Scandal of the empty homes

'NO room at the inn' is a familiar Christmas theme that particularly resonates with those young families, and others, who are struggling to afford a home of their own.

It's not surprising. More than 250,000 people are on housing waiting lists in Yorkshire alone, one reason why the coalition is keen to limit future tenancy agreements so greater account can be taken of an individual's changing circumstances.

Yet, while the Government's opponents have criticised the proposed social housing reforms, it is clear, from the publication of today's alarming statistics that the status quo is not a viable, or acceptable, policy option. There are three primary reasons for this.

First, it seems perverse, at best, that there are 100,000 empty homes locally – properties that are, potentially, at risk of vandalism because they are unoccupied for such a long period – when so many people desire a home of their own. Breaking this impasse has to be a priority for Ministers.

Second, the non-use of vacant properties means some communities, parti-cularly villages, are coming under unnecessary pressure to accept new housing schemes to meet unmet demand. This would not be happening to such an extent if better use was being made of existing homes.

And, third, what does it say about the misuse of council houses that more than 400 four-bedroom publicly-owned properties – family homes – are occupied by just one person? The lunacy does not end here; there are even four homes, with five bedrooms, that have an individual living in them.

Of course, there are complicating factors. The family circumstances of tenants change. And, equally, some of the empty properties have fallen into a poor state of disrepair, and the local authorities do not have sufficient resources to pay for the necessary renovations.

Nevertheless, the potential exists for the Government to examine these issues together, rather than in isolation, and start to move forward with a housing policy that is both pragmatic and affordable. However, this will only happen if a new partnership is forged between Ministers and local authorities that tackles the fundamental question of funding in a practical way, rather than the two sides remaining at loggerheads.