More houses stand empty as homeless total doubles: Number of vacant private properties has risen by 225,000 in a decade

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The Independent Online
THE NUMBER of homes standing empty in England has grown by a quarter in the last decade, while the number of households recognised by councils as homeless has doubled, independent research revealed yesterday.

The increase means that 864,000 homes - or one in 20 - of all homes in England are now empty, the highest proportion for a decade, representing around pounds 25bn of assets standing idle. Millions of pounds were spent each year on the maintenance, insurance and security of empty homes, despite the acute demand for affordable rented accommodation, the report continued.

Bob Lawrence of the Empty Homes Agency, which carried out the research for the Joseph Rowntree Trust, said: 'These unused assets are worth over pounds 25bn. Bringing just 10 per cent of the 864,000 empty homes back into use would have a very significant impact on the problems of homelessness.'

While local authorities have reduced their stock of empty homes (from 114,000 in 1983 to 70,000 last year), the number empty in the private sector rose by more than a third, from 539,000 in 1983 to 764,000 last year.

According to research by three councils, owners were reluctant to rent out their property because they were worried about regaining possession, were unaware of grants available for repairs and were reluctant to risk running into problems with rent collection or damage.

However, the report warned that the cost of leaving properties idle could outweigh the risks of letting. It said that empty homes deteriorated quicker and were more likely to be vandalised. Citing economists from the Treasury and the Department of the Environment, the agency estimated that 10,000 empty public-sector homes wasted between pounds 30m and pounds 100m a year.

The report called for more publicity to be given to the benefits for landlords of assured shorthold tenancies and recommended a simplification of the wide range of grants available.

'Better publicity and promotion of information and the availability of financial support will lead to more properties being made available,' it concluded.

Councils should also develop 'empty property strategies' and examine vacant homes in all sectors in their areas, it said. Mr Lawrence claimed that opportunities for 'unlocking the assets' had never been better.

Sir George Young, the Minister for Housing, welcomed the report, adding that empty homes represented a huge wasted national resource.

'Empty properties are wasted properties,' he said. 'They can and should be made available to meet housing need.'

Sir George said that a number of government schemes, including incentive grants, were in place to bring property into use, but more needed to be done. 'We need a strategic approach to which all the relevant players - private owners, local authorities, housing associations, and government - are committed,' he said.

The report described common perceptions of local authorities as large-scale owners of empty properties as 'misplaced'. With 1.9 per cent of homes empty, 'councils are England's least wasteful landlords,' it said.

'However, the generally good record of local authorities could improve still further if some of the London councils with as much as 9.2 per cent of their properties standing empty were able to put more of this stock back to use.'