Report back from the Empty Homes Conference

[I wrote this for the members of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership - it was originally published in the Partnership's online area within Knowledge Hub ]

Hi all,

I attended the Empty Homes Network Conference in Birmingham last week. I was a bit lonely as I was the only one from Scotland there! But a big thanks to Lynne Leach from South Lakeland for keeping me company all day, and in the long wait for our train at Birmingham New Street.

Here are a few of my notes from the day;

Building a Professional Industry – Introducing the Property Guardian Provider’s Association 

We've been asking about property guardians in our own network recently, so this was interesting to see. The speakers (Ad Hoc’s Simon Finneran and Graham Sievers from PGPA) managed not to make it an extended advert, but were very honest about the industry’s failings. This group should, in theory have a degree of checks and balances, with a board which is made up of 50% non-property guardians, and they will always have the deciding vote in a tie. 

They got some pretty fierce questioning from the audience, including an awful lot about the Bristol case, which they answered as honestly as they could. That case (where a tenant managed to get a ruling to say they were a proper tenant not a licensee) has effectively rendered Camelot obsolete, they are now Camelot Europe as the Britain division has been disbanded. However, they are one of the founding members of PGPA so we’ll see if the association can genuinely provide a steer for the industry which makes it more palatable in future. 

Empty Homes: community-based initiatives – Brighid Carey, Action on Empty Homes 

Action on Empty Homes are the new name for Empty Homes, which was the new name for the Empty Homes Agency. Hope you're keeping up! They are the campaigning charity on empty homes in England and Wales, whilst Empty Homes Network are the practitioners network.   

I was hoping that Brighid would go more into the details of the six projects themselves, but this was more about the overall learning from the projects than the individual projects per se. The six projects were; 

  • Cultures CIC working in Stockton on Tees 
  • East Midlands CLH working in the Sincil Bank area of Lincoln 
  • Giroscope Ltd working in Kingston upon Hull 
  • Groundwork (Bolton, Bury, Rochdale and Oldham) working in Rochdale 
  • Methodist Action North West working in Darwen, Lancashire 
  • North Ormesby CLT working in Middlesbrough 

All of these are in the ‘north’, so an area where there are proportionally far more empty homes, compared to the rest of England. This is similar to Scotland too, where the further you move from the main area of economic activity the higher the proportion of LTEs gets (with a few exceptions). If you’ve read Brighid’s report (released in January this year), you’ll already know a lot of the information contained in the presentation. For the sake of anyone who hasn’t read the report, and doesn’t intend to, key points were; 

  • Highest proportion of empties in the north 
  • Strong link between areas with a level of deprivation and clusters of LTEs 
  • Often seen as a poor return on investment relative to new builds, hence some towns which are virtually empty near the town centre are booming on the outskirts 

They also came up with an equation, which proved to be very controversial with the audience; 

  • Unrenovated property = Low cost risk to owner, high cost to community and public services
  • Renovated property = Renovation cost (risk) to owner, reduced cost to community and public services. 

In fairness, I think this was supposed to represent owners' perceptions, not hard facts (we know that an unrenovated property is most certainly not a low risk) but Brighid never seemed to clarify this and took a lot of flak in the Q&A. 

Their conclusions were nice and simple though. The outcomes for the communities involved in the project were; 

  • Rebuilding their social and economic infrastructure 
  • Directly addressing the challenges they face 
  • Defining for themselves the resources needed to support their long-term sustainability 

A commercial edge: A new vehicle to tackle housing standards and empty property – David Galvin, Blackpool Housing 

The background to this is that behind the touristy façade, Blackpool has quite high levels of deprivation. There are 4,500 empty homes on the Fylde Coast, around half of which are in Blackpool itself. There is a legacy of poorly managed HMOs in the city, and a high turnover of tenants as people frequently seek out Blackpool as somewhere to go to change their lives and make their fortune, then leave. 50% of property is in the PRS, and 80% is in receipt of HB/LHA. House prices dropped 17.3% between 2007 and 2017, but wages have dropped even more so in effect the housing market has become both less valuable and also even less affordable at the same time.  

In 2015 Blackpool Council set up Blackpool Housing Company to address these problems. They became operational on 1st April 2016. Their plan was; 

  • Year 1 – Proof of concept and establishment of business model 
  • Year 2 – Gaining traction and momentum 
  • Year 3 – Consolidation & increase delivery rates 

They are a private company but not profit-motivated. They still effectively operate as part of the council but they need to make enough money to keep themselves sustainable. I didn’t manage to get the full list of funding partners but there were some eye-watering inclusions; £24 from the Lancashire fund, so basically almost the worth of our entire Rural Housing Fund for one city. Homes England also put in a few million too. 

Their remit is to purchase redundant, poor quality buildings (not necessarily empty), and let them out through their property management scheme, My Blackpool Home. They also provide commercial services to other landlords (i.e. RSLs) and provide services such as tenancy sustainment services. They project manage large construction projects for the council, and provide new project option appraisals. 

They hope to dramatically improve the standard of the PRS in Blackpool, and essentially do all the things that the PRS doesn’t. In their first year, they provided 74 units to let, then 187 and this year are on course for 360; not too shabby. 

In the Q&A, there were a few questions about how affordable their properties are. Sadly there wasn’t a clear answer but the impression I got is that they are at market rate, but in mitigation it seems that market rate in Blackpool isn’t much above LHA, and also that there is huge demand for properties in this price range. I guess this has relevance for us in terms of the debate about affordability in empty homes loan funds; is it better to only provide very strictly limited affordable homes, or is it better to lessen the restrictions and increase the number of units you bring back into use? 

GDPR: through the jungle – Fiona Anthony, nplaw 

The good news is that there wasn’t anything surprising here; it felt we already know most of the main issues in respect of empty homes and GDPR. Key lessons were to chat to the ICO if you have a question (which we know, and have done), and to encourage officers to speak to their own Data Protection Officer (which we already do). 

One bit I would say really grabbed my attention (although it was all interesting) was the section on council tax data. According to Fiona, Council Tax data can only be used by the billing authority, and can only be used for the purposes it was collected for in the first instance, and can be processed if the processing is in the public interest; legal basis doesn’t have to be statutory. This actually stopped the session cold as folk started asking questions, and this effectively took over as Fiona was unable to continue her presentation due to the debate which followed, but she did do very well at fielding the questions which came thick and fast. 

It seems that English EH practitioners have the exact same issues with council tax that Scottish ones do, which was both heartening and frustrating in equal measure. One of the issues that came up was contacting owners at work or contacting their friends and family if these can be identified using council data (possibly from other internal colleagues). Fiona was not very impressed with either idea, citing the fact that in both cases you’d be using data (i.e. contact details) for purposes it wasn’t collected for. Her precise reasoning was that if making contact was likely to cause a surprise, particularly an unpleasant one, this could have severe ramifications as the chance of a complaint would be very high. Her feeling was that it’s better to use the limited details you have lawfully accessed, pursue them to the greatest extent you can, and then if no response, go to enforcement, than potentially breaking the law by contacting them in other ways. Frustrating but ultimately I do see her point.

Action on Empty Homes campaign for community investment - Chris Bailey, AoEH 

Action for Empty Homes were very prominent on the agenda, Chris was the third of three speakers and Will McMahon, (Helen Williams’ replacement as Director) was giving another session at the exact same time as this. This was really just an introduction to the campaign which is being launched and not information about community investment, which I and a few other attendees were expecting.  

Chris talked about their role in evidencing the problem, which shows that there are 205,000 long term empty homes in England, with a high concentration in the north (as Brighid had already emphasised earlier). The Government blames ‘low demand areas’… but in these areas waiting lists are still at record levels. Chris made the very good point that it isn’t a lack of demand in these areas which is the problem, it’s the lack of demand for shiny new houses that the government wants to see more of. 

The main ask for AoEH is for a national programme of investment to support neighbourhoods blighted by high levels of empty homes. They are looking at pilots and will work up templates for finance to be used by local authorities to support community initiatives. 

Building an Empty Property Service – Francis Burton, Croydon Council 

This was a reasonably useful presentation by Francis from Croydon, who is something of a stalwart at these conferences. He told lots of interesting stories about some of the more peculiar cases he’s come across, which were entertaining but not ultimately very useful in terms of sharing best practice. 

What I did find really interesting was Francis’s insistence on advice and information as being the key to solving cases, and not enforcement; in fact he uses enforcement very rarely. Whilst that’s the norm up here, in England the perception we’ve had for a while has been one of an enforcement-heavy (and at times, obsessed) network that doesn’t always give owners to sort of support they get up here. In Francis’s case that definitely wouldn’t be true. There were also a lot of emphasis on cross-department communication, which again is a message we would of course echo.

Some of you may also have liked Francis's comparison of an Empty Homes Officer as a cross between Indiana Jones (adventurer to far off places), Hercule Poirot (relentless investigator), The Enforcer (umm, enforcer) and Marty McFly (time traveller). High praise indeed.

Behind the Scenes, Liverpool’s ‘£1 house’ scheme – Tony Mousdale, Liverpool City Council 

Tony was on the C4 TV programme of the same name and it’s easy to see why; he was an effortless speaker and held the audience’s well for the whole session, not an easy thing to do at the back end of the day. Tony started by giving us the background to the scheme, which included mention of the dreadful Pathfinder Scheme, which was intended to regenerate large areas of England by CPO’ing properties in a large area and then demolishing them. The area would then be built on by developers with much nicer (and no doubt more expensive) housing. Unfortunately the scheme coincided with The Crash, and the result was millions being spent on emptying housing estates which were never demolished and left to just sit empty. As always, this mostly affected the north of England. 

Liverpool’s situation is that 2.2% of stock in the city is empty. That’s worse than all bar 4 local authorities up here, and worse than any of the four Scottish City Councils. The council were left with whole areas, mostly in the Granby and Welsh Street areas, which were like ghost towns. So they came up with an idea to sell off the properties cheap and then give the owners grants of up to £30k to spend to renovate the properties. There were caveats; the owners had to live or work locally, this had to be their first bought property, and they were tied in to agreements meaning they couldn’t sell the property at a profit for a number of years. They also couldn’t buy more than one property. 

For the first 20 properties the council advertised for sale, there were hundreds of applicants. So the council have moved and sold dozens more, unfortunately there wasn’t a total given but I believe they’ve now reached around the hundred mark. Most of the rest of the presentation was given over to the TV programme, and the pitfalls of working with TV crews who’s main intention is to generate something with a bit of controversy; Tony mentioned that everything, from the way they edited interviews and shots of the street, down to the choice of families that the TV company decided to work with, was designed to portray this as a brave struggle by decent working class folk against the inevitable decline of their area. Tony showed us some stills from the TV programme and contrasted them with his own photos of the same street, and it was clear that the TV programme was trying to make it look as if the occupied houses were surrounded by other empties, when in fact most are now in fully occupied areas. 

Sadly we ran out of time before Tony could go on to talk about the successes of the program, but he did mention a couple of success stories throughout the presentation and it seems that only one of the buyers has had to give back the property after deciding it was too much to take on, which was subsequently sold to someone else. 

 

Comments

Great and detailed analysis of the conference, thanks very much Gavin. And it was really enjoyable to have your company during the day and waiting for our northbound train.

Lynne Leach, South Lakeland  District Council

Lynne Leach

Always great to come down to Birmingham and see everybody; we call it our annual empty homes pilgrimage! What struck me the most was that there are so many similarities between England and Scotland, both in terms of the day-to-day work but also the wider picture, i.e. relatively low concentrations of empty homes in the south east of the country, getting higher the further north and away from the capital you go. Due to legislative differences etc, we often tend to see each other as somewhat separate and distinct, but every year I'm reminded just how similar the challenges are that Empty Homes Officer face the length and breadth of Britain.

Which of course, leads me on to remind everyone that the Scottish Empty Homes Conference is on the 26th November in the historic city of Stirling, and we'd love to see you all there. :)

Gavin

Thanks Gavin

Just in case someone missed "The Enforcer (umm, enforcer)".

It was Harold Francis Callahan - The Enforcer from the 1971 file 'Dirty Harry'