New pledge on Leeds homes which have been empty for decades

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Leeds council’s deputy leader has pledged to launch an investigation after figures revealed several houses and rental properties in the city have lain empty for TWENTY years or more.

Official data on homes owned by limited companies, rather than private individuals, shows one property in Woodhouse Street, Headingley was empty for 8,858 days at the time the figures were processed - meaning it has been uninhabited for more than 24 years,

PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe  (Photo is for illustration purposes only)

PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe (Photo is for illustration purposes only)

Four properties in total had been empty for 20 years or more, 16 for a decade or more, 63 for five years or more and 278 for one year or more.

The numbers, which cover the period up to 2016, illustrate the city’s continuing battle to offset the glut of empty properties to help tackle the wider housing crisis.

Councillor Debra Coupar, Leeds City Council’s deputy leader and executive member for communities, admitted 24 years was “a very long time to have a property empty”.

She said the council’s teams have tried to engage with the owners of that particular building repeatedly, but were unable to force their hand as the owners made it clear they wish to keep it for business reasons.

She added: “We do have options available to us, but there are also restrictions on what we can do.

“When we think about a compulsory purchase order, there is obviously a cost to the council, and that restricts what we can do.

“Ultimately, it is an action that we can take. But we do try and work with property owners to bring the properties into use rather than a more forceful way.”

Councillor Coupar has spearheaded a major drive to tackle empty homes in the city.

In March 2010, there were 6,721 long term empty homes based on Government CPA (Comprehensive Performance Assessment) criteria.

That figure has dropped over the last eight years, and latest figures from the council show that as of June 2018, there were 3,182 empty homes. That is an overall net reduction of 3,539 - or more than 50 per cent.

Coun Coupar added: “Obviously you have raised an area where there seems to be a bit of a sticking point, and I’m more than happy to investigate it further.”

According to official figures, there are currently 200,000 homes in England which have been empty for six months or more. Ministers say the overall number has “reduced dramatically” since 2013 after councils were given initial powers to charge a 50 per cent premium on council tax bills.

In March this year, new legislation was introduced which allows councils to double the rate of tax on properties that have been empty for two years or more.

But in July, it was announced that the Government is now going further by introducing an amendment that would allow councils to triple the council tax on homes left empty for five to 10 years and quadruple it on those empty for more than a decade.

Secretary of State James Brokenshire MP said: “By equipping councils with the right tools to get on with the job, we could potentially provide thousands more families with a place to call home.”

‘ROBUST’ TAX RULES MEAN THERE’S NO EASY LET-OFF

A zero tolerance approach on council tax rebates for owners of long-term empty homes has helped drive the overall number in Leeds down by more than 50 per cent over the last eight years, Leeds City Council’s deputy leader said.

Asked if there were any benefits for owners and landlords to leave buildings empty for years at a time, Coun Coupar said: “We are quite robust when it comes to council tax to do with empty properties. Anybody who owns an empty property must pay 100 per cent council tax on it. There’s no easy way that people can get out of paying the council tax. We do it as a disincentive.” After two years , the council tax in Leeds increases to 150 per cent.

Coun Coupar stressed the council will use its compulsory purchase powers when it can. The most recent, she said. was on Cross Green Lane. “We can take action and we do take action - but we also try to work with owners to bring [buildings] back into use,” she said.

There are certain circumstances when a building that is empty can be exempt from council tax. This includes if its official use is as a care home, hospital or hostel; where an occupier has died; and where the property is set aside for use for religious purposes. See www.leeds.gov.uk/council-tax/discounts-and-exemptions/empty-properties/discounts-and-exemptions-for-empty-properties for full details of exemptions.

INTEREST FREE BOOST OF UP TO £5,000

Owners of empty properties can apply for interest-free loans of up to £5,000 from the council to help spruce up a building and get it back into use.

The property has to have been empty for a year and be in a state of disrepair. Bigger low-interest loans of up to £30,000 are also offered to help make empties liveable.

The loans are among a range of initiatives in the city helping to bring overall empty property numbers down. Another is the Empty Homes Doctor, a social enterprise which has helped bring 200 properties back into use since 2013.