Community and Housing - Empty Property Strategy

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1 Community and Housing - Empty Property Strategy Strategic Objective: Epsom and Ewell Borough Council is committed to minimising the number of empty homes in the Borough The Council is committed to a Corporate Strategy in which information on empty dwellings is gathered recorded and monitored. We aim to encourage and facilitate the bringing back in to use of empty residential properties to provide more much needed homes. According to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM), there are 300,000 longstanding empty homes in the UK (as at May 2003). Also, it is estimated that there are enough empty commercial premises (e.g. offices) that could be converted to provide as many as 700,000 additional homes across the UK. In the Borough of Epsom and Ewell, there were in excess of 350 empty residential properties in December Some of these properties have been empty for only short periods but most have been empty for a year or more. One property is reported to have lain empty for thirty years. Many of these properties have an adverse local environmental impact and can reduce the values of neighbouring properties by as much as ten per cent. As the need to provide affordable housing increases, and with land for new house building in the Borough becoming increasingly scarce, it is vital to make the best use of existing housing stock. There is a real need to utilise existing buildings, particularly to provide housing in a way that has not been pursued by the Borough in the past. Such an approach is not in conflict with the principles of sustainable development and indeed helps to meet them. Epsom and Ewell Borough Council recognises that empty homes are wasted homes. As part of its strategy to meet chronic housing need in the area, the Council will, wherever possible, maximise existing housing resources by investing money, staff effort, influence etc. The Council will do this by adopting a co-ordinated approach to include housing, planning, conservation, environmental health, finance, and property services from within the Council and a wide range of appropriate outside agencies and interested individuals to bring about a reduction in the numbers of empty properties in Borough. By encouraging and persuading the owners of empty homes to bring them back into use the Council will attempt to make available more accommodation for key workers and homeless persons in the Borough. The Council has made the provision of affordable housing a key priority. Why Are Properties Empty? A home is usually vacant for one of the following reasons: (a) It is awaiting sale. (b) It recently became vacant, and arrangements are being made for the new occupier to move in. (c) It is vacant because it will be modernised in preparation for re-use. (d) It is owned by developers, or statutory bodies, and is empty because it cannot currently be used for its original purpose. (e) The owners have moved elsewhere to live or to receive long-term residential/nursing care. (f) The owner has died intestate and/or there are unresolved issues of probate.

2 (g) Marital/partnership breakdown with pending legal settlement. (h) Acquisition by a speculative purchaser or as a second home. What is the Current Picture in Epsom & Ewell? There are currently an estimated (by the 2002 Private Sector Housing Stock Condition Survey) 354 empty properties in the Borough. These properties are located mainly in the Epsom area, followed by Ewell. At 354, just over 1.3% of the total private sector (non RSL) dwelling stock of 26,910 is vacant. However, 264 properties have been vacant more than six months, which represents just less than 1% of the stock. Current Approaches for Dealing with Empty Properties The provides a co-ordinated approach to the issue of dealing with empty properties. By involving a number of partners, a wide range of solutions can be used to meet a range of housing needs and the various needs of the property owners. A flexible and co-ordinated approach is crucial to maximising the benefit the Empty Property Strategy can provide. The Council will work with potential private landlords to improve the standard of accommodation in the sector. Using a range of advice, assistance and statutory enforcement powers combined with local influence and knowledge, can forge an effective strategy for bringing empty homes back into use for the benefit of the community as a whole. Whilst there is no single planning policy dealing specifically with empty properties, the Council's Local Plan is keen that vacant commercial property, in particular retail shop units should be brought back in to use as they provide important local infra structure and reduce the need for trips further afield for services not available locally. The Council's Sustainability Strategy 2001 includes an objective to "encourage vacant units above shops to be brought back into use". This recognises that though the shop unit may be occupied and trading successfully, the residential accommodation above is often left empty representing a wasted housing opportunity. Empty dwellings have been recognised as significant in playing an important part in meeting Government projections of housing need. It is expected that housing development pressures up to 2016 are going to be such that not only will there be considerable development in urban areas, but choices may have to be made as to where in the countryside and Green Belt, residential schemes should be allowed. Empty properties become important in the sense that if return to use can be encouraged, then they can make a contribution, albeit small, to reducing development pressures on green field sites. Such return to use in urban areas can be more sustainable too. The Governments' commitment to re-using empty properties is shown by the fact that numbers returned to use through local authority interventions is now used a Best Value Performance Indicator (BVPI 64) of services provided by Councils. The Council's Officers have worked closely with their counterparts in the rest of Surrey to discuss the best approach to the problem. Joint working has been recognised as the best way of pooling good ideas, and making best use of limited resources. It has helped the Council shape this strategy, and will continue to be a useful vehicle in support of this important work.

3 What Is Our Strategy? Advice and Assistance to Property Owners The Council has a dedicated housing advice service to provide help, advice and information to property owners. This is designed to promote maximum use of available residential property, particularly those homes which are already empty or are likely to become empty. The Council has available a range of free booklets which cover a variety of relevant topics including how to make best use of accommodation including empty properties. These are produced by the Council and by Government Departments. They include: - "Letting Your Home is Now Easier and Safer" "Repairs A Guide for Landlords and Tenants" "Assured and Assured Shorthold Tenancies- A Guide for Tenants" "Assured and Assured Shorthold Tenancies A Guide for Landlords" "Advice Handbook 1 Renting In The Private Sector" These booklets will continue to be promoted by the Council and Citizens Advice Bureaux, to encourage good practice, prevent properties from becoming empty and help to bring those that are empty back in to use as homes. New information will be provided and advice given (such as changes to Housing Benefit rules), to pursue these aims. Flats Over Shops Shops often occupy only the ground floor and have accommodation above, which is either under-used or vacant. Owners are often reluctant to take on new residential tenants above their shops for security and insurance reasons, anxiety that letting may not be their financial best interest, and fear that letting could result in onerous management obligations. Successfully implemented residential schemes over shops elsewhere in the Country prove that these obstacles can be overcome, and that this stock of accommodation can be brought into beneficial use. Private Sector Grants At the present time, Epsom & Ewell Borough Council (EEBC) targets private sector discretionary housing grants at its elderly and vulnerable residents. It has long been felt that private landlords, who are letting their properties for profit, should be diverting part of that profit towards ensuring that their properties are maintained to a reasonable standard. Additionally, the increase in the level of private sector rents in the past few years has made keeping properties unoccupied financially wasteful. In some cases it will be appropriate to offer financial assistance to less well off owners of empty properties to encourage them to bring their properties back into use. If reasonable offers of help are declined, the Council's case for pursuing alternative action will be strengthened. The Council has already approved a private sector discretionary Renovation Grant to bring five empty units of accommodation back into use. Nomination rights were secured to all five as part of the grant conditions, and three units have so far been occupied. This accommodation has therefore helped to relieve the burden on social housing used for homeless applicants. This demonstrates the benefit of a flexible approach to providing help in the private sector where tangible benefits can be secured for the Council. The Council is keen to engage with the owners of empty properties in the Borough, and Council Tax and Land Registry data will both be used to establish ownership to enable the

4 negotiation process to proceed. The Council believes that a range of incentives is required and advice, grants, loans or equity release could be included in this range. The Home Improvement Trust may extend the "Houseproud" Scheme in order to offer equity release to owners of empty homes. If and only when all attempts at encouragement have failed, will consideration be given to using one or other of the statutory measures open to the Council such as Compulsory Purchase or Enforced Sale. The ODPM has recently announced the Government's intention to legislate for the piloted measure of Compulsory Leasing to be available to Councils nationally. Planning Policy The Borough's Local Plan is mute on the subject of empty residential property with the exception of flats above shops (see also Paragraph 4(ii)). If however, an owner, developer or agent is seeking to bring an empty property back in to use, they are advised to contact a planning officer at an early stage, to discuss the proposal, as a planning application may be required. This is particularly important if the proposal is for the conversion into flats of a house built for single-family occupation or if multiple occupation is proposed. Shared housing is popular with students and young single working people. Present policy favours the creation of smaller, say one and two bedroom units, but the social housing need locally is for family size, three and four bedroom properties of the type that feature large in the Borough's empty property portfolio. Conversion might be resisted on that basis but all planning applications are considered on their individual merits, including the impact of the proposed use/scheme in the immediate locality, through car parking, for example. Strategy Targets The following targets for 2003/04 are proposed for dealing with empty properties within the Borough. (a) To establish the addresses of all the empty residential properties in the Borough, including empty dwellings above shops. (b) Identify especially those dwellings that have been vacant for more than a year and prioritise them for intervention on the basis of their environmental impact locally. (c) To write to the registered Council Tax payers for these addresses and invite them to enter into negotiations designed to lead to their properties being brought back into use. (d) Routinely monitor the number of dwellings that are vacant for more than six months. (e) To explore the possibility of a joint initiative with other Surrey Districts to tackle empty properties on a County wide basis. (f) To hold further discussions with housing associations operating in the area, through the Housing Association Forum and the Empty Homes Working Group to broker partnership working to bring some properties back into use by March (g) To publicise the Council's initiatives aimed at reducing the number of empty homes in the Borough and promote the benefits of bringing properties back into use in the autumn of Conclusion This strategy is essentially about identification, engagement, negotiation and persuasion. It does not provide for inertia however, and owners who unreasonably refuse to bring their empty properties back into residential use or sell them for that use will face losing them through Compulsory Purchase or Enforced Sale. Working with local Housing Associations will hopefully offer management opportunities to those owners who lack the necessary skills and/or do not want to shoulder the burden of management themselves. The Council has already agreed the measures needed to make this strategy a success. If fully implemented it will result in additional available units of

5 housing accommodation becoming available in the Borough and these will help the Council meet its obligations to homeless persons and key workers.

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