee members are disappointed that we are not progressing compulsory sales orders. Admittedly, it is a complex matter, but such orders could certainly bring many homes and buildings back into productive use. I am glad that the minister has reiterated his personal commitment to such legislation. I believe that it is possible, as colleagues have mentioned, for proposals to be introduced within this parliamentary session. If we are talking about the time that is taken up by civil servants working on legislation, I can certainly think of some legislation that is progressing at the moment that a CSO bill should be prioritised over.

Overall, the minister’s response was encouraging. He focused on the need for continued partnership working. This November, a year after the report was published, committee colleagues and I look forward to discussing with the minister how things have improved and what more can and will be done in the light of those improvements.

Photo of Tom Mason Tom Mason Conservative

I declare an interest as a councillor at Aberdeen City Council.

It is a pleasure to contribute to the debate, because finding a solution to the problem of empty homes is so important in helping us to improve the housing situation in Scotland. The report that was recently published by the Local Government and Communities Committee has given us a good insight into the current situation. It makes two very clear recommendations. It says that each local authority should have at least one dedicated empty homes officer and that the Scottish Government should meet its manifesto commitment to introduce powers relating to compulsory sales orders in this parliamentary session. I live in hope. The report recognises very clearly that each empty home has a unique set of circumstances. Each needs to be handled individually in order to break any logjams that can interrupt the reoccupation of many private and public properties.

I will not repeat the statistics, many of which have been outlined by Graham Simpson and other members. However, I will elaborate on a number of issues that are familiar to me, and give examples of why the report’s recommendations are pertinent to current housing issues.

An example that typifies the complex situations that can occur involves a block of 1970s apartments in central Aberdeen. The block is in an area that is not the best in Aberdeen but certainly not the worst. It is in an area with good landscaping, green areas and some trees. The immediate area consists of three and four-storey apartment blocks and some two-storey semi-detached dwellings, which are from about the same time. However, being in the centre of Aberdeen, the block is prone to habitation by many single residents, students and temporary residents, and it is often subject to vandalism and drug and alcohol culture.

The block consists of six relatively well-maintained two-room apartments. Four of the flats were purchased quite sensibly under the right to buy, as they represented a good proposition and were then in relatively good condition. Regrettably, three of the flats are now empty and have been so for some time. On the top floor, there remains one privately occupied flat and one of the two council flats.

On the middle floor, there is a further council tenant, who is described by the remaining residents as the neighbour from hell. The list of problems includes parties, drug taking and dealing, excessive noise all through the night, smells, debris on the landings, damage to the front doors and repeated fire emergencies. The disruption has been going on for months, despite other occupants having made protests to the council. The disruption in the block and the culture in the surrounding area have led to all but one of the private occupants leaving the block. They hoped to sell the properties—or, at the very least, to rent them—but, given the situation with the neighbour and the reputation of the address, they have been unsuccessful in finding either tenants or purchasers. They have simply had to walk away, so three potential city centre homes lie vacant, unused and unusable.

Obviously, the current economic situation in relation to housing in the city is a contributing factor, but the disruptive neighbour was undoubtedly a major factor in the situation. It is clear, as the committee’s report says, that such a situation has a unique set of circumstances and can be resolved only with a lot of individual attention and housing officers being given the correct powers to use. It is certainly undesirable that such properties remain empty, given their quality and situation.

It is not surprising that, in the north-east, there are many empty properties waiting for sale, as workers have found it necessary to move away from Aberdeen because of the oil downturn. As members may well know, until recently, property prices in the north-east were excessively high, and a major readjustment has been taking place.

The previous high prices have encouraged many new developments. Those developments are still being built; in fact, many of them are only partially completed. In order to survive, developers are drip-feeding properties on to the market one by one, so older properties for sale are competing with new properties and their many advantages and incentives. Existing properties remain available for sale and unoccupied for many months while their owners or buy-to-let landlords try to move on. Unfortunately, that situation shows no sign of abating. Affordable social housing, built as part of those new developments, is similarly involved. That new affordable housing is far more attractive than older social housing. Potential tenants decline older accommodation or those in remote and difficult locations in favour of new properties, leaving the older ones empty.

Properties in the north-east that are remote and have poor transportation connections—which get poorer as the transport infrastructure declines—are also underoccupied. Individual identification of problems in each case is required. It is vital that empty property officers are in place and have the right tools available to assist them to deal with each case.

There is an issue regarding permanent second homes. I declare an interest, as I have a small share in an old wooden cottage near Nairn. In some areas, second homes affect the local housing availability because they inflate the market. In other areas, they are rented out regularly to tourists as an essential part of the tourism infrastructure, and they provide opportunities for Scottish tourism rather than overseas carbon-expensive holidays. In many cases, second-home owners have provided capital for the reconstruction of isolated properties, which are inconvenient, remote and not suitable for modern residents. Here, tools should be available for local authorities to make their own decisions within their areas about how those properties are best dealt with.

Significant issues remain when dealing with the problem of empty homes. However, with the committee’s report, its recommendations and the political will, we can make the changes needed to improve the situation across Scotland.

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

I am pleased to speak in this debate on the Local Government and Communities Committee’s recent report on empty homes in Scotland, which was published on 10 November last year. As we have heard, the report followed a number of very useful evidence sessions with relevant stakeholders, affected property owners and the minister, and it highlights the key issues that emerged from those evidence sessions. Before I turn to a few of those issues, I thank the committee clerks and the Scottish Parliament information centre for the excellent support and research that they provided.

The first key issue that emerged is that we have no way of knowing with any exactitude the scale of the problem. Figures for the number of empty properties in Scotland vary from 64,000 to 83,000. That is because neither of the main sources of data on empty homes in Scotland provides an accurate reflection of the position. On the one hand, the data emerging from the National Records of Scotland almost certainly inflates the scale of the problem, as the data collected includes unoccupied new builds and dwellings awaiting demolition. On the other hand, the data collected by the Scottish Government almost certainly underrepresents the scale of the problem. Indeed, the data that the Scottish Government collects is linked to how each local authority reports empty properties, as per the local council tax records, and that varies per authority and does not include undeclared empty properties. That lack of accurate data is far from satisfactory, which is why I am pleased to note that the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, which is funded by the Scottish Government, is working with the Scottish Government and independent researchers to undertake a geographic information system mapping exercise of empty homes throughout Scotland. When completed, the map will go a considerable way to providing a more accurate picture of the number of empty homes in Scotland, which is vital to ensuring that we can tailor the solutions to meet the needs of each local area.

Another key issue that emerged was the way in which some local authorities are deploying the council tax levy. We have heard about that already this afternoon. The levy, which was introduced in 2013, allows local authorities not only to remove the empty property reliefs available but to charge a council tax increase of up to 100 per cent for certain properties that have been empty for 12 months or more.

Although that tool was to incentivise bringing empty homes back into use, what we have seen in some local authorities is recourse to it as a surcharge and a pure and simple revenue-raising instrument. It is clear from the evidence that the committee took that some local authorities simply apply a blanket approach to the deployment of the council tax levy and immediately proceed to the 100 per cent levy at the 12-month cut-off point rather than use some discretion, flexibility and, indeed, common sense. In fact, that commonsense approach was directed in the applicable Scottish guidance.

In some cases, as I highlighted in an intervention to the minister earlier, the local authorities concerned do not even bother to arrange for any on-site inspection to determine on the ground whether works are progressing and in what way and whether active interventions are being made to move matters on. It is difficult to understand how such an unfair bureaucratic approach could ever be justified. Moreover, such an approach is, in any event, entirely counterproductive as it impacts negatively on householders’ ability to complete outstanding works and thereby shorten delays. It can also lead to indefinite delays in getting empty homes back into use as money dries up, householders get into a ghastly spiral of further debt and no money is available to continue the works to upgrade the property.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

Does Annabelle Ewing agree that councils should have to visit, or at least engage with, property owners before applying the levy?

Photo of Annabelle Ewing Annabelle Ewing Scottish National Party

It would be difficult to understand why councils would not do that. Perhaps each local authority chief executive in Scotland could set the record straight on how they will now approach the matter, with fairness at the heart of their approach. I am pleased to note that the minister indicated in his response to my earlier intervention, as he has indicated previously, that he understands the problems around the use of the levy and has again encouraged local authorities to sharpen their act on it. I hope that he will undertake to keep the pressure up in that regard.

There is also the important issue of appointing dedicated empty homes officers. We have heard a lot in the debate about how the appointment of such officers can make a key difference. It is not simply a case of rebadging an existing role; it is about creating a role that then works out of the silo with building standards officials, legal officials, environmental health officials and town centre regeneration officials. That can make a key difference. It is vital that each local authority now goes ahead and appoints empty homes officers, working in partnership with the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership. I am pleased to note that the committee called on every local authority to do that very thing.

The problem of empty homes is, sadly, a fact of life across both urban and rural Scotland. Apart from any other consideration, the empty homes are a wasted asset. In my constituency of Cowdenbeath, one can clearly see the negative impacts of that: the blight on high streets, the problems for neighbours living next to an empty property, and so on. We have heard that there are varied reasons for having empty homes, but it is clear that, if we start to take the actions identified in the committee’s report and the committee’s recommendations are duly taken on board, we will start to see a major decrease in the number of empty homes in Scotland.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

While walking from Waverley station to this building every day, and visiting some of our towns and cities over the Christmas period, I have, increasingly, been struck by the extent and human impact of homelessness. We see increasing numbers of people sleeping on the streets—our fellow human beings reduced to sleeping on cardboard boxes or pallets in the depths of winter, with all the implications that that has for their health and wellbeing, and for our society, our economy and our communities and their cohesion. We cannot claim to be a civilised country when we tolerate someone being made homeless every 17 or 18 minutes and when 36 more children every day have no home.

Landlords and hotel owners make significant money from provision of temporary accommodation. Many provide a room that has no cooking facilities for residents other than a kettle. Those properties are always full, such is the demand that is placed on Scotland’s councils. Homelessness is a profitable business for the owners: for example, £2.25 million was spent on temporary accommodation in West Lothian last year. Of course, they provide an immediate sticking-plaster solution, but they suck huge amounts of money out of the system, with no long-term benefit.

In Glasgow, Shelter, the housing charity, has been forced to take a four-page advert in

The Herald newspaper to highlight its impending legal action on Glasgow City Council’s failure to house homeless people. That is an unprecedented act for a national charity, and it is a dreadful situation. As members have mentioned, across Scotland in tourism hotspots such as Edinburgh, parts of Fife and the Highlands and Islands, local people are unable to buy or rent a home because the Airbnb and holiday-let market has driven up prices and taken housing stock out of the reach of local people. The average cost of a house in Edinburgh is now an astonishing £253,000, which is way out of the reach of most working people, and by a very long way. It was a huge mistake that Parliament failed to take action on that during the process of the Planning (Scotland) Bill.

On our high streets and industrial estates, towns are blighted by a combination of empty homes and empty shops and units. While, on the one hand, there are empty properties of various types, on the other, homeless people are sleeping in doorways. Surely we can find the wherewithal to bring those two issues together in order to address economic blight and the housing crisis—although doing so will need real financial and political commitment.

The committee report identifies good practice and the good work of empty homes officers. I commend those public servants for the progress that has been made, but we cannot expect councils to take on staff and new responsibilities while budgets are cut year on year. The minister says that the budget for the initiative has been increased, but if an empty homes officer is appointed—

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

I ask the minister to wait until I have finished my point.

An empty homes officer who is appointed in a local authority will inevitably have to liaise with many departments and officials in the council. Council officers across the piece have lost so many staff in departments, and they operate on a shoestring. People will tell the minister that, if he speaks to them.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

Mr Findlay heard me say earlier that many folks have said that employing empty homes officers makes massive savings for councils. They deal with a huge amount of the problems that exist when there are empty homes in a community.

I am disappointed that some local authorities have chosen not to listen to others that have the good news stories happening in their places. One authority that has failed thus far to appoint an empty homes officer is West Lothian Council. I hope that it and the other Lothian councils will follow the City of Edinburgh Council’s recent road-to-Damascus conversion in appointing empty homes officers.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

EHOs can bring a sense of reality about what is required.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I will give Neil Findlay the time back.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

The same applies in respect of enforcement officers in planning departments: many departments cannot enforce conditions on abandoned or derelict properties, or take forward legal action or CPOs, because they do not have the personnel or the cash to do so. I know that about my area from my constituency case load. You can shake your head all you like, minister, but will you come with me to meet West Lothian Council? We could discuss the resourcing issues that mean that it cannot prosecute and progress enforcement cases. That is an open invitation to the minister. [

Interruption

.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Minister, do not appeal to me for interventions. Ask the member.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I am always happy to meet local authorities. My difficulty in visiting West Lothian Council is that it often does not allow ministers to visit projects in its area. I hope that Mr Findlay can persuade it to change its mind on that front as well.

Photo of Neil Findlay Neil Findlay Labour

The minister is scraping the barrel, now.

I know that the motivation behind the report is the desire to provide more homes. I want councils and housing organisations to look innovatively at how to provide more housing. We should be repopulating town centres by bringing empty commercial and retail properties into the residential property sector. That would give an economic boost to areas that are affected and would provide new, interesting and vibrant residential spaces. What is the point of leaving properties to decline over time just because they have been allocated to commercial or retail use in the local plan? The minister said that there are no planning barriers to doing that, so why are so many commercial and retail properties on our high streets empty?

We see huge industrial units lying empty for years in some of our bigger towns, such as Livingston. With some imagination, they could be developed into new and exciting living spaces. None of that can be done without money and taking risks, but the reward could be great.

I stress that I am not advocating a planning free-for-all or houses being thrown up just anywhere. Houses have to be in the right place, but we have to look innovatively at how we can provide homes for all.

I welcome the report, but we really need to take a much bolder approach if we are to address the pressing housing needs that exist across the entire country.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I remind members not to use the word “you” when they speak. I know that I fight use of that word in vain, but the only “you” sitting here is moi.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

Bliadhna mhath ùr, dhuibh. Happy new year.

On the islands, as in many other parts of the country, housing represents a major challenge in many communities. Bringing empty homes back into use is a significant part of dealing with that challenge. The committee report is a very welcome addition to the debate.

First, I want to say something about the context in the islands, and why bringing empty homes into use in the islands has particular importance.

I make no apology for stressing the seemingly obvious fact that a person who gets a job in the Western Isles cannot commute to it daily from somewhere else. What is perhaps less obvious to many people, unless they have looked at a map, is that when a person gets a job at one end of my constituency, they cannot commute every day from it to the other end of my constituency.

The shortage of affordable houses across the islands therefore has social consequences and economic consequences. Good jobs that are advertised in those parts of Scotland regularly go unfilled. The reason that many employers give for that is the lack of affordable places for people to live. Many people are amazed to discover that there are nearly 600 people on the waiting list for the Hebridean Housing Partnership, which is the only housing association in the Western Isles and which inherited all of what was formerly the council’s housing stock. About 450 of those people are new applicants.

The Scottish Government has made the very important offer to the HHP and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar of £25 million to invest in new rented housing if that money can be spent by next year. The biggest challenge for all involved will be in ensuring that the money benefits housing projects in rural areas as well as in the town of Stornoway. Although there is an admitted tendency towards urbanisation even in the islands, that is driven by historical lack of supply in the rural areas as much as by demand. Addressing that means that we must continue to be brave more generally about building houses in rural Scotland in areas where there is no recorded demand for them. That is because we cannot record demand for affordable rented houses in areas where there have been no such houses for which people can apply.

The Scottish Government’s support for the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership seeks to address some of the issues. Practical support has included provision of an advice service for the owners of empty homes and for affected communities, in order to help to bring empty homes back into use.

There are, in the Western Isles, just over 500 empty homes that have been uninhabited for six months or more. Some 8.3 per cent of dwellings in the islands were vacant in 2017, compared with the Scottish average of 3.1 per cent. The similarity between the number of empty houses and the number of people who are waiting for a house is probably coincidental, and nobody pretends that all those houses are fit to be brought back into use, but many could be, and the sooner a house can be used, the less chance there is of its falling into a ruinous condition.

The minister has rather beaten me to this point, but I will make it anyway. It is worth recognising, as he has done, the work that has been done by the local authority, Comhairle Nan Eilean Siar, on the matter. I want to acknowledge in particular the work that is being done by one local government officer. Murdo MacLeod, who is the empty homes officer with the council, was given the “outstanding individual” title at the Howdens Scottish empty homes champions of the year awards. Mr MacLeod is the first person to hold the post for the comhairle and has far exceeded expectations, through having brought 61 properties back into use in only 12 months.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

I do not want to correct Dr Allan, but my latest figures show that Mr MacLeod has brought 94 properties on the islands back into use. That is one third more than Dr Allan said. Mr MacLeod deserves plaudits for that figure.

Photo of Alasdair Allan Alasdair Allan Scottish National Party

He certainly does, and I am more than prepared to go with the minister’s figure rather than the one that I gave.

The empty homes officer in the Western Isles has traced the owners of many houses in order to find out their intentions. If my figures are correct, approximately 60 per cent of the owners live in the Outer Hebrides.

Nationally, since 2010 the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership has continued to bring an increasing number of privately owned homes back into use, with almost 700 homes being brought back into use in the past six months alone.

I conclude by mentioning something else that is relevant to the debate. Interventions will need to be made in housing on the islands on a range of fronts. The Scottish Parliament is, I hope, going to give local authorities new powers to place limits on certain areas being used for short-term lets—a problem that was rightly raised by Neil Findlay. I repeat my plea to local authorities, that they consider using such powers strategically in specific places. We need holiday homes for our tourism economy, but we also need the powers to be used, because otherwise the biggest problem with empty houses that some parts of the Highlands and Islands will face in the future is that whole villages will be full in the summer and empty for the other six months of the year. We need to ensure that villages are not transformed from communities into resorts in the space of just a few years.

On that note, I warmly welcome the committee’s report and commend the hard work that is being done across Scotland—not least in the Western Isles—to bring much-needed houses back into use.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Jeremy Balfour, to be followed by John Mason. Mr Balfour is the penultimate speaker in the open debate.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

Thank you, Presiding Officer, and I wish you and others in the chamber a happy new year. I also congratulate the convener and the committee on their report.

I have found the debate interesting to listen to, although I was not on the committee. It has given me food for thought. The subject is important because, as Mr Findlay pointed out, there are far too many homeless people on our streets across Scotland, and one of the solutions to that is more housing for individuals to live in.

I also agree with the minister in congratulating Edinburgh—better late than never—on appointing an appropriate empty homes officer. I suspect that the issue in Edinburgh is bigger than the council appreciates, and there will be more empty homes out there than are on the record. Like the minister, I encourage others in the Lothians to go down the same road.

We have heard interesting points from a number of members on compulsory sales orders and compulsory purchase orders. The committee’s report points out that compulsory purchase orders have been used by local authorities in Scotland only 13 times in the past three years. As Pauline McNeill said, part of the reason for that are the legal complications, with local authorities not taking that route.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

The Government has refreshed all the guidance on compulsory purchase orders in recent times. We have also told every single local authority that, if they want to access the expertise in the Government to help them move CPOs along, we will provide that help. We cannot do a CPO for them, but we will help as much as we possibly can. I urge members, including Jeremy Balfour, to evangelise to local authorities that that help is available.

Photo of Jeremy Balfour Jeremy Balfour Conservative

I hope that COSLA and local authorities not only hear but act on that helpful comment.

I am slightly confused about where we are on compulsory sale orders. Perhaps the minister can clarify the situation in his closing speech. I fully understand that the Government takes the view that there is no time in this parliamentary session to introduce primary legislation on the subject. Andy Wightman made a useful point in that regard, but I am still slightly unsure about whether draft legislation will be consulted on before 2021. Will that legislation be ready to go for any incoming Government, should it want to introduce it? Can the other related work be done—for example, consultations and speaking to stakeholders—so that it is all ready to pick up off the shelf? I am genuinely unsure about the Government’s position on that.

Andy Wightman and Neil Findlay raised an important point about buildings other than homes that are empty in our cities and towns. Before becoming an MSP, I had the privilege of working for Scottish Churches Housing Action. My role was to transform derelict churches into affordable homes. I can point members to a number of examples across Scotland where that has happened.

To solve the housing crisis, we need to look at all empty properties and encourage the owners to consider whether they can be developed into affordable housing. That would be good for our communities and our country.

I again thank the committee for securing this helpful debate. I look forward to the minister’s engagement with the committee towards the end of this year, to see where we are on the subject and where we can go with it.

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

Presiding Officer, you said that Jeremy Balfour was the penultimate speaker, so I guess that I am the ultimate speaker.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I am sorry, but were you trying to correct me?

Photo of John Mason John Mason Scottish National Party

No—I would not dare correct the Presiding Officer. I was trying to be slightly humorous, but I have obviously failed.

I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in today’s debate. I have not been a member of the Local Government and Communities Committee, but housing, homelessness and empty homes are high on my agenda, given my constituency in the east end of Glasgow.

It seems to me that there is a lot in the Local Government and Communities Committee’s report that almost everyone agrees with. That includes, for example, our wanting empty homes to be brought back into use as soon as possible; our acceptance that there can be good reasons for a home being empty on a temporary basis; our belief in the centrality of local government, together with the advantages of each council having an empty homes officer leading on the topic; and our wanting compulsory purchase orders to be used more.

I was particularly struck by the figures in Shelter Scotland’s briefing, which I think that Graham Simpson has already referred to and which show that the average cost of renovating an empty property is between £6,000 and £25,000, whereas a new build has an average cost of £120,000. It clearly makes economic sense to make better use of the housing that we already have.

I accept that, as others have said, the committee inquiry was inevitably limited in scope and could not possibly cover every aspect of the subject. Specifically, paragraph 6 says that

The Committee decided not to include second or holiday homes”.

That is fair enough. However, I want to raise a couple of points that are perhaps particularly relevant to a city such as Glasgow, both of which relate to buildings that may not have been housing in the past but which could well be housing in the future. Andy Wightman, Neil Findlay and Jeremy Balfour also touched on these points.

The first point concerns shops on the ground floor of tenements. Clearly, with the growth of supermarkets and shopping centres, not to mention online shopping, it seems unlikely that we will ever need as many small shops under tenements as we have traditionally had. Many have become hot food shops and cafes, but I see that many are still sitting empty after long periods of time. That is despite the efforts of Glasgow City Council and, in my local area, Parkhead Housing Association, which have sought to refurbish those properties and make them more attractive to let—not always successfully. There has been some success in turning empty shops into flats, but there is scope to roll that out on a larger scale. To touch on some of the points that Mr Findlay made, the issue is not just a planning one; ownership is part of the issue, too. Glasgow City Council might be reluctant to lose shops in a street such as Saltmarket, which is quite central, yet there is not the demand in that area for the premises that are currently sitting empty.

The second point—the reverse of that situation, in a way—concerns the five or six-storey buildings in the city centre where only the ground floor is occupied by shops, with the levels above seeming to be largely empty. Those floors might have been used by department stores, or they might have been storage space or office space that no longer meets modern requirements. As others have said, such buildings are not empty homes as such, as they were not used as homes previously, but they are spaces that are suitable to be converted into housing. That would fit well with the desire of Glasgow and other cities to increase the city-centre population again.

Another fair point that the report makes is that there can be good reasons for a house to be empty for a period. The executive summary makes a point about the council tax levy on empty homes and says that councils should use those powers flexibly. I am dealing with a case involving a tenement that was gutted by fire. It has taken about 18 months to restore the flats. Although council tax was waived to start with, it was charged again after a year, which helps no one. I am still trying to establish whether Glasgow City Council is applying the rules too harshly, or whether the rules are binding the council’s freedom to be flexible.

In its submission to the committee, Glasgow City Council makes the point that it feels that it has limited powers to deal with empty properties and says that it will generally act only if there is a public health nuisance or if there are concerns regarding the safety of the building. It also makes the point that compulsory sales orders will be an attractive tool only if they are simpler and more straightforward than compulsory purchase orders, which might be the council’s preferred option, even if CSOs are available.

I suppose that that all raises the question of how long it is reasonable to expect a house to remain empty. Again, the report touches on that subject, and says that families have many reasons, including emotional ones, for being reluctant to sell the family home. Last January, my mother went into a care home. As a family, we were a bit reluctant to say that she would never return home, although that was probably what we were all thinking. At the start of the summer, I encouraged my brother and sister—and my mother—to agree that we should sell the house. It sold fairly quickly, and the new people moved in just before Christmas, which means that it was empty for just under a year. However, as is touched on in paragraph 14, some families can face a much longer process than that, due to a variety of reasons. For example, families might disagree among themselves; there might be no power of attorney in place; the house might be in an area where homes do not sell easily; or families could be holding out for an unrealistic price—we got less for my mother’s house than I had hoped.

Like others, I have some good areas in my constituency. In Mount Vernon, I can see a bungalow—usually a popular type of property—sitting empty and deteriorating. There is always a story behind each home, although we do not always know what it is.

I close by mentioning a topic that is related to empty homes. If housing generally and tenements specifically are not properly maintained, the likelihood of their becoming empty increases. Therefore, the tenement maintenance report that a parliamentary working group produced last year is important, and I welcome the Scottish Government’s positive response to it, which came out on 20 December. If we can maintain our tenements better than we have done, we increase the chance that they will not gradually become empty.

I commend the committee for its work on the topic, and I hope that we can keep it on the Parliament’s agenda in the coming months and years.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

We move to the closing speeches. I call Pauline McNeill to close for Labour.

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

In opening the debate, the convener of the Local Government and Communities Committee, James Dornan, said that there is a strong public interest in dealing with empty homes and that a joined-up approach is necessary. He pointed out that local authorities might be taking an unnecessarily risk-averse approach to using the powers that are available to them.

Neil Findlay set the scene: homelessness and rough sleeping are rising, and there is a need to increase the supply of affordable homes to deal with our housing crisis. Andy Wightman rightly said that housing is part of our public infrastructure and that how we conceptualise housing is what matters. I agree.

Annabelle Ewing made an important point about the figure for the number of empty homes that we should use and how that is calculated, which is an issue that I was confused about as I prepared for the debate. Graham Simpson provided updated figures. It is important to have data collection so that we have accurate information and can all agree on the figure that we want to use. In that way, we will know how many empty homes there are across Scotland.

It has emerged from the debate that what needs to be sorted above all else is the issue of how local authorities apply the range of tools that are available to them to deal with empty homes. It is clear to me that the application of the council tax levy is too crude and that there needs to be more guidance on, or more discussion with local authorities about, what is expected of them regarding the use of that power. After all, it was provided so that local authorities could tackle the blight that empty homes were creating across our communities and so that those homes could be brought back into use. We might need to revisit the issue and to reset the use of that power.

On compulsory sale orders, which the minister confirmed have been used only nine times in three years—

Photo of Pauline McNeill Pauline McNeill Labour

I thought that he had confirmed that figure. It is clear that the use of compulsory sale orders as an alternative to compulsory purchase orders does not seem to have been common; nevertheless, CSOs are another way of ensuring that we do not have vacant homes unnecessarily causing blight in our communities.

I have thought more about what James Dornan had to say about the use of CPOs and the question of whether local authorities are risk averse. In my experience, it might be the case that the process of using CPOs to acquire empty homes is much simpler than their use to mandatorily acquire other properties, in relation to which there might be wider resistance to the use of CPOs. In such circumstances, we are talking about a much more difficult legal process.

It is clear that the appointment of empty homes officers is a critical factor. I cannot remember who it was—it might have been Andy Wightman—who pointed out that some council officers have that function contained within their role, so they might have to be counted when we look at who is doing what across Scotland. It is clear that the success of the programme is down to those officers who have that function.

I was struck by what John Mason said about how Glasgow City Council has used its powers to remove empty homes from communities. It is clear that the issue is faced in both urban and rural areas.

I must express disappointment that opportunities have been missed to legislate in this area in the current session of Parliament. The minister explained why that is the case—we have run out of Government time. That is a pity. As Kenneth Gibson said in his excellent speech, there is other legislation that is being progressed that such legislation could be prioritised over. The Parliament has a proud record on land reform, and empty homes are part of the land reform agenda, because we are talking about regenerating communities. The Parliament has a good reputation in that area, and it would have boosted its reputation if legislation to address empty homes had been introduced in this session of Parliament.

I echo Andy Wightman’s suggestion. He said that, if anything is to come of this debate and legislation is to be progressed in the next session of Parliament, it would be helpful to have sight of any proposals that have been drawn up by ministers and for them to be handed over to the next Administration. In that way, there would be a chance of such legislation being introduced early in the next session.

I was also struck by Alasdair Allan’s speech, in which there was a lot to consider about the impact on an island that he represents. He talked about the size of the waiting list, which seems pretty large, and about having the right supply at the right location. An important point is that we cannot record demand in areas where there has not been an opportunity to test the demand for houses.

As Alasdair Allan said, in relation to second homes, whole villages will be empty for half the year. I have not really touched on second homes, but that is an important point.

The committee has done a serious piece of work. I hope that the minister will make a commitment and let us see what reform we can make by the end of this parliamentary session. There is a clear need for reform of compulsory purchase orders and the use of the council tax levy. We need to ensure that we have the right legislation to regenerate our communities and bring empty homes back into use to help solve the housing crisis. We need a radical overhaul to make as big a dent as we can in the 40,000 houses that people should be living in.

Photo of Alexander Stewart Alexander Stewart Conservative

I am pleased to close for the Scottish Conservatives in this debate on empty homes and the committee’s report. As a member of the Local Government and Communities Committee, I thank all those who made submissions and provided briefings to the committee during the inquiry.

As we have heard, bringing empty homes back into use provides a myriad of benefits, and the committee’s report went into that concisely.

We were pleased that the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, which is hosted by Shelter Scotland, agreed with many of the report’s recommendations. With the rising level of homelessness that we have, it is crucial that we make use of existing housing stock. Every empty property matters in every community that we represent. Committee members understand that working solely on empty homes cannot solve the current situation, but it will help. By bringing vacant properties back into use, we will start to have an impact that will be part of the solution.

I agree that investment in empty homes can be an effective way to boost local economies and support community regeneration. Work on empty homes can help us to sustain fragile communities.

We know that just one empty home can be seen as a nuisance, an irritation or even a blight on a location. If that becomes a larger number of empty homes, that leads to a spiral of decline. We are aware of situations across our regions and constituencies where that has become the case. When a number of properties become empty, everything else seems to spiral, which creates even more difficulties.

This debate is important because it focuses on the idea that this is everybody’s issue: it is a council issue, a housing association issue, a landlord issue and a contractor issue. It is important that we recognise the value of bringing derelict or empty properties back into use as homes.

The committee identified a variety of reasons why empty homes exist, some of which we have touched on this afternoon. Those can include socioeconomic factors, a lack of resources to complete housing renovations, economic downturn, housing market decline and increasing levels of antisocial behaviour.

Empty homes are often a problem in rural areas, and many members have touched on the issues in their own areas. People can face a distinct challenge that involves isolation and remoteness, which can be created by a lack of jobs and economic activity.

One thing that we have all talked about, which makes a huge difference, is the employment of empty homes officers, who work across specific council areas to tackle the issue. I commend and congratulate those councils that have grasped that opportunity, because that has paid dividends in communities across Scotland, as we have heard this afternoon. We have also heard that some local authorities have yet to take up that challenge. Like others, I insist that they do, because having one or two individuals who are dedicated to ensuring that that takes place, where it can, has had a real impact.

I will move on to some of the speeches that we have heard this afternoon. Our convener, James Dornan, started off by talking about data. The way in which data is collected, whether that be through local council records or through local knowledge, is vital.

We have also talked about the council tax levy and the delays in applications that some councils are using to generate income. We have covered that issue today, and I do not think that anybody believes that that is what councils should be doing. We should be trying to ensure that councils support individuals so that they can move forward.

The minister talked about the focus being on the priority of tackling empty properties, which are a “blight on communities”—that is certainly the case. Yes, we need more homes—the minister talked about the arrangements that have been made and the engagement that will take place between now and 2040—but, like others, I am concerned that some of the recommendations will not be embraced in the 17 months that we have left in this parliamentary session but will need to be moved to the next session. Many members have touched on that point this afternoon, and it would be quite good to see whether we can progress that.

My colleague Graham Simpson talked about compulsory sale orders and the inconsistency in their being issued to individuals who are struggling with repairs, along with the levy that comes with that. That has a part to play.

Pauline McNeill touched on town problems and problems in city centres, and she spoke of the need for access to address that. Shop owners have a responsibility to support their communities.

We also heard from Andy Wightman about the difficulties that may arise in that respect and the legislation that might have an impact. He talked about the lack of time that the minister has in which to ensure that legislation is passed. As others have said, I would welcome a paper explaining the lack of time and whether there are any opportunities to address the problem in the last 17 months of this parliamentary session.

Annabelle Ewing made a very good point about the problems with the data and the difference between 64,000 and 83,000 empty homes. We do not yet know exactly where the number lies, because there is no consistency in reporting across local authorities, but we know that we can manage the process by working in partnership.

It is crucial that we look at the records and identify where we are. We know that— astonishingly—about 3 or 4 per cent of our properties are unoccupied, and even the most recent statistics show worrying trends. There are many reasons for that, but there is no doubt that long-term empty homes can have an effect on where we go. Much work has been done to date—I recognise that, and the committee indicated that lots of work is taking place—but the Government has a vital role to play, and kicking things into the long grass is not the way forward. We must work together, with partnerships that will ensure that our communities thrive and survive.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I call Kevin Stewart to close for the Government.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

How long have I got, Presiding Officer?

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

This Government has a proud record in delivering affordable housing. Since coming to power in 2007, we have delivered 89,000 affordable homes, compared to 38,015 delivered by the previous Administration. However, existing homes continue to form the majority of our housing stock. That is why empty homes are seen as part of the housing solution, not only to increase supply and end homelessness, but to create and support vibrant communities. The committee witnessed the need for that first hand when it visited Newmilns.

I welcome the committee’s support for the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership and the empty homes officer model. I pay tribute to Shaheena Din, who has headed up the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership—she is some power, and she wants to do even more.

The dedicated resource of an empty homes officer assists people to bring their homes back into use. It is a model that works and I want to see it operating in every part of the country.

One area of our support for the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership and the empty homes officers includes the ability of the partnership to provide up to 50 per cent funding for new officers in the first two years. Every local authority that has yet to put in place empty homes officers can take that up. It is a good deal.

I will pay tribute to some of the officers who are on the front line. I have already spoken about Murdo MacLeod, who is new to the job and is doing a brilliant job in the Western Isles. In various years, Allyson Allison has won the officer of the year award. We are also about to see the outstanding empty homes service feature in a BBC documentary, which includes a home that has been returned to use after 24 years. Everything is possible. I could go on at length, but those examples give us an idea of some of the work that is taking place.

As the committee requested, I will continue to press local authorities to adopt wholesale that successful model. I will also continue to press authorities that adopt a blanket approach to policy and the council tax levy to consider better approaches and to learn from their colleagues in local government across Scotland. I know how frustrated Annabelle Ewing is about that issue. I am also frustrated about it and I want to ensure that our £400,000 per year investment continues to deliver benefits on the ground. Over the past wee while, that investment has brought new empty homes officers to Edinburgh, Aberdeen and the Western Isles, and additional data to supplement our council tax statistics and help inform discussions with local authorities.

Data has been mentioned a number of times today, including by Ms Ewing and Alexander Stewart. Our data is supplied by each local authority. Any variation from the reality on the ground is only where people seek to avoid tax, which I am sure that none of us would condone. Our investment also provides an enhanced empty homes advice service and a new website that provides tailored support and an easy way to report empty homes 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Those are just some of the partnership’s most recent achievements.

Although my ambition is to have empty homes officers in every area across Scotland, it is also important that we consider opportunities to widen our reach, particularly within the third sector. Later this month, I will visit the YMCA in Glenrothes to do just that. The YMCA brings empty homes back into use as move-on accommodation for homeless people and is a great example of partnership working. It works with the local empty homes officer to identify suitable properties; accesses grant funding to help fund the purchase; and provides construction students with valuable work experience during the refurbishment. I hope that that great work can be replicated in many parts of the country.

As I said in my opening remarks, I welcome the recommendations of the Local Government and Communities Committee. The committee can be assured that I will continue to co-operate with its members on all those issues. We share the same views on how we must progress in ensuring that we remove the blight of empty homes from our communities.

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

I do not know whether the minister is about to come to it—

Photo of Graham Simpson Graham Simpson Conservative

He is. [

Laughter

.] He will have heard comments from across the chamber, including from Kenneth Gibson, about compulsory sales orders. Can he not at least commit to start work on that—

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Excuse me, minister. Wait until Mr Simpson has finished.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I knew exactly what he was going to ask.

As I said earlier, there is not a lack of will on the Government’s part to move that agenda forward, but there is a lack of time and resource within Government to deal with all that at the moment.

I want to ensure that we move forward in reforming compulsory purchase orders, and that is why we have done some of the work already during the course of this parliamentary session. I also want to go much further in the introduction of compulsory sale orders, and to look at other uplifts that can come from land value. It will take a huge amount of effort to unpick previous legislation and to ensure that we have the balance right between what we want to do and the human rights aspect of that. We will continue to work on that.

I will not be bound by a timescale, because I do not want to come up with one that may be unworkable because of the other work that is going on. I will continue to let the committee, and Parliament, know how we are progressing on those issues, and I know from some of the folk who have been involved in the debate that if I do not do that, I will face many questions. I will commit to continuing to update Parliament on how we progress on the issue.

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

This has been a very good debate, and I thank all those across Scotland who are working on the issue.

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

I thank you, too. I call Sarah Boyack to close for the committee.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

This has been a good start to 2020. It is important that this was our first debate, and what an interesting debate it has been. There has been disagreement, analysis and research, and there is also pretty strong agreement from right across the chamber that the empty homes problem needs to be tackled, that that work has started by the Scottish Government collaborating with and funding local authorities and organisations like Shelter, but that much more needs to be done and that we need faster and more concerted action.

It is good that in the committee, as Kenny Gibson said, we had a collegiate and collaborative work programme on the issue. I was not here for that—I am praising a report that I saw at the very end, once the hard work had been done. It is a good report.

I want to highlight one or two things that James Dornan, our committee convener, highlighted at the start of the debate. Different communities face unique challenges when it comes to empty homes, but the common thread is that empty homes, when left to decay, cause a blight on communities, and there is a strong public interest in bringing them back into use. We have agreed on that across the chamber; the key thing now is how we make that happen. The examples that Annabelle Ewing and Tom Mason gave concentrate the mind on the damage that is caused to the neighbours who live next door to empty homes. That should make us move into action.

Neil Findlay spoke passionately about homelessness and Pauline McNeill talked about waiting lists. That highlighted the benefit in bringing existing homes that are not being used, back into use. Huge numbers of people across the country are waiting for affordable, accessible houses. As members have said, that is happening not just in our town and city centres; it is in some of our smaller towns as well and, crucially, in our rural communities, where the addition of two to four houses can be absolutely transformative. We need to push for that and we need to make sure that all our local authorities have not just empty homes officers, but local partnerships that join up housing, planning and regeneration so that there is a pressure to deliver on not just one part of the council, but right across the council.

I also want to highlight what John Mason mentioned. Look at the numbers in the research done by Shelter. It usually costs about £120,000 to build a new home, but it can cost just £6,000 to £25,000 to regenerate an existing home and bring it back into use. Surely that must be a political priority as part of the housing programme. We must look at how private owners can be brought into that picture so that they can be supported, cajoled and given advice. [

Interruption

.]

The Deputy Presiding Officer:

Ms Boyack, please sit down.

This was a very important and interesting debate on homelessness and empty houses. There are too many casual conversations going on during this very important debate. You should be listening to Ms Boyack.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. I will take a note of that for future reference; it has not happened to me before.

For those colleagues who have joined us, it has been a constructive debate. There has been political agreement across the chamber and there is a mood that, right across our communities, we need to do more. On the town centre regeneration issue in particular, several colleagues mentioned the importance of councils taking a much more strategic approach to restoring town centres by joining up their policy approach and their investment and making sure that we look at town centre regeneration not only in terms of retail and offices, but also in terms of bringing people back into our town and city centres.

I agree with Andy Wightman that we should take a look at the Malcolm Fraser town centre review of 2013 with the benefit of six years’ hindsight and ask what we could do with the report and what more needs to be done now. Housing is a good way to refresh town centres and it also gives people access to employment for which they do not have to make lengthy commuting journeys. A couple of members made that point.

A point about the accessibility of homes was made towards the end of the debate. If we are talking about having homes above shops, obviously stairs and lifts will be involved, but the properties to convert are those on the ground floor, because they are key to giving people in our ageing population accessible homes. Surely, we should be looking at that.

There has been agreement about a couple of areas in which work needs to be done. For example, data sets are not sufficiently accurate and there were some good comments about how that might be dealt with. There was discussion about looking at the location of empty homes at a much more granular level so that local authorities can target solutions in order to meet the needs of each area. We all mentioned the human and economic need to get our houses back into use.

The council tax levy is a good tool, but it must be used appropriately. It should not be used only as a revenue-raising tool; it has got to be used to incentivise people to bring their houses back into use. Support and advice from both the Scottish Government to local authorities and from local authorities to housing owners is absolutely crucial and must be followed through. The points that were made by James Dornan, Pauline McNeill, Graham Simpson and Annabelle Ewing show that there is agreement across the chamber for action.

It would be good to have a refresh of financial incentives from the minister in the future. He pointed out that the Government’s £400,000 investment has delivered, but what more could be done to accelerate the process and put more homes back into use, or even prevent them from becoming empty in the first place?

There was a lot of discussion about compulsory purchase orders and compulsory sale orders. I took part in the debate on the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill in 2015, when we debated compulsory sale orders and the need for a basket of mechanisms to both encourage and push owners to act. We also debated that in relation to the Land Reform (Scotland) Act 2016. There is cross-party agreement across the chamber that we would like the minister to reflect on the issue and we would like the minister to be given support by his colleagues to prioritise the matter. It should not be only the housing minister who says that he wants it to happen—

Photo of Kevin Stewart Kevin Stewart Scottish National Party

It is not about my colleagues; it is about capacity in the civil service to deal with the legal aspects of the issue. I cannot stress enough that unpicking mid-19th century legislation—the previous compulsory purchase order legislation—is not an easy task.

Photo of Sarah Boyack Sarah Boyack Labour

That is true, and it is why the Scottish Land Commission prepared a report and published it in August 2018. We are not starting from scratch. We have had the land reform debate, the community empowerment debate and the expert groups that were set up by the Scottish Land Commission—work has been done. We are not now demanding that the minister introduce the finished legislation before 2021, but we would like to see work in progress. Work has been done on human rights, the rights of owners and site identification. The work of the experts has been built on and the issue of vacant and derelict land has been looked at, so we are not starting from scratch.

The issue is complex, but Parliament has legislated before on land reform and the legislation has worked. The Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015 has enabled communities to buy land or sometimes get owners to work with them without even selling the land. There is work in progress. We get the fact that there is not infinite resource, but we would like to see more resource and political priority being attached to the matter. Everybody has agreed that the powers make sense: they avoid blight on our communities, avoid economic disruption and enable houses to be brought back into use so that people can afford houses where they need them and they can access work. That is something on which we all agree.

There has been agreement, so we would like to put pressure on the minister to make progress. It is not an issue for after 2021; some progress can be made before then, and the minister has collaborative and constructive support across the chamber to help him in that work.