Cllr Paul Mercer is a councillor in Loughborough.
Charnwood is a fairly typical English borough with a mixture of housing – dense terraced properties in the centre of town, housing estates and small villages – in its two parliamentary constituencies. The number of empty homes in the borough is relatively low in comparison with some areas in northern England, such as Burnley where whole streets are boarded-up. But there have been a residual of around 650 which had remained empty for six months or more.
If someone chooses to buy a property and keep it empty then they have an absolute right to do so even though one could question whether it makes financial sense, at least outside London. However, having looked at the problem in more detail, it was apparent, first, that a number of these properties were creating problems for the local area. Problems such as vandalism, rodents and general disrepair were all mentioned and each year the private sector housing team was receiving about 25 complaints. The second problem is that, in many cases, when we spoke to the owners, they admitted that they were unsure about how they could either sell or rent out their property and had simply left it empty because it was the easiest thing to do.
In 2015, we set up the scrutiny panel to examine the problem of empty homes and despite resistance from our officers, recommended that Charnwood introduces an empty homes premium – charging more council tax on properties that had been empty for more than six months. At the time, officers had a target of bringing just four long-term empty properties back into use each year and even then, they complained that this objective was “challenging”. We therefore decided to complement this new premium with the appointment of an empty homes officer who would be given the ambitious target of 50 homes each year.
Although the appointment of any new council employee costs money, this was a position which effectively paid for itself because these properties triggered the new homes bonus and therefore generated considerably more income although most of it is taken by the county council. At the same time, not only did it mean that more houses were entering the property market, but we were addressing the problems caused by empty properties and, in many cases, actually helping the owners deal with their problem.
The majority of these properties were relatively small two or three bedroomed houses but there was one, actually in my ward, which was very large and had remained empty for two decades. Although the owner had hoped to convert it into flats there had been a number of reasons why this proved difficult. Our new empty homes officer contacted the owner directly and persuaded him that it would be possible to bring it back into use by modernising it in four separate phases. The first stage has now been completed and there are six new flats occupied by tenants; the next three stages will see the addition of 17 flats bringing the total to 23.
Addressing the problem of empty homes has been an all-win success story with the owners, local residents and council taxpayers benefiting. It has shown that the Conservative’s policy of introducing the empty homes premium, when correctly applied, can have a beneficial effect, as well as generating some extra revenue. Charnwood’s pragmatic approach to this problem is one which other councils could benefit from.