Under-occupied

Like you, I’m very familiar with the frustrated outburst “Well, somebody ought to do something about it.”

I hear it all the time about fly-tipping, phoning whilst driving, speeding in 20 mph zones, unkempt front gardens, dropping litter, misuse of blue badges…and, most of the time, I share those frustrations.

In nearly every one of those cases, there are laws – criminal and civil – which govern what is unacceptable or criminal. However, what they all share is the problem of collecting the evidence necessary to persuade the courts that individuals are guilty or that the authorities should take action.

As a councillor or MP, it is even more frustrating when you have to explain to justifiably annoyed residents that everyone wants to act, but that the law doesn’t allow it. And, it’s head-bangingly annoying when there used to be the power to act, but that those powers have been taken away.

And, so it is that I come to write about empty homes.

Nearly every elected representative will have received a delegation from local residents – usually led by the people who live in the neighbouring properties – demanding action about the house which remains empty, falls into disrepair, enjoys gardens resembling refuse-strewn jungles, and which attracts thieves wanting to remove anything of value. However, as you listen, you know that the powers to act have been seriously constrained and, even if there were some powers that could be used, you know that the process is likely to be long and expensive. You know that you could spend that money in so many better ways.

So, based on personal experience of tackling these issues, I was delighted to support the provisions in the 2004 Housing Act to enable councils to take over the management of certain residential premises that had been empty for at least six months by applying for an Empty Dwelling Management Order (EDMO). This power came into effect in July 2006.

At the time, I was surprised by the opposition from some Conservative MPs to these new provisions. I had under-estimated their visceral opposition to any initiative which interfered with the total and absolute right of the landowner to do what s/he likes with their property. Their characterisation of the new law as ‘giving untrammelled powers to separate landowners from their property’ was a travesty of the truth and  completely misleading.

Typically, some of the tabloid media weighed in with stories that councils would be seizing properties for seven years and that owners had no right of appeal against this expropriation. Of course, it wasn’t true. Government departments persistently had to refute these fake facts.

In reality, what the new law, and its guidance, did was to provide councils with the last resort powers of EDMOs to enable them to persuade owners to engage in serious discussion about the best way of bringing the home back into use. Over the next 4 years, councils used the threat of using the new powers as the vehicle for bringing hundreds of homes back in to use, new occupiers got a home and their neighbours were delighted that the nuisance had come to an end. Everybody, apart from a few disgruntled landlords, were happy with the outcomes.

However, entirely on ideological grounds, the new Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Eric Pickles, announced in January 2011 that he intended to change the regulations in order to “protect civil liberties.”

Thus it was that the new Conservative/Liberal Democrat government introduced new regulations providing that EDMOs can only be sought where a property has been empty for two years (as opposed to six months), and requiring an authority to give the owner at least three months’ notice of the intention to apply for an order.

Of course, the result of their joint action with the Conservatives has been that, without the EDMO last resort powers, the number of empty homes – causing nuisance to neighbours and leaving another family unnecessarily homeless – has risen again. The latest official statistics report that there has been another near 5% increase since last year in the number of homes in England that have been empty for more than 6 months. That’s nearly 220,000 homes. It’s unnecessary and unacceptable.

Is it any wonder that I come over all apoplectic whenever I hear a Liberal Democrat representative or candidate complaining about an empty property? Do these people have no shame?

Let me assure you that I will continue to argue for a return to the powers in the 2004 Housing Act. It will be good for communities and good for those seeking a home.

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