The reduction in the number of empty homes has been a quiet but important Conservative achievement. As of October 2015, the latest figures available, there were 203,596 homes in England which had been standing empty for longer than six months. Under Labour the figure was 316,251. The decision to pay local councils a New Homes Bonus for bringing an empty home back into use – just as for building a new one – has had a very beneficial impact.
Certainly more could be done. There are 27,421 empty council homes. There’s another 27,415 empty homes owned by housing associations. Another 3,421 categorised as “other public sector”. That is a disgrace – and there should be a trigger mechanism to force sales at auction after a specified period – say six months.
What of the private sector? Here it is a matter of providing a nudge. Where property becomes an eyesore due to falling derelict it is legitimate for enforcement action to be taken. But otherwise a property owner may leave his property empty – should he be foolish enough to do so.
In Parliament recently, Mark Prisk, a Conservative MP and himself a former Housing Minister, welcomed the progress made but asked:
“In our town centres there are thousands of empty rooms on upper floors that could easily be converted into homes, yet they do not appear in the now excellent statistics to which the Minister refers. Will he bring together the key stakeholders and agencies to look at what the real barriers are that have meant that Governments of all hues have failed to achieve that conversion?”
The rules on converting storage space into flats have already been eased. But it is disappointing that more shopkeepers haven’t taken advantage of this opportunity. Perhaps the Building Regulations could be streamlined or there could be some tax incentive. With the New Homes Bonus, councils have an interest in encouraging the process. Apart from easing the housing shortage it is also a way of revitalising our high streets.
Billions are spent on subsidies for “affordable” housing. Here is the potential for the private sector to increase the supply of (relatively) cheap market housing. It is potential that is not being fully met. Let’s ask shopkeepers what obstacles need to be removed to make it a reality.