Jayne Dowle: A crisis of imagination in our cities of empty homes

Prime Minister Theresa May (left) chats with first-time buyer Laura Paine during a visit to new housing development Montague Park in Wokingham last week to highlight the Government's housing reforms.
Prime Minister Theresa May (left) chats with first-time buyer Laura Paine during a visit to new housing development Montague Park in Wokingham last week to highlight the Government's housing reforms.
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THERE’S something you should know about the “housing crisis”. It isn’t really a crisis at all. It’s a failure of imagination and political will to bring back into use the countless number of homes standing empty and neglected across the country.

It might surprise you to learn that there are thousands in our region. Only last week, a Leeds councillor, Barry Anderson, the Conservative spokesman for housing, called on council bosses to do more to tackle the “stubborn core” of a reported 5,724 properties lying empty in the city.

Leeds has received many accolades over the years, but the title of “second-worst city in the country for empty homes” is not one it should be particularly proud of, despite Labour claiming that the true figure was, in fact, 3,500.

Either way, Coun Anderson was speaking out after a Freedom of Information request by the Liberal Democrats revealed than more than 216,000 homes across England and Wales stand unoccupied. This mind-boggling figure represents a mixture of social housing no longer fit for purpose and private homes abandoned by owners for a number of reasons, including mortgage default and failure to sell on the open market.

Now, if my memory serves me correctly, the Government said in the Budget last November that the number of new homes needed to deal with population growth is currently 300,000. Forgive me for the simple maths, but the 216,000 homes with no one living in them would provide more than two-thirds of the shortfall.

I said simple, because this solution does not take into account issues such as location, local economy and current condition of all those houses left unoccupied.

A staggering 11,000 homes have been empty for more than a decade, so you can imagine the state. Damp, possibly vermin-infested and requiring a full programme of renovation.

Lib Dem leader Vince Cable calls it a “national scandal”. And he’s right. Successive governments have rammed home the message that Britain needs more homes. The only answer ministers have been able to come up with it is to build more. This is often at the expense of what’s left of the green-belt and rural locations.

And, to make the process profitable for the major house-builders, the end result is all too often woeful little boxes with limited outdoor space, coupled with serious impact on services such as education and healthcare and the creation of isolated communities accessible only by motor transport.

I’m not saying for a moment that every single one of those 216,000 empty homes would be desirable to live in. However, surely the Prime Minister could set up a serious task force to look at bringing as many as feasible back into use instead of pouring billions into a house-building programme which widen the divide?

I’ll put it this way. If you were one half of a young couple hoping to buy your first home, which option would you favour? A shiny-brand new box with everything in place, or a wreck which requires a load of laborious and costly work?

It makes sense that buyers – especially today’s busy, time-pressed buyers – will choose the easy route if possible. Who can blame them?

However, developers and estate agents know that people are prepared to pay a premium for new homes so prices continue to rise. Meanwhile, the rest of the market slumps.

Those that do shift often end up being offloaded cheap to investors for rentals or HMOs (houses in multiple occupation). Some buy-to-let landlords are responsible of course, but too many are not. You only have to drive through any major Yorkshire town or city to see this; rows and rows of houses which due to lack of even basic investment are turning rapidly into slums rented out at often extortionate rates.

And so, with some honourable exceptions, the major players – the Government, local councils, developers, landlords – are prepared to stand back and watch whilst the national housing stock falls into decline and levels of home ownership look set to plummet to levels not seen since before the First World War.

Helen Williams, chief executive of the campaigning group the Empty Homes Agency, wants local councils to purchase and refurbish abandoned private homes and bring them back into use for social housing tenants.

To be fair, since 2010, the Government has made come up with a number of measures, such as giving financial incentives to authorities to rescue empty homes.

I can find no official figures to show how successful this policy has been, but it’s probably fair to say that the impact has been limited so far if more than 5,000 homes stand empty in Leeds alone.

If Theresa May really wants to help, I suggest she steps back from supporting profiteering house-builders, stops tinkering with Stamp Duty and sets about cleaning up the homes we already have.