BARCLAY STEVE 2Stephen Barclay is the Member of Parliament for North East Cambridgeshire and a member of the Public Accounts Committee. Follow Stephen on Twitter.

Historic buildings and period architecture form
the backbone of Britain’s thriving tourist industry. Quaint market towns and
grand cityscapes have defined our built environment and shared national
identity for centuries. Yet up and down the country, an estimated
730,000 homes and commercial buildings stand derelict and abandoned.

Neglected and dilapidated buildings blight the
overall impression of a town centre, and have a damaging knock-on effect on
local businesses and the value of neighbouring properties, as well as
attracting vandalism, vermin, fly posting and problems of anti-social

Walking around Wisbech in my North-East
Cambridgeshire Constituency, it is clear that derelict properties left to decay
without council intervention. and empty shop fronts where business rates have
priced out entrepreneurs, pose a real threat to the safety and the survival of
our town centres.

Bringing rundown buildings and commercial
properties back to life should be right at the heart of plans to regenerate our
towns and boost local economic development. Instead, residents and tourists are
confronted with buildings which have been neglected for decades.

Councils already have powers to enforce fines
via Magistrates’ Courts on the owners of derelict buildings. Authorities can
also contract builders to undertake repairs and then charge the owners for the

In short, any derelict building where the
landlord is known to have other assets should not stay derelict for long. The
council simply applies for a section 215 Notice which requires the owner to act
or face a fine for the work carried out in their absence with added penalties
of up to £1,000 a day.

So why are these eyesores still  dragging
down growth by hitting neighbouring property prices by as much as 10%? Some councils do make use of the powers
available to them, and successfully exploit the link between updating rundown
property and a wider programme for regeneration. Others fail to recognize this
untapped potential and leave their town centres stagnant.

Those councils who fail to act are often
concerned that building work will outweigh the final sale value.  They are
right to worry about getting value for taxpayers’ money. Yet the council is
able to recover its legal costs, and if it pursues a fine, the landlord faces a
penalty before any additional building needs to begin.  Alternatively,
where the landlord has other assets, these can be brought into play for funding
the repairs.

Owners will often use similar arguments,
claiming that there is no incentive to invest in upkeep and preferring to leave
their properties deteriorating for years. Yet a court order would leave them
with little choice in the matter.  The simple threat of prosecution is
usually sufficient to encourage them to act, especially when they have a wider
property portfolio to protect.

Small improvements to return these derelict
buildings to a habitable state will not only benefit the council’s tax coffers,
but the wider community too.  Businesses near to derelict buildings suffer
when surrounding buildings are left to go to waste as shoppers and tourists
inevitably drift elsewhere.

Many successful
projects have demonstrated the importance of renovation as great investment
opportunities instead of unsightly liabilities. Lancaster Council is a good
example.  The Heritage Lottery Fund recently launched a
scheme aimed at stimulating economic growth by unlocking the potential of
historical buildings and sites.

Period buildings at the heart of town centres
attract small and start-up businesses in the creative sectors, which generate
above average returns and contribute to some of the most productive sectors of
the economy. Of course a balance needs to be struck between
efficient use of council resources and a pressing need to overhaul our town
centres and encourage inward investment.  But the fact remains that
enforcement is made possible by the Magistrates Court and costs to councils can
be recovered.

Where a landlord does not have other assets and
councils risk a shortfall, they should be open with the public as to how much
this is likely to cost them as well as setting out the wider community benefit
of the investment. Public consultation like this will go a long way towards
engaging communities in regeneration decisions that directly affect them.

Councils need to take the lead on ensuring that
enforcement powers are fully exercised and take further action to make owners
aware of the financial burden of keeping properties vacant.

Grassroots campaigns like the petition I have
set up in my own constituency
are a first step towards raising awareness of the
economic and social impact of derelict buildings. Cleaning up town centres and renovating clapped
out properties is not just a cosmetic issue; if helping businesses to flourish
is the key to our economic recovery, then rebuilding long-term growth starts
closer to home than we think.

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