Estimated reading time: 4 Minutes
24 May 2019
Most of us will have gone past that house with the overgrown garden, the boarded up pub daubed with graffiti or the burnt-out chapel that’s been propped up by scaffolding for years. We know that there are tens of thousands of empty properties like this all over Wales so virtually every community will have its own examples. The sheer number of empty properties may be startling to some and is all the more surprising in a country where we have a severe shortage of homes contributing to what many commentators regard as an ongoing housing crisis. So, why are properties lying empty and what impact are they having on communities across Wales? An Assembly committee is currently conducting an inquiry into this issue and is gathering evidence from members of the public and experts.
Why are they empty?
Properties can lie empty for many reasons. Perhaps the owner has died and probate is ongoing or relatives who have inherited it have no funds to renovate it; perhaps the property was bought to renovate but it hasn’t taken place (for financial or other reasons, like problems sourcing trades people or obtaining planning permission); maybe the owner is unable to sell or let the property because of low demand in the area (possibly because of other empty properties); or perhaps a business may have closed. In some cases, property owners may have little interest in ensuring their property is occupied, particularly if there is no mortgage outstanding or it is owned by a company with other priorities. There may also be an absent owner, living many miles away and, perhaps, unknown and uncontactable to neighbours or the local authority.
The scale of the problem
Of course, there will always be a certain number of empty properties as owners buy and sell and tenants come and go. These ‘transactional’ empty properties are not generally the problem. But we know that, as at April 2017 (the latest figures we have), there were around 27,000 long-term empty homes in the private sector alone in Wales – and that’s not including other non-residential buildings. Those homes had been empty for more than six months. The current Welsh Government has a target of delivering 20,000 additional affordable homes by 2021, and that target puts the number of empty homes in context. It’s a huge number of empty homes, but the issue is complex and there doesn’t appear to be any quick-fix solution. The Welsh Government has recognised this challenge, and set a target of bringing 5,000 empty homes back into occupation over the course of the current Assembly which ends in 2021.
The impact of empty properties on communities
Other than simply looking unpleasant, empty properties can have severe and long-lasting impacts on communities. They can become magnets for anti-social behaviour; from relatively low level activity like fly-tipping, to more serious issues like arson. The physical decline and neglect of any property can impact on neighbours as blocked gutters overflow, roof tiles crack and render blows – all potentially affecting the neighbouring properties as problems like damp and rot spread. In some cases, a neglected empty property can very quickly become dangerous as walls, roofs and downpipes deteriorate, crack and collapse.
Tackling the problem
The challenges in dealing with empty properties are wide and varied. Much of the responsibility for trying to address these problems falls to local authorities which have a range of legislative and more informal tools at their disposal.
Local authorities can take enforcement action against property owners for a range of reasons, including where there are risks to public health (for example from vermin infestations), where there are statutory nuisances like accumulations of waste, where a building is dangerous and where other matters relating to health and safety are relevant. They even have powers to buy, sell or take over the management of empty dwellings. In 2014, the Assembly passed a law giving local authorities discretion to charge a council tax premium on long-term empty homes. This premium, up to 100% of the standard rate of council tax, effectively means that owners of long-term empty properties may face their council tax bill being doubled. The intention was that owners would be spurred into action when they received this bigger bill.
With local authority budgets under more pressure than ever, and so many other competing demands, are these existing legal powers sufficient and effective?
Formal enforcement action is a last resort and many of the interventions local authorities make to deal with empty properties will be informal – such as providing advice, assistance and encouragement to property owners. The Welsh Government’s Houses into Homes scheme, delivered by local authorities, provides loans to enable property owners to bring their property back into use. There are also many examples of local initiatives and best practice being used to address the problem. For example, local authorities putting owners of empty properties in touch with potential buyers, or financial assistance being provided in exchange for the property subsequently being made available at an affordable rent. In many respects, the solutions to dealing with empty properties are as varied as the reasons why they are empty.
Inquiry by Assembly Members
The Assembly’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee’s inquiry will try and get a full picture of the problem in Wales, and attempt to find answers to some of these questions. The Committee has issued a consultation and an online survey to help it gather evidence. The consultation closes on 31 May and the survey closes on 19 June. Anyone with a view on the issue is invited to provide written evidence to the inquiry or respond to the survey. Oral evidence sessions with a range of experts in the field are expected to start on 3 July and the Committee is expected to issue its report and recommendations in the autumn.
Whatever the Committee recommends, it’s clear that empty properties are not just a wasted resource but also a considerable blight on communities. Tackling the problem presents an opportunity to both increase housing supply and regenerate communities. The inquiry provides an opportunity for anyone with a view on empty properties to influence the Committee’s report and help shape future policy in Wales.
Article by Jonathan Baxter, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales