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 edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.