Black’s Blog: Filling up the empties
Scottish Empty Homes Partnership national project manager Shaheena Din appeared on the latest episode of the Scottish Housing News Podcast to outline the importance of having an Empty Homes Officer and empty homes strategy, podcast co-host Jimmy Black explains more.
It depends how you count them, but Scotland has thousands of empty homes. Just over 40,000 have been empty for six months or more; 25,854 of those vacant for over a year.
Let’s not panic. There are 2.6 million homes in Scotland so the empties are a small proportion. Then again, 27,571 households became homeless in Scotland between April 2020 and March 2021 and these people urgently need somewhere to live.
These figures don’t include second homes or 45,000 unoccupied “exempt” homes. More about them another time.
The Scottish Government funds the Empty Homes Partnership, Shelter Scotland hosts it and Shaheena Din is the national project manager. In the latest episode of the Scottish Housing News Podcast, Shaheena explains how appointing an Empty Homes Officer and having an empty homes strategy can get many of these empty houses back into use.
They could be old croft houses, or flats above shops, or old polis stations which often included a police house. They might be forgotten flats, part of some long lost landlord’s property portfolio. Couples might be fighting over them while they decide who gets the dog, the house and the kitchen knives.
Or they could be brick built nightmares, subject to crippling double council tax which takes away an impoverished owner’s ability to pay for repairs. When that happens it’s an unintended consequence of a well meant disincentive. Councils have the power to charge owners double if they fail to fill their properties within a year and have the ability to grant discretion.
Empty Homes Officers can tell people about grants and loans, although sometimes they are surrounded by conditions which make them difficult to claim. They can bring Building Standards and Environmental Health officers together with Housing to pool their powers and take enforcement action against empty homes.
Sometimes they provide emotional support to property owners struggling to co-ordinate architects, plasterers, bankers, planners and everyone else involved in property restoration. It’s not in their job description, but you can see why they have to be patient and kind.
In 2019 Parliament’s Local Government and Communities Committee produced “Empty Homes in Scotland”, which noted the difficulties of using Compulsory Purchase Orders to bring empty homes into use. It’s a specialist legal function and Glasgow City Council has recognised this by employing a solicitor to specialise in CPOs.
CPOs, of course, cost money and bring risk to local authorities. CSOs … ie Compulsory Sales Orders, would mean empties could be put up for auction whether the owner liked it or not, and there would be no financial risk to the council. There are some important human rights considerations which might get in the way, but this must be worth exploring.
In the podcast Shaheena describes her work logically and clearly; have a listen, then get on and fill up those empties. We’ll look at the 45,000 “exempt” unoccupied homes another time.
All episodes of the Scottish Housing News Podcast are available here.