The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has responded to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request from modular smart home provider Project Etopia, to reveal that local authorities have almost entirely abandoned powers to tackle the rising number of empty homes. The MoJ said it could not reveal how many of these applications were successful because of changes in the way it treats court records under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. This response has prompted calls for the legislation to be scrapped, and replaced with a scheme that is easier for local authorities to use.
Applications for empty dwelling management orders (EDMOs) have hit an all-time low amid concerns they are too difficult to administer. The original aspiration was for more than 1,000 applications a year, but this is now in tatters as the response shows that the number of orders sought dropped to just six in 2018, more than halving since the preceding year.
EDMOs were introduced in 2006 and now, more than a decade later, thousands of people remain locked out of the housing market due to rising prices, exacerbated by lack of supply. The influential House of Lords Select Committee on Economic Affairs concluded in 2016 that the country needs to build 300,000 homes every year to tackle the housing crisis. Figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG) reveal there are 205,293 long-term vacant properties – those that have been unoccupied for more than six months – in England, and the overall number of empty homes grew between 2016 and 2017.
The number of EDMO applications has fallen more than 85 per cent since their peak in 2012, when councils applied to use the power a modest 41 times. In 2006, only two applications were recorded because they had only come into force that July. At their introduction, then housing minister Yvette Cooper said empty and abandoned homes caused considerable distress for neighbours and local communities. In April 2008, Cooper's successor Caroline Flint told the Commons: 'I want to ensure that the orders we provided can be used. If there is a reason why they cannot, I want to hear about it. However, simply not using them is no excuse.'
Despite the fighting talk and clearly well-intentioned legislation, the EDMOs fell far short of the 1,000 applications a year envisaged at the outset. Between 2006 and 2018, only 229 applications were made in total. As explained in the previous edition (Property Journal July/August, pp.38–39), taking control of an empty property involves much more than slapping an EDMO or compulsory purchase order on the home in question. There may be issues with ownership, which require many months – sometimes years – of detective work to sort out. The council may also be unaware that the property is empty, and, if the unoccupied home is in an undesirable area, it may struggle to find a tenant. And this is all before the cash-strapped local authority can arrange the necessary resources for essential repairs, which again may take a long time.
Regardless of the arguments, it is obvious that changes must be made. Joseph Daniels, CEO of Project Etopia, says: 'More than a decade has passed since EDMOs were introduced, and it is clear the policy is not working. If they are too difficult to obtain, then these powers should be replaced by a new scheme that councils are able to use more effectively.
'Councils want empty homes to be returned to use, and we should support them. Local authorities should be given new powers that recognise the challenges involved, from respecting the difficult circumstances that can sometimes result in these homes sitting vacant to the rights of those who own these properties. This is a cross-party issue that urgently needs the attention of everyone in Westminster. Politicians need to come together in the national interest to see that EDMOs are replaced or reformed.'
Daniels' call for action is made more urgent by the current extent of empty housing. On 11 March this year, the Guardian published an article on the shocking rise in long-term empty homes, which is the highest since 2012, based on MHCLG figures. This is a year-on-year rise of ten per cent with increases in two-thirds of local authorities, and one in ten of them seeing numbers rocket up by 30 per cent or more. The total number of empty homes now stands at more than 634,000.
Two days later, then housing minister Kit Malthouse made a presentation at the Local Government Housing, Planning and Infrastructure Conference. He responded to the Guardian article by saying: 'Local authorities have a range of powers at their disposal to tackle long-term empty homes, and I expect them to make full use of them.' These words echo those used by Flint in 2008.
However, Will McMahon, director of Action on Empty Homes, said: 'When Malthouse commented on empty homes' numbers rising at the fastest rate in a decade, he cited councils' powers to act. Project Etopia's FoI request shows these powers are simply not being used to good effect. Councils' much-vaunted enforcement powers, such as EDMOs and rising council tax premiums, seem toothless. They must be empowered to act on boarded-up homes, which blight communities and lock out those in need.'
On 18 March, the Guardian published an article stating that homelessness and social housing waiting lists are peaking, with more than 80,000 families and 120,000 children condemned to live in temporary accommodation where rooms can be as small as 13m2, at a cost to the nation of £1bn a year. The streets of our cities are home to thousands. Landlords receive more than £9bn a year in housing benefit and are not even required to provide a decent standard of housing in return.
Alongside this, there are 1.1m people on social housing waiting lists. Shortage of supply, particularly of social homes, has resulted in housing being treated as an asset first and accommodation a poor second. Local authorities cannot even enforce council tax premiums until a home has been identified as empty for more than two years – four times the length of most current private-sector tenancies. This is far too long. Although government collects and reports data on empty homes, there is no statutory duty on local authorities to bring them back to use.
The last targeted government funding stopped in 2015, and it is no coincidence that numbers of vacant properties have risen since. That funding worked, and it is time that the government supported local authorities with investment to bring long-term empty homes into use for those in housing need, through incentives and leasing and purchase schemes, as well as through the currently failing enforcement regime.
Jan Ambrose is editor of the residential section of RICS Property Journal email@example.com
Related competencies include: Housing strategy and provision, Legal/regulatory compliance