Councils urged to invest in empty homes or miss out on benefits

A previously empty home in North Lanarkshire
A previously empty home in North Lanarkshire

Too many Scottish councils are missing out on gains available from bringing long-term empty homes back into use by failing to invest in the appropriate resources, according to the body leading the work in Scotland.

The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SEHP) said that while more vacant properties than ever before are becoming homes again, the vast majority (97%) of those are in local authority areas with a dedicated Empty Homes Officer (EHO).

Latest figures from the organisation’s annual report 2016/2017 show 859 long-term privately-owned empty properties were brought back into use and of these only 28 were in areas that do not have a dedicated EHO. A further four were supported back into use by the Scottish Empty Homes Advice Service. Out of Scotland’s 32 local authorities, 19 have an EHO spending at least 10% of their time on this specialist area of work.

The SEHP said the figures show that investing in expertise and dedicated resource makes a huge difference to results.

Meanwhile a new poll has found that only 20% of people in Scotland think that councils are doing enough to reduce the number of long-term empty homes in their area. The research was carried out by YouGov on behalf of the SEHP, which said the results back its findings that residents are frustrated by the lack of action to tackle the waste and eyesore of empty homes.

Adam Lang, head of communications and policy at Shelter Scotland, which hosts the SEHP on behalf of the Scottish Government, said: “These figures show that putting resources into tackling long-term privately-owned empty homes is an effective way of increasing available housing.

“It’s fantastic to see more than 800 homes brought back into use in one year. That’s 800 more homes that are badly needed in a country struggling to build enough to meet demand.

“The councils that are not investing in this area of work are missing out on the money new residents bring into the local economy, they’re missing out on council tax revenue and they’re missing out on an opportunity to act on neighbourhood priorities where empty properties are attracting anti-social behaviour.”

Housing Minister Kevin Stewart MSP said: “To date, we have invested £928,450 in the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, and I am delighted to see the great results that is achieving. Making sure everyone has access to affordable homes is a priority for the Scottish Government – that’s not just about building new homes, but making better use of existing stock. Bringing empty homes back into use is a cost-effective way of increasing the housing supply and also helps with community regeneration.

“The work of the dedicated Empty Homes Officers has proven invaluable in everything SHEP has achieved. Clearly there is still some way to go to ensure every area benefits, and local authorities across the country should be capitalising on the opportunities they provide. That partnership working can help realise our ambitions of an empty homes service in every area and bringing back as many of our long-term empty homes as we can.”

Responding to the results of the YouGov survey, Adam Lang added: “These results send a clear message to councils that people are not happy with the action currently being taken on empty homes.

“There is a great deal of support among the public for councils to view this issue as a priority.”

Among the actions recommended by the SEHP in its latest annual report is that councils invest in more dedicated Empty Homes Officers who can devote time and energy to tracing owners and working with them to overcome the barriers that prevent their property being sold or let.

The report also suggests giving more flexible funding to the conversion of vacant commercial space to housing, particularly in town centres which have suffered long-term decline with the move towards out of town and online shopping.

People can report empty properties to the Empty Home Advice Service on 0344 515 1941 which can also provide advice to owners on how to get help to bring a home back into use.

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