Blots on the landscape eyed by home hunters

From run-down to lived-in. Sara Newman reports on plans to take over unoccupied private properties and rent them out
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The Independent Online

The Government has long talked about how it wants to bring Britain's empty homes back into use in a bid to ease the UK's housing shortage. And last month, Deputy Prime minister John Prescott put words into action when he unveiled plans to give councils new powers to take over unoccupied properties.

Under the proposals, which may become law later this year, councils could be allowed to seize control of private homes that have been left vacant for six months or more, and then to manage and rent them out.

This will take place through what are known as Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs). The operational details of these are under consultation, but councils will be able to take on the management of longer-term unoccupied houses and flats for up to seven years - provided every effort has been made to trace the owners.

"EDMOs are aimed at rundown properties that are blighting communities," says a spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM.) "If the owner is willing, the local authority will take it over, refurbish it and let it out." If the owner is not willing, he will have to provide a good reason. Otherwise, the local authority will proceed with the order.

Once a home has been let out under an EDMO, it will revert to the owner on an agreed date once arrangements to repay any reasonable costs incurred by the council are settled.

The consultation will look at for how long properties need to be vacant before an EDMO is issued, and which properties would be exempt - such as second homes, holiday homes and those undergoing renovation.

The consultation closes on 14 October, with the new powers expected to come into force by the end of the year.

With figures from campaigning charity the Empty Homes Agency (EHA) showing as many as 720,000 long-term vacant properties in England alone - 300,000 of which have been vacant for six months or more - the problem is acute.

"The situation makes no sense," says a spokesman for the Shelter charity. "We have 100,000 homeless families in temporary accommodation in London and 100,000 empty dwellings.."

As well as easing the housing shortage, bringing an empty property back into use could benefit the whole community, as derelict houses are an eyesore and tend to attract arsonists and fly tippers. They can also devalue neighbouring homes.

"It is excellent that the Government is finally taking action to deal with this blight on the housing landscape," says Melanie Bien, associate director at broker Savills Private Finance. "With a lack of suitable property for first-time buyers, it is scandalous so many perfectly habitable homes lie empty."

Some of these, she adds, are well-constructed older properties - including Georgian and Victorian houses - which have fallen into neglect. "Many of the owners are not prepared to invest the time or money to get them back up to scratch."

But the scheme also has its critics, who are calling for more flexibility. The Tories, for example, have raised concerns that EDMOs could lead to a situation where grieving relatives find the home of a deceased relative has been seized.

But the EHA says the orders will be a back-up to services already provided by councils. These include grants to persuade owners to bring empty homes back into use, and compulsory purchase orders. "The powers associated with EDMOs won't be used indiscriminately."