At the last count, there were 350,000 homes lying empty on Britain’s streets. There were also two million families looking for somewhere permanent to live.
It’s a situation the Empty Homes Network has been trying to highlight ever since it published its first major policy document back in 2009.
Earlier this month, when the Government announced its housing strategy, which included a chapter on bringing empty properties back into use, the EHN allowed itself time to celebrate a small, but hard-won victory.
“This government has given far more emphasis to the issue of empty homes than any previous government,” says the network’s David Gibbens. “Yes, we can find plenty to cavil about if we want to complain, but this move is a cause for celebration not complaint.
“It may take a while for central government to find the best way of working with local government, but at least we are moving in the right direction and hopefully future administrations will feel obliged to match and surpass what has been achieved so far.”
However, if the network is prepared to wait and see if the coalition is as good as its word, others are not so laid back. Next week George Clarke will present a series of programmes highlighting what he sees as the scandal of empty homes, an issue he first became aware of when he witnessed a whole community being “torn apart” by a regeneration programme in 2003.
“I remember going up on the train back to Newcastle to see my mum and dad and the train passed through Gateshead,” says Sunderland-born Clarke. “From the train, I saw people being moved out of Victorian terrace properties to new housing, and contractors boarding them up so squatters couldn’t get in. It didn’t make any sense to me.
“Apart from one man who refused to budge from the house he was born in, those same houses are still lying empty, when they could have been restored for very little money and make fantastic homes.”
Clarke wants planning laws to be changed so communities and individuals can turn abandoned properties in their local area into homes, and low-cost loans to be made available to those who want to put empty properties back into use.
“I don’t think people have any idea of how big a problem it is, so I want the series to raise awareness,” he says. “I want to get those empties back into use. I want the Government to realise that terrible mistakes have been made and to come up with simple but creative ways to get them back into the system.”
Clarke, who has years of experience as an architect and lecturer, has already started a campaign page on Facebook, will be putting out a petition for people to sign and is developing a mobile phone app that allows people to photograph empty properties in their area and send them to the council.
He also thinks councils should give more power to community groups to restore properties – as they may be able to do it for less money. And he says owners of empty properties should be charged more council tax rather than less.
“At the moment you pay reduced council tax because you’re seen as not using local services, but you bring the area down and house prices down so you should be paying more. You should be paying double. ”
The 37-year-old is also an ambassador for homeless charity Shelter, which goes some way to explaining why he is on a mission to get empty properties back into use. “I absolutely love British homes and British housing stock,” he explains. “I love the power that homes have on our lives. They affect they way we live and the way our kids are brought up. For me they’re the most powerful pieces of architecture in our lives by a long way.”
And even the EHN admits that the Government’s announcement was bitter-sweet.
“An additional £50m has been made available for empty homes in some of the worst-hit areas, which is welcome,” says David.
“But we do wish the Government would be bold enough to grasp the nettle and provide a stream of capital funding to support a sustainable local authority empty homes initiative more generally – £50m for that would have been such a boost to the wider world of empty homes across the country. We live in hope.”