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.

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Theresa May "indifferent" towards Northern Ireland, says Alliance leader Naomi Long

The non-sectarian leader questioned whether the prime minister and James Brokenshire have the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the impasse at Stormont.

Theresa May’s decision to call an early election reflects her “indifference” towards the Northern Ireland peace process, according to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, who has accused both the prime minister and her Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” required to resolve the political impasse at Stormont.

In a wide-ranging interview with the New Statesman, Long – who is running to regain her former Belfast East seat from the DUP for her non-sectarian party in June – accused the Conservatives of “double messaging” over its commitment to Northern Ireland’s fragile devolution settlement. The future of power-sharing province remains in doubt as parties gear up for the province’s fourth election campaign in twelve months.

Asked whether she believed the prime minister – who has been roundly criticised at Stormont for her decision to go to the country early – truly cared about Northern Ireland, Long’s assessment was blunt. “We have had no sense at any time, even when she was home secretary, that she has any sensitivity towards the Northern Ireland process or any interest in engaging with it at all... It speaks volumes that, when she did her initial tour when she was prime minister, Northern Ireland was fairly low down on her list.”

The timing of the snap election has forced Brokenshire to extend the deadline for talks for a fourth time – until the end of June – which Long said was proof “Northern Ireland and its problems were not even considered” in the prime minister’s calculations. “I think that’s increasingly a trend we’ve seen with this government,” she said, arguing May’s narrow focus on Brexit and pursuing electoral gains in England had made progress “essentially almost impossible”.

“They really lack sensitivity – and appear to be tone deaf to the needs of Scotland and Northern Ireland,” she said. “They are increasingly driven by an English agenda in terms of what they want to do. That makes it very challenging for those of us who are trying to restore devolution, which is arguably in the worst position it’s been in [since the Assembly was suspended for four years] in 2003.”

The decisive three weeks of post-election talks will now take place in the weeks running up to Northern Ireland’s loyalist parade season in July, which Long said was “indicative of [May’s] indifference” and would make compromise “almost too big an ask for anyone”. “The gaps between parties are relatively small but the depth of mistrust is significant. If we have a very fractious election, then obviously that timing’s a major concern,” she said. “Those three weeks will be very intense for us all. But I never say never.”

But in a further sign that trust in Brokenshire’s ability to mediate a settlement among the Northern Irish parties is deteriorating, she added: “Unless we get devolution over the line by that deadline, I don’t think it can be credibly further extended without hitting James Brokenshire’s credibility. If you continue to draw lines in the sand and let people just walk over them then that credibility doesn’t really exist.”

The secretary of state, she said, “needs to think very carefully about what his next steps are going to be”, and suggested appointing an independent mediator could provide a solution to the current impasse given the criticism of Brokenshire’s handling of Troubles legacy issues and perceived partisan closeness to the DUP. “We’re in the bizarre situation where we meet a secretary of state who says he and his party are completely committed to devolution when they ran a campaign, in which he participated, with the slogan ‘Peace Process? Fleece Process!’ We’re getting double messages from the Conservatives on just how committed to devolution they actually are.”

Long, who this week refused to enter into an anti-Brexit electoral pact with Sinn Fein and the SDLP, also criticised the government’s push for a hard Brexit – a decision which she said had been taken with little heed for the potentially disastrous impact on Northern Ireland - and said the collapse of power-sharing at Stormont was ultimately a direct consequence of the destabilisation brought about by Brexit.

 Arguing that anything other than retaining current border arrangements and a special status for the province within the EU would “rewind the clock” to the days before the Good Friday agreement, she said: “Without a soft Brexit, our future becomes increasingly precarious and divided. You need as Prime Minister, if you’re going to be truly concerned about the whole of the UK, to acknowledge and reflect that both in terms of tone and policy. I don’t think we’ve seen that yet from Theresa May.”

She added that the government had no answers to the “really tough questions” on Ireland’s post-Brexit border. “This imaginary vision of a seamless, frictionless border where nobody is aware that it exists...for now that seems to me pie in the sky.”

However, despite Long attacking the government of lacking the “sensitivity and neutrality” to handle the situation in Northern Ireland effectively, she added that Labour under Jeremy Corbyn had similarly failed to inspire confidence.

“Corbyn has no more sensitivity to what’s going on in Northern Ireland at the moment than Theresa May,” she said, adding that his links to Sinn Fein and alleged support for IRA violence had made him “unpalatable” to much of the Northern Irish public. “He is trying to repackage that as him being in some sort of advance guard for the peace process, but I don’t think that’s the position from which he and John McDonnell were coming – and Northern Irish people know that was the case.” 

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

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