As the Treasury announces plans this week to allocate another £5bn to boost housebuilding and measures to speed up the planning process, Alexandra Albert says we must also demand action on the hundreds of thousands of homes lying empty.
As this week’s announcements show, the housing crisis remains a primary concern for policymakers, as well as practitioners, charities, organisations and individuals.
In recent years there has been a raft of suggestions as to how to deal with such a complex policy problem that impacts so greatly on the lives of so many. However, rather than just building more houses – which brings its own implications to existing communities, in addition to sustainability and the potential reduction of green space – there are now growing calls for the better use of homes which lie empty.
Whilst housing markets need some empty properties to function, the length of time a property remains empty can pose a problem. If a property has not become re-occupied within six months it is important to examine what is happening, and to determine whether it might be re-occupied soon, or whether it might be stuck empty for some reason.
The longer a property is empty, the more such housing assets are being wasted in the face of so many people looking for a decent home at a price they can afford. Furthermore, the more likely it is to deteriorate and the more it is likely to cost to bring back into use. Early intervention can help ensure that properties do not remain empty over the years.
Regional variations, local solutions
According to a study by the Empty Homes Agency , there are significant regional differences in where empty homes can be found. Overall, the North tends to have a larger proportion of unused residential properties than the South, and seaside towns are also more likely to experience the problem. Although the current Northern Powerhouse narrative suggests Manchester is at the forefront of discussions around sustainability and housing, with the potential for devolved powers being granted to tackle these issues head-on, these narratives are missing the opportunity for a sustainable solution to the housing crisis.
One such solution is the Empty Houses Project which I set up and which encourages citizens to send in their observations of empty houses in their local area. The project aims to draw attention to, and raise awareness of, the issue of empty houses in the current situation of a housing crisis, and to suggest that the repurposing of empty buildings could be a more sustainable approach to tacking the situation.
The project also aims to explore how crowdsourcing data on empty houses can reveal more about the usage of homes in the UK, as a positive step towards bringing them back into use, while also showing how everyday observations can contribute to solutions for tackling policy problems.
Ultimately, the Empty Houses Project aims to demonstrate how data collected by citizens can be used by local authorities, organisations and charities to help tackle our housing crisis, delivering more places for people to live in, quickly and equitably.
At present although it is possible to report empty houses to local council websites, it is not clear whether this is something that people are actually doing and how the data is acted upon. Furthermore, whilst the official government data is useful in highlighting some of the issues, it does not necessarily show patterns of houses that are underutilised, or appear to be empty.
Another factor to consider here is that many empty homes are second homes. Whilst there is limited scope to do anything about second homes, it is important to raise awareness about the issue and to explore how, in a time of constrained resources, empty houses could be brought back into more effective and efficient usage, rather than being left empty.
The project therefore focuses on the fact that if homes remain empty for longer than six months, they start to cost a lot more to bring back into use. Also a large number of empty houses in a particular area can potentially have a negative impact on the neighbouring community. It is this cost that the Empty Houses Project could potentially tackle.
Housing is a major contributor to our society’s wellbeing and with thousands of people homeless or in temporary accommodation, homes lying empty is a scandal. If we can mobilise people to report on them, to be more observant and to share what they see, this could help raise awareness and bring more properties back into use at an affordable price.
- To get involved in the Empty Houses Project: report any empty houses via this online form or email email@example.com or tweet @EmptyHousesProj