Homeless people empty dwellings – a natural result of market forces

empty_dwellings09:40 Wednesday 16th December 2015
BBC Radio Cambridgeshire

PAUL STAINTON: A few weeks ago on this show we revealed that Syrian refugees were being re-homed in so-called empty houses in Cambridge. Now an empty home is classified as one that has been left empty by the owner for more than six months. Well many of you were surprised to hear that given the current housing crisis, there were so many of these houses just sat empty. So we though we’d investigate if the amount of empty homes was going up or going down. According to figures given to us by local authorities, the amount of empty houses is actually coming down in most areas. But there’s still thousands of empty properties across the county that are just sat there, not being used. In Cambridge for instance, one in seventeen homes are empty. In Peterborough there are over 400 empty houses. Fenland has 250 with nobody in them. Huntingdon over 1,000, some of which have only just become empty. In South Cambs and East Cambs, councils claim they don[‘t have any empty houses. Well joining is now is a man in the know about the problem when it comes to empty homes, Adam Cliff is the Empty Homes Officer at Peterborough City Council. He won the Empty Homes Practitioner of the Year award in 2014 no less. Congratulations.
ADAM CLIFF: Thank you very much Paul.
PAUL STAINTON: I think we talked about it at the time didn’t we?
ADAM CLIFF: We have, yes.
PAUL STAINTON: You came in. So a house becomes empty. When does it become an ’empty home’, and when does it come on your radar in Peterborough?

ADAM CLIFF: To start off, an empty home is classed as being empty for six months or longer, and within the first six months if you like it’s deemed that the owner should be able to sell it, renovate it or refurbish or let it, whatever they want to do with the property. So after six months you start looking at the problems that the owner faces, the circumstances they’re in, and generally then the complaints start. If an owner leaves the house, leaves it to become derelict, let’s it get run down , that’s when it starts becoming a problem. When it affects the neighbourhood, the community, house prices, that’s when we need to step in.
PAUL STAINTON: What powers do you have at the moment?
ADAM CLIFF: We have Improvement Notices, so should a window be broken we have a Notice that we can use to board it up. But the most stringent ones, everyone’s heard of the Compulsory Purchase. That generally takes eighteen months to put through, and even then might not be successful when it gets to court. Also with that one the difficulty beingĀ  when you look at it from the point of the neighbour who has had to live next to this house for two years, three years or longer. When you compulsorily purchase a property you have to pay market price and give the owner 7.5% compensation. So to me, justifying that to a neighbour and a community is just not right, so we tend to steer clear of that one. And it was never designed for empty homes per se. You’ve also got Enforced Sales, where there’s a significant debt on the property. So for a council tax debt, debts where we have done improvements, we can force the sale, but again that’s after two, three years of work. The one that we’re finding successful at the moment is the Empty Dwelling Management Order. This is where a property has to have been empty for two years or longer. We then go on a case-building process effectively and build a case to get it to the tribunal, the Residential Property Tribunal, and put our case forward to them, a panel of experts, with the Respondent, the owner, putting their case forward, and then they make a decision. In four and a half years I’ve put through five applications, all of them being successful so far.
PAUL STAINTON: That all sounds very time-consuming though, very expensive for the councils to administer.
PAUL STAINTON: It can’t be right, when we’ve got so many people waiting for houses, that there are thousands of houses sat empty and these huge long processes. Do they need to be simplified do you think? Do you think there’s an easier way to do this, to encourage people to allow these houses to be used?
ADAM CLIFF: A very good question. Obviously the Empty Dwelling Management Order specifically targeting empty homes, we have that, but again the process is long. It has to be long at the end of the day because these owners own the property. Unfortunately it’s not illegal to have an empty home. Where it becomes a problem is where it’s not looked after and not maintained, and it becomes a problem for communities. Going back to what could be made simpler, the time frames, it used to be that an EDMO took ..
ADAM CLIFF: An Empty Dwelling Management Order, sorry. We could do that after six months, but powers were brought in and legislation was changed, so it has to be two years.
PAUL STAINTON: So it’s made it harder.
ADAM CLIFF: So it’s made it harder for us. Yes. But within that two years we still look at negotiation powers and basically talking to people.
PAUL STAINTON: When you speak to these owners, do most of them actually want to be putting people in their houses?
ADAM CLIFF: Yes. Yes. Most of them want to. Most of them are doing something.
PAUL STAINTON: Perhaps different to Cambridge where people are buying second homes to visit their kids at university once a year or something.
ADAM CLIFF: Possibly. Yes. And London as well. London has a big buy-to-leave problem. Investors from all over the world buy newbuild properties, a number of flats as we’ve seen in the news recently, buy them for an investment and over time their value will increase.
PAUL STAINTON: I wonder whether the Government needs to give you different powers. What would you like? What would speed all this up? What would get these houses full of people? What would get some of these people who desperately need homes in these houses?
ADAM CLIFF: Very good question. More incentives. I’d guess a centralised grant funding system where owners could borrow money direct from the Government, pay that back through the rental income over five, ten, fifteen years. Incentives for owners to do more. Definitely.
PAUL STAINTON: Do you think you’re doing a good job in Peterborough?
ADAM CLIFF: I’d like to think so. Yes. If I’ve won an award I’m happy with that, but it’s still .. my work is never finished, because there are always empty homes in Peterborough. And there will always be empty homes. The market forces dictate that. But yes, I think I’m doing a good job.
PAUL STAINTON: Listen, thank you for coming in this morning. It’s a difficult job and I know it’s time-consuming and sometimes frustrating, but thank you for explaining it really clearly for us this morning. Adam Cliff who is the Empty Homes Officer in Peterborough. So you heard it there. It’s not as easy as it seems, is it, just to say oh there’s all those empty houses. We’ll put people in them. It takes time. Should it? Do we need to change the law? Do we need to do what Adam was saying and give people incentives to put people in those houses?