Most of the 690,000 privately owned vacant homes are empty only temporarily, often waiting for prices to rise. But there are 250,000 homes that are long-term unoccupied, frequently decaying and causing problems of dampness, dry rot and infestation to spread into neighbouring properties.
Few homes have been empty for as long as 24 Daneshill Road in Leicester, which has not been lived in since 1980 when the owner died and there was a dispute over the will. The result is a boarded-up property going to ruin. "It is obscene that such a good house is falling down," says Christopher Reed, a neighbour. "It is a very spacious, nice, large Victorian house, and the whole place is disintegrating. The fear is what structural damage it might do to our property."
The council has made emergency repairs and has placed a charge on the house, enabling it to reclaim the cost when the property is sold.
Meanwhile, home owners like Mr Reed have inadequate legal powers to force neighbours to maintain their properties. Most existing laws are of little use unless a home owner can prove that an occupant's health or the fabric of their building is being immediately damaged.
A local authority can take action under building control regulations if a property is dangerous but not if it risks becoming damaged, or its value is reduced. A neighbour or a council could use the Environmental Protection Act to put right a home and charge the home owner but the nuisance has to be severe, for example, from dampness.
A neighbour or a council can use the Building Act of 1984 to apply for a court order for damages and to put a building into good repair if a neighbour is causing a nuisance but the problem again is proving the nuisance. Councils can use planning regulations to improve an unsightly property but seldom use these powers because of cost.
The situation may improve when the Party Wall Act is implemented, probably in April. Laws that already apply in London will then apply across England and Wales. A home owner will need to ask permission before altering a chimney or dividing wall that could affect a neighbouring property. The Act will also assist home owners to issue repair notices against neighbours where party walls are in disrepair. Where there is a dispute between neighbours, each home owner can appoint a surveyor to act on their behalf and arbitrate.
When one of the neighbours refuses to appoint their own solicitor, or fails to do so, perhaps because the ownership of the home is in dispute, then the other home owner can appoint surveyors to act for each side.
The Act will give powers, once the two surveyors agree, for a home owner to employ a builder to enter a neighbouring property to remedy a defect that is damaging a party wall. "The cost of the work would be apportioned according not only to the use of the wall but also to the responsibility for the defect," says John Anstey, partner in the surveying firm Anstey, Horne & Co, co-author of the bill. He has written a book on how the Act will work.
Getting the money out of a neighbour who has refused to look after a property can be practically impossible. Local authorities have the power to compulsorily purchase derelict properties but are reluctant because of the cost. Home owners do not have the right to force councils to purchase a derelict property compulsorily. They can, though, lodge a complaint with the Local Government Ombudsman if they believe a council is unreasonable in not using these powers.
q 'Party walls, and what to do with them', by John Anstey, will be available from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors this year.