Overview: The empty homes bill is a wake-up call for owners

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Who hasn't walked past a neglected and clearly empty house and felt irritation at the waste?

Who hasn't walked past a neglected and clearly empty house and felt irritation at the waste? It's baffling as to why anyone should leave a property to deteriorate when it could either be sold or bring in a rental income, quite apart from the fact that it could be providing someone with a home. While the problem is not new, attitudes towards the issue of empty homes have hardened.

Last week an amendment to the Housing Bill on the compulsory leasing of empty properties received notable cross-party support for a policy which, in effect, will mean that owners cannot choose to do nothing with a building, ad infinitum.

If that sends shivers down the spines of all those people with second homes, or with properties in temporary limbo for, say, legal or planning reasons, then they should take comfort from Jonathan Ellis, chief executive of the Empty Homes Agency, an independent national charity.

"This is quite separate from second homes, which are used occasionally, and would not affect those people who have plans for their properties," he says. "But where properties have been empty for at least six months and are falling into wrack and ruin, authorities need enforcement powers. We have 70,000 private homes in London and the South-east that have been empty for more than six months."

In England as a whole the figure is 700,000, of which 80 per cent are privately owned. At present the agency, which works with local authorities to bring empty homes into use, has been using more carrot than stick. Owners who cannot afford to spend money on improvements may be offered a grant on the condition that the council or housing association can let it out for a period of time. When the lease ends, the property, in a greatly improved state, will be handed back to the owner.

But this is purely voluntary and is not going to sway the person with either the financial means to pay for any work or where a property is not in need of renovation. If it is not lack of money or lack of knowledge that is holding someone back, it is fair to assume they are sitting on it as an investment. In Hammersmith and Fulham, where 675 properties were brought back into use through the Empty Homes Agency over six years, owners of a further 1,000 properties turned down all offers of assistance. However, the possibility of a compulsory order has concentrated a few minds.

Ellis explains: "Two years ago, it was Mrs Jones down the road who would contact us about a property that was empty and in a run-down state. Now 80 per cent of our callers are the owners themselves. Debate on the issue has been something of a wake-up call."

The days when there was a sharp divide between those providing homes to people in the greatest need on one side, and developers and estate agents on the other, have pretty much gone. Assettrust Housing is one company proposing an imaginative scheme for building affordable homes. It believes that social housing can be provided by private money right through to buy-to-let investors who see potential in some of the most deprived areas in the north of the country.

Louis Armstrong, chief executive of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, which had campaigned along with Shelter for an initiative to be included in the bill, says "empty homes are not only a wasted asset at a time of acute housing shortages in many parts of the country, but also blight communities and increase pressures for the development of greenfield sites".

Even the rubbish-strewn, down-at-heel houses that are often magnets for crime can be turned into marketable commodities. Another new initiative on the drawing board which is due to be launched in the next few months will see local authorities running websites listing their empty properties. Once these all end up under one umbrella, there is not likely to be a shortage of purchasers. It might not even be long before supply became the issue.