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Regular readers will know of my concern with empty municipal garages. There are around 100,000 of them – many of which could be replaced with new homes. But while that is significant, it is merely an example of the potential if a serious effort was made to tackle “state land banking” – the vast amount of unused property being hoarded by the public sector. The Ministry of Defence owns over half a million acres.

The Times recently reported:

“Councils in Britain own commercial or retail buildings that have been empty for more than a year and could be converted into 19,500 homes. They also own 24,000 empty homes that could help ease the housing crisis, according to a report by Habitat for Humanity, a housing charity, and M&G investments…

“Derby was found to have the most vacant council-owned commercial properties, with 51 unused retail units and 73 empty office buildings. Other areas with a high number of empty council-owned commercial properties included Edinburgh, with 114, and Leeds with 101.

“The researchers found that Derby had 473 homeless or vulnerable people in urgent need of housing.

“The councils with the most disused council houses were Southwark in south London, which had 1,021, and Birmingham with 798. In Birmingham there are 2,340 homeless and priority needs people who could be housed in the 5,448 empty privately owned homes and 798 unused council houses.”

The research paper does also considers the private sector – for instance, whether the owners of privately owned empty shops face planning obstacles to obtaining a change of use to turn them into homes. But it does seem extraordinary that so many local authorities simultaneously struggle to cope with providing accommodation for the homeless, while themselves sitting on unused municipal property empires.

Council leaders are quick to blame “austerity” for their difficulties and demand extra funding from the Government. Yet selling these unused assets would raise funds for them – to allow them to reduce debt and thus the burden of their interest payments. They would be able to negotiate with developers a proportion of “social housing” among the new homes being built. But when we talk about “affordable” housing it is important to remember that increasing the supply of private housing is also of relevance.

This is not just in helping more onto the home ownership “ladder” but also in expanding the choice of private rented accommodation to reduce rents. That is also relevant to reducing homelessness. At present local authorities are placing around 100,000 households in temporary accommodation (typically low quality and unsuitable – including bed and breakfast hotels) at a cost of over a billion a year. Why is there such inertia about taking this opportunity to ease this pressure?

It comes as no surprise that the worst offenders are Labour councils. So far as council homes that have been empty for more than 12 months are concerned, those with the highest number are as follows:

  • Southwark 1,021
  • Birmingham 798
  • Camden 748
  • Sheffield 727
  • Gateshead 719
  • Ealing 611
  • Newcastle Upon Tyne 589
  • Newham 535
  • Dudley 528
  • Greenwich 520

The Conservatives gained Dudley from No Overall Control last month. Labour also lost overall control in Sheffield. Otherwise, those are all Labour councils. This is not to suggest that Conservative councils should escape criticism. The full list is here.

Then we have the league table for “the total number of business and/or commercial premises owned by your local authority, that have been empty or vacant for 12 months or more, and of that number, how many have their primary function as retail space, office space, leisure space or other.” The term “other” might include workshops, warehouses or community centres.

  • Derby 173
  • Leeds 101
  • Cheshire West 75
  • Gateshead 55
  • Greenwich 47
  • Sefton 45
  • Rotherham 43
  • Brent 42

Derby is no overall control – though it does have a Conservative leader who I hope might reflect on whether the asset management could be more rigorous. The other councils at the top of the league table are Labour. The full list is here.

According to the latest figures there are 10,510 “households” placed in bed and breakfast hotels. Southwark Council has 218 of them. Tower Hamlets has 432. Ealing 339. Newham 295. Croydon 255. Mostly these will be single people but sometimes families will be placed. With hotel prices in London at around £150 a night per room, putting up a family can cost thousands of pounds a week. The families are miserable and the Council Taxpayer picks up a huge bill. Councils could convert some of their surplus buildings into housing and sell to private landlords on condition that some is made avalaible to be let to the Council as temporary accommodation for an agreed number of years. Why do these councils instead place families in hotels as if there was no alternative?

Certain caveats apply. The report estimates 19,500 new homes could be made available, but that is an extrapolation as not all the councils responded to the Freedom of Information requests. Invariably when bureaucrats are challenged over a specific building they will offer detailed excuses – which may have some validity. For instance, there might be an awful tower block that has been vacated due to structural faults. It might have a hundred flats. But once demolished there could be a larger number of replacement homes on the site – lower rise but higher density. That would be welcome. Though why such tower blocks can stand empty for years – or even decades – before the work is undertaken is rather more questionable.

Congratulations to Habitat for Humanity for gathering his important evidence. I would like to say that it should shame councils into releasing these surplus properties to allow an increase in the housing supply which is desperately needed. I fear that will not happen. What is needed is a legal mechanism that would force the sales to go through. There could be a specified deadline, certain exceptions could apply. An appeal mechanism to the Secretary of State could be allowed. But we really need the auctioneer’s hammer to start coming down. We can not allow this terrible waste of resources to continue. It is not fair on the taxpayer – or on those trapped in overcrowded, overpriced housing.