A presentation by Ellen Spencer, Private Sector Housing Team Manager on Empty Properties brought back into use.
The Executive Member for Housing and Homelessness, Councillor Gordon Bambridge explained that earlier in 2022 Breckland Council had set up an Empty Properties Steering Group and had started to look at the whole strategy of homes and housing within the Breckland area investigating every part of housing and how Breckland currently dealt with it. He hoped to have some direction on the way forward in Spring next year.
The Private Sector Housing Team Manager, Ellen Spencer explained that Breckland Council did not currently have an Empty Homes Policy. She then provided a presentation on Empty Homes in the Breckland area along with some options on what could be included within a new policy for dealing with empty homes.
Properties left empty for any period of time could become a problem for the following reasons:
· Blight to neighbouring houses
· Anti-social behaviour
There were 1,333 households on the council’s housing register, with over 100 households in temporary accommodation, yet 140 homes had stood empty for 2 years or more.
There were many reasons why a home may be empty:
· Too costly to repair
· Negative equity
· Land banking
· Builder investment
· Too much to cope with
· Memories – good and bad
· Family dynamics – inherited property
The Private Sector Housing Team had tried different approaches, some of which had worked, including friendly persuasion, grants or loans and linking the owner with housing associations, estate agents or letting agents.
As a discouraging measure, Breckland Council currently charged full council tax plus the maximum premium for homes left unoccupied/empty. This meant if a property was left empty for over 2 years it incurred a 100% premium which meant a 200% charge, over 5 years empty it incurred a 200% premium which meant a 300% charge and if over 10 years empty it incurred a 300% premium which meant a 400% charge.
A further discouraging measure was continued enforcement which could be dealt with by different teams within Breckland Council including:
· Environmental Protection Act 1990
· Prevention of Damage by Pests Act 1948
· Building Act 1984
· Town and Country Planning Act 1990
· Housing Act 2004
· Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 1982
Furthermore, if a homeowner did not respond to an enforcement notice, Breckland Council could carry out the work and put a charge on the property with the Land Registry.
It also had an option to enforce the sale of a property if there were enforcement debts due to work in default or council tax debts. If the owner did not repay the outstanding debt, a legal charge could be attached to the title deeds of the property and Breckland Council would apply to the Land Registry to enforce the sale of the property according to the Law of Property Act 1925.
The Empty Properties Steering Group, met to look at the worst empty properties in the district and use a scoring matrix to identify which properties had the most blight to neighbourhoods and what options were available, with all departments, as a Council wider issue.
A Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO), although a lengthy and time-consuming process, could also be an option available to Breckland Council. This could be used where owners refused to take action to bring a property back into use or if an owner could not be traced or if a property had been empty for a long period of time and was causing a nuisance or danger to the public. Properties that had a CPO served on them could be sold on via a preferred purchaser or by auction and monitored to ensure they were brought back into use. A property could also be sold with an improvement notice on it, outlining the work required and a legal timescale. If Breckland Council decided that a CPO process could be a viable option, the Council would need to have a policy in place to be able to use such an option.
A further option available to Breckland Council could be an Empty Dwelling Management Order (EDMO). EDMOs would enable Breckland Council to take control of and manage a residential property that had been empty for over 2 years and where the following applied:
· All attempts to contact the owner or negotiations to bring the property back into use had failed
· The dwelling had been unoccupied for at least 2 years
· There was no prospect of the dwelling becoming occupied in the near future
· There was a reasonable prospect that the dwelling would become occupied if an EDMO was made
· Breckland Council had complied with all duties in seeking and EDMO
A scoping exercise had been carried out that showed that there were at least 20 empty homes which were suitable to an EDMO and use as accommodation. Most had 3 bedrooms, gardens and were near schools and shops. The properties could be run and managed either by Breckland Council or a private manager, a charity or housing association. EDMOs did carry risks and were resource intensive and would need an officer to be deployed to carry out this work.
Breckland Council could also provide grants or loans to owners of Empty Homes to get them back into use.
The new policy would need to establish the suitability of each option depending on the property involved and there should be a clear reason for intervention – blight or housing need?
The Private Sector Housing Team Manager stated that she would soon be drafting an Empty Homes Policy for Breckland Council and asked for direction on a number of questions:
· Should Breckland Council just concentrate on those empty homes which were a blight on the neighbourhood, whilst also address housing need?
· Were Members broadly supportive for Breckland Council to use Enforced Sale when there were debts secured on an empty home?
· Did Members want the policy to include CPO? If so, this would need to be resourced?
· Did Members want the policy to include EDMO? If so, this would need to be resourced?
· Did Members want owners to be given grants or loans to improve their empty homes? If so, what would the conditions be? Who would manage the properties once they were repaired?
Following some discussion, the Chairman proposed that the Overview and Scrutiny Commission would benefit from further information surrounding the draft policy, incorporating the costs involved before questions could be answered. He suggested that the Cabinet Member take the proposal away and work up the financial and policy implications and bring it back to the Commission at that point, this should include three possible choices:
· costings on empty homes back into use
· dilapidated homes back into use; and
· empty and dilapidated properties back into use.
These suggestions were agreed by Members of the Commission.