Coalition in good policy shock: Getting empty homes back on the market

Last year, there were more than 700,000 homes in England standing empty. Finally, something is being done about it.

You may have missed this (they've kept it pretty quiet), but Britain is in the grip of a housing crisis. All the same, in 2012, at a time when the deposit on your first flat was basically visible from space, there were more than 700,000 homes in England standing empty; 260,000 of them had been abandoned long term.

These are not holiday homes, you understand (those are an entirely different mess); these are dwellings someone owns but has effectively left to rot. Not all are in places suffering a housing shortage, but plenty are. Nearly 24,000 of them are in London. The city's housing market being what it is, most of these, it's fair to assume, could be of use to someone.

And yet, our political masters have historically put remarkably little effort into turning these back into homes. Not that long ago you'd actually get a discount on your council tax on any property that was sitting empty.

In April, though, that changed: now local authorities can charge higher taxes on landlords who leave properties unoccupied, to encourage them to bring homes back into use. This might actually be working.

Homes are left unoccupied for a number of reasons. In some areas (London is not one) it's a function of the local housing market. According to David Edwards, chief executive of the pleasingly literal Empty Homes charity: "There are parts of the country where property prices and rental values are so low that, even if a home accumulates £10,000-£20,000 of work that needs doing, it's not viable to bring it back into use." Austerity is a factor, too: in some areas, estates were cleared out, pending regeneration programmes that never came.

There are empty homes, though, that can and should be lived in: those inherited but not sold on, or buy-to-let properties whose owners only managed the buying part. Until recently, if you were sat one of these, a council would actually give you a 50 per cent discount on your council tax.

This kind of makes sense, in there was no one inside to use council services, but it did mean that landlords had precious little incentive to bring crumbling homes back into use. They'd lose the potential rental income (poor lambs) – but, with houses having effectively turned into magic money machines, their value would no doubt rise anyway. Why spend money cleaning the place up?

This year, though, the rules changed. Now you still get a 50 per cent discount for the first six months a property sits unoccupied (previously this bit was free), but then you pay full whack. Those properties that sit empty for more than two years actually incur more council tax, 150 per cent of the local norm. (There are a few exemptions: homes that have been condemned, whose owner has recently died, whose regular occupant is in prison, that sort of thing.) In theory councils can opt out of this, but central government assumes they'll all do it, so they have to fund any further discounts from their own budgets. Most are unlikely to bother.

This seems, actually, to be working: Camden council in north London said a few weeks back that it's helped bring a third of its empty properties back into use (that's only 86 of them, but you've got to start somewhere). Theo Blackwell, its cabinet member for finance, wants to go further, and has written to Eric Pickles asking for powers to double council tax after a year. In the Ham & High, Julie Kelly, of local property managers Wellmanage, complained that, "It just seems like another way of extorting money out of private landlords", showing that she’d correctly grasped the point of the exercise.

There is a slight danger here, Edwards warns. Increasing council tax might simply eat into the money that landlords could have spent on renovations: "It potentially makes the property even less viable.” But in areas like Camden, where property is worth a fortune and demand runs way ahead of supply, he can see the argument for charging higher taxes still. The solution may be for Whitehall to bite the bullet and give councils the flexibility to manage their own affairs.

None of this is going to solve the housing crisis. There aren't enough homes standing empty, and anyway, in a city like London, council tax will always look like pennies compared to the capital value of a home.

But if this policy can turn any empty house back into a home, it's probably worth persevering with. Best of all, it'd send a message that housing exists to be lived in, not to add a few more noughts to your bank account. It's not much, but it's a start.

 

There are empty homes that can and should be lived in. Photo: Getty

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.

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I can’t follow Marie Kondo's advice – even an empty Wotsits packet “sparks joy” in me

I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

I have been brooding lately on the Japanese tidying freak Marie Kondo. (I forgot her name so I typed “Japanese tidying freak” into Google, and it was a great help.) The “Japanese” bit is excusable in this context, and explains a bit, as I gather Japan is more on the case with the whole “being tidy” thing than Britain, but still.

Apart from telling us that we need to take an enormous amount of care, to the point where we perform origami when we fold our underpants, which is pretty much where she lost me, she advises us to throw away anything that does not, when you hold it, “spark joy”. Perhaps I have too much joy in my life. I thought I’d give her loopy, OCD theories a go, but when I held up an empty Wotsits bag I was suffused with so many happy memories of the time we’d spent together that I couldn’t bear to throw it away.

After a while I gave up on this because I was getting a bit too happy with all the memories, so then I thought to myself, about her: “This is someone who isn’t getting laid enough,” and then I decided that was a crude and ungallant thought, and besides, who am I to wag the finger? At least if she invites someone to her bedroom no one is going to run screaming from it, as they would if I invited anyone to my boudoir. (Etym: from the French “bouder”, to sulk. How very apt in my case.) Marie Kondo – should bizarre circumstance ever conspire to bring her to the threshold – would run screaming from the Hovel before she’d even alighted the stairs from the front door.

I contemplate my bedroom. As I write, the cleaning lady is in it. To say that I have to spend half an hour cleaning out empty Wotsits packets, and indeed wotnot, before I let her in there should give you some idea of how shameful it has got. And even then I have to pay her to do so.

A girlfriend who used to be referred to often in these pages, though I think the term should be a rather less flippant one than “girlfriend”, managed to get round my natural messiness problem by inventing a game called “keep or chuck”.

She even made up a theme song for it, to the tune from the old Spiderman TV show. She would show me some object, which was not really rubbish, but usually a book (it may not surprise you to learn that it is the piles of books that cause most of the clutter here), and say, “Keep or chuck?” in the manner of a high-speed game show host. At one point I vacillated and so she then pointed at herself and said, “Keep or chuck?” I got the message.

These days the chances of a woman getting into the bedroom are remote. For one thing, you can’t just walk down the street and whistle for one much as one would hail a cab, although my daughter is often baffled by my ability to attract females, and suspects I have some kind of “mind ray”. Well, if I ever did it’s on the blink now, and not only that – right now, I’m not even particularly bothered that it’s on the blink. Because, for another thing, I would frankly not care to inflict myself upon anyone else at the moment.

It was all a bit of a giggle eight years ago, when I was wheeled out of the family home and left to my own devices. Of course, when I say “a bit of a giggle”, I mean “terrifying and miserable”, but I had rather fewer miles on the clock than I do now, and a man can, I think, get away with a little bit more scampish behaviour, and entertain a few more illusions about the future and his own plausibility as a character, when he is squarely in his mid-forties than when he is approaching, at speed, his middle fifties.

Death has rather a lot to do with it, I suppose. I had not actually seen, or touched, a dead body until I saw, and touched, my own father’s a few weeks ago. That’s what turns an abstract into a concrete reality. You finally put that to one side and gird up your loins – and then bloody David Bowie snuffs it, and you find yourself watching the videos for “Blackstar” and “Lazarus” over and over again, and reach the inescapable conclusion that death is not only incredibly unpleasant, it is also remorseless and very much nearer than you think.

And would you, dear reader, want to be involved with anyone who kept thinking along those lines? I mean, even if he learned how to fold his undercrackers into an upright cylinder, like a napkin at a fancy restaurant, before putting them in his drawer? When he doesn’t even have a drawer?

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war