A history of empty hopes and a future of new life for the homes no-one lives in

Rob Greenland and Gill Coupland wallk down boarded up houses on Garnet Grove in Beeston.
Rob Greenland and Gill Coupland wallk down boarded up houses on Garnet Grove in Beeston.
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Garnet Grove may be just a 20 minute walk from the edge of Leeds city centre, but the back-to-back terraces are a million miles from the modern apartment blocks which transformed the skyline.

Even on the sunniest of days, the metal grilles used to board up the doors and windows paint a pretty bleak picture. At least one of the properties has provided shelter for local drug addicts and those who live across the street overlook a patch of land which has become a dumping ground for rubbish.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Three years ago, plans were announced for a major redevelopment as part of the Beeston and Holbeck PFI project. Like many similar schemes, the funding never materialised and Leeds City Council had to quickly come up with a plan B.

Some of the back-to-backs, a hangover from city’s industrial heyday, have already been demolished and another 15 will soon join them. A further 20 will be modernised, but whether the new plans can turn this corner of LS11 into a desirable area to live remains to be seen.

It’s a scenario which is repeated not just across Leeds, where of 14,000 empty properties, more than 4,000 have been vacant for six months or more, but throughout Yorkshire’s major towns and cities. In Sheffield, there are 3,328 similar properties, in Wakefield the figure stands at about 2,100 and in Bradford estimates put the number at around 5,350.

For some, these buildings stand as a symbol of missed opportunity and urban decay. Rob Greenland and Gill Coupland see it a little differently.

The pair, who are behind the social enterprise venture, Social Business Brokers, have been working on a blueprint which might just see some of the properties returned to the kind of affordable housing which is so desperately needed.

“When you have a city with so many empty properties and yet there are 27,000 people on the council’s waiting list for homes, something doesn’t add up,” says Rob. “When we moved to our new offices in Beeston, one of the first things we did was go for a walk around the area and we were both really struck by the sheer number of empty houses round here. It was a bit of an eye-opener and it just started us thinking about whether a social enterprise scheme could help.”

Essentially, Gill and Rob believe that while public sector budgets are tight and private developers are still nervous of investing, by pooling resources they can make a dent in the currently redundant housing stock.

In May they are holding what they are describing as a Call to Action Day, bringing together council officials, housing association representatives, building contractors and property developers together in the hope they can refine their blueprint.

However, with nationally 80 per cent of the estimated 279,000 houses which have lain empty for more than six months privately owned, they admit the biggest hurdle is getting access to the properties.

“I’m sure there are a lot of interesting stories behind these properties and why they have been effectively abandoned,” says Gill, who in 2005 set up Angles Community Enterprises, which provides domestic and personal care services to the elderly in Leeds. “I’m sure some are the subject of family disputes, but there are others whose owners may just not have the money to get them into a state where they are ready to sell and that’s where we might be able to help.”

One of the biggest arguments against bringing empty homes back into use is, unsurprisingly, money. While some need just a cosmetic makeover, others require extensive structural work and figures for average cost of renovation vary wildly.

“On average, you’re probably talking about between £20,000 and £25,000 on each house,” says Gill. “It’s a substantial amount of money, but not when you compare it to building a new home from scratch.

“One idea is that owners of empty homes can hand their property over to a social enterprise for a fixed number of years. Depending on how much work needs to be done to bring it back into use that could be anything from a 10 to 20 year period after which they get their property back. It’s a win, win situation.”

Gill and Rob are exploring possible funding options, but the key to success will be turning potential investors onto the social rather than financial benefits of property developments.

“Ten years ago, when flats were being sold off-plan and Leeds saw a rash of new apartment blocks spring up, people came to see property as a way of getting rich quick,” says Rob. “The last few years have been a bit of a salutary lesson and hopefully the kind of venture we’re planning will strike a chord with people.

“When the economy crashed many of the projects which were supposed to have been delivered under the Government’s Private Finance Initiative crashed with it. A lot of ordinary residential areas have been scarred by half-finished developments and promises of brand new facilities which have never materialised.

“What we need is a completely different model of funding. We are already exploring the possibility of crowd-funding, whereby organisations, companies and the local authority would potentially contribute to a general pot. To make affordable housing work, you need to listen to the experts, but you also need to be able to think creatively.”

Towards the end of last year, the Government announced a £50m scheme to tackle the worst concentrations of empty homes. Local authorities were invited to apply for funding for schemes which would see at least 100 homes brought back into use. The deadline for applications passed earlier this month and a shortlist of successful bidders will be invited to submit a more detailed application by the end of next month.

“The number of empty properties in Britain remains fairly constant, but what has changed is the housing need,” says David Ireland, chief executive of the campaigning organisation Empty Homes. “Demand for affordable housing has increased markedly over recent years and yet figures show Britain is building 100,000 fewer new homes every year than we need. Given that, it seems absolute madness not to make better use of an existing resource.

“There are two main reasons why properties stand empty, the first is because there is not enough of a return for a developer and the second reason is simply that they are not on the market.

“The kind of social enterprise being proposed in Leeds side-steps the first problem because its aim is not about making money, it’s priority is to bring a good outcome for the community.

“However, just because a development isn’t making substantial profits doesn’t mean its uneconomic. In fact it can be incredibly cost-effective It’s no great surprise that people would rather live in areas where the houses are being fixed up rather in one where they are being pulled down. If you can find a way of bringing empty homes back into use then it doesn’t just benefit those who move in there, it can benefit entire communities.

“In the past, there has been a temptation to think that new build is better than old, but that’s just not the case. Most people don’t live in the same house forever and while back-to-back low cost housing may not be ideal for families, it still has its uses.”

Back at the Garnets, the demolition work is still ongoing. Rob and Gill arrived too late to persuade the authorities the place was worth preserving, but one thing seems certain – they won’t miss another opportunity.