Communities Housing

Wales needs a national action plan to bring empty properties back into use, says Assembly Committee

There are thousands of empty properties all over Wales. Why are properties lying empty and what impact are they having on communities across Wales? Between April and July this year, the Assembly’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee carried out an inquiry that considered these questions.

Estimated reading time: 4 Minutes

29 November 2019

Darllenwch yr erthygl yma yn Gymraeg | View this post in Welsh

There are thousands of empty properties all over Wales.

Why are properties lying empty and what impact are they having on communities across Wales?  Between April and July this year, the Assembly’s Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee carried out an inquiry that considered these questions.

The Welsh Government has now responded (PDF, 393KB) to each of the committee’s 13 recommendations, accepting all but one, and agreed to develop a national action plan to set priorities and targets for tackling empty properties. It has also agreed to improve data on the scale of the problem, support the role of local authority empty property officers and make more use of the skills and resources of housing associations.

The scale of the problem

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 considered the problem.  However, as of April 2018 (the latest figures available), there were around 27,000 long-term empty private sector homes (defined as properties empty for more than six months) in Wales.   

However, the Committee questioned whether the available data on empty properties was fit for purpose. One of its main concerns was that the data only includes properties on the council tax list, meaning it excludes derelict buildings and non-residential properties – the source of many empty property related complaints.

Witnesses also told the Committee that properties empty for over 12 months were more problematic and more likely to have a negative impact on neighbours and communities; those properties empty for shorter periods often came back into use without any intervention from the local authority. Stakeholders and witnesses who contributed to the inquiry wanted that 12 month period, rather than the current six months, reflected in the data going forward.

Why are there so many empty properties and what impact do they have on communities?

The Committee’s inquiry head evidence that properties are empty for many reasons.  The owner may have died and probate is ongoing or relatives who have inherited it have no funds to renovate it; the property may have been bought to renovate but work hasn’t been completed (for financial or other reasons, like problems sourcing trades people or obtaining planning permission); the owner may be unable to sell or let the property because of low demand in the area (possibly because of other empty properties) or they have an unrealistic view of what it’s worth; or perhaps a business may have closed down and the premises remained empty. 

Empty properties can have a wide impact 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. For example, neighbouring properties can be affected by problems like damp and rot.  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. They 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. For example, where there are risks to public health (like vermin infestations), where there are statutory nuisances like accumulations of waste, where a building is dangerous or where other matters relating to health and safety are relevant.  They also have powers to buy, sell or take over the management of empty dwellings.

Formal enforcement action is, of course, a last resort and many local authority interventions with empty properties will be informal – such as providing advice, assistance and encouragement to property owners.  For example, 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 United Welsh told the Committee about its work in this area in both written (PDF, 86KB) and oral evidence.

In 2014, the Assembly passed the Housing (Wales) Act 2014. Part 7 of that Act gives 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. 

While additional revenue from this premium has been raised, the Committee found that there was limited evidence that revenue was being used to help tackle empty properties, or for housing purposes more generally. The Committee wanted to see any additional revenue raised targeted at housing. The Welsh Government rejected that recommendation, suggesting that local authorities themselves wanted the freedom to decide how to spend their resources.

The Committee called for a review of legislative powers after it heard from local authority officers that using these powers could be complex, time consuming and bureaucratic. The Committee also found that not all areas had a dedicated empty property officer. The Committee heard evidence that highlighted the impact having an empty property officer could have on a local authority’s ability to tackle the issue in a more strategic way. It recommended these posts should exist across Wales so there was a focus for efforts to tackle the problem in each area.

The Committee’s inquiry also heard about the positive impact that bringing empty properties back into use can have on wider community regeneration.  Recognising that potential, the Committee has called for the views of communities themselves to be reflected in plans to tackle the problem.

An Action Plan in 2020

The Committee has proposed development of a national action plan to tackle empty properties that includes priorities and targets to be taken forward, and as a mechanism to take forward many of its recommendations. The Committee said it wants these priorities and targets to be time specific so progress can be measured. The Welsh Government accepted that recommendation and suggested that each local authority should continue to have their own action plans, but that the Welsh Government would collate this local information and include Welsh Government objectives and indicators within the national action plan. That plan is due to be finalised toward the end of next year.

The action plan’s success will be no doubt be judged on how many houses are turned into homes in the coming years.

The Assembly will debate the Committee’s report (PDF, 2MB) on 4 December, and you can watch it live on SeneddTV.

Article by Jonathan Baxter, Senedd Research, National Assembly for Wales

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