Empty Homes Innovation Award 2018

Sponsorship of this year’s Innovation Award was provided by E.ON Empty Home Solutions, along with the sponsorship of the Awards Ceremony. Perhaps it’s a shame that this barred them from nominating themselves for the Award because, as innovation goes, a giant energy company involving itself in the gritty work of bringing empty homes back into use is certainly up there with the most original initiatives we’ve seen.

The outcomes of the partnerships being forged between the E.ON empty homes team and local authorities will be awaited with great interest. But we can already say for certain that never previously have practitioners enjoyed the support of an enterprise on the scale of E.ON; and for that reason alone we can with reasonable justification look forward to new possibilities emerging from the initiative. 

And if ‘giant enterprise’ and ‘case-based empty homes work’ seem at first glance to  suggest a mismatch, a personal observation is that the E.ON team of Andrew Angus, Josh Williams and Charlotte Flowerdew all seem to have come into the work with their eyes open and with the drive, enthusiasm and attention to detail which are mandatory for successful empty homes work: they seem to be cast in the same mould as empty homes practitioners in local authorities and other organisations around the country. In a job that is really all about the people, that gives good ground for optimism. 

Whether our members are suffering from excessive modesty or overwork we are not sure, but there was a shortage of submissions for this year’s Award. Fortunately, this did not require the Judging Panel to lower its standards when presented with the innovations developed by Francis Burton, Empty Property Officer at the London Borough of Croydon in his winning entry (reproduced at the end of this report).

Pictured: Francis (to right of picture) s presented with his award by Andrew Angus, Housing Delivery Manager for E.ON.

Andrew Angus with Francis Burton

New pathways in information analysis

Francis joined Croydon Council from the private sector where he had worked for many years as a Personal Financial Adviser. His ‘private sector’ experience allowed him to identify one or two long term council problems that could be solved by a change in procedure. One such problem was the accuracy of Council Tax data regarding empty properties.

Appointed in 2010 one of Francis’ first tasks was to complete and borough-wide audit of empty properties, as requested by the Mayor of London. The starting point for the audit was the Council Tax database report on empties.

The first list Francis received showed that there were 183 properties receiving a Class F exemption for Council tax. As a Class F exemption is only applied to properties where the owner has died and Probate has not been obtained, it concerned Francis that so many were still receiving this exemption. In fact some had been receiving this exemption for many, many years with no sign of a resolution.

Francis suspected that the information held by Council Tax was outdated and chose to review these properties as a priority. As Croydon is a London Borough a visit to the Principal Probate Office in London was easy to arrange. Francis knew that personal visitors to the Probate Office could interrogate the Probate database free of charge and only pay a fee when a specific document was required to be printed. Two half-day visits to the Probate Office allowed Francis to confirm that, out of the 183 properties checked, 145 executors had received their Grant of Probate more than six months earlier.

Francis then had to inform the Council Tax manager that over £200,000 in council tax could be collected from these properties. These properties had presumably been overlooked because colleagues had not chased the responsible parties for years.

To ensure that the council did not miss future council tax payments Francis was then asked to provide training for the revenues and benefits visiting officers so that they could visit the Probate Office regularly and audit the Class F cases. This task is now carried out by the visiting officers as necessary.

Francis initially received a spreadsheet of council tax data every three months, and this purely for statistical purposes. Francis recognised that the spreadsheet reports, in raw format, were cumbersome and difficult to interpret.

To enable him to concentrate on his Empty Property Officer role Francis devised and wrote an Excel macro that interrogates – in seconds – the list of properties declared as empty. The Council tax report contains approximately 3,600 addresses of properties that have been declared empty and are not yet re-occupied. The macro firstly removes any property that has been empty for less than six months so that all that remain are long-term empties. The macro then sorts the data into individual council tax codes report and finally provides a tailor-made report of all long term empties across the borough.  

One such report is below:

PCLA, PCLB, PCLC unoccupied

1207

2 years empty and Premium 50%

127

In Care or In Hospital

128

Property in Probate

234

Giving or Receiving Care Elsewhere

15

Occupation Prohibited by Law

15

Mortgagee in Possession

9

In Prison

13

Unoccupied Annexe to Main Residence

5

2nd Home

6

Trustee in Bankruptcy

0

Unoccupied and Owned by a Charity

5

Total

1764

To ensure that only current information is used Francis now receives the Council Tax information every two weeks rather than every three months. He can thus be sure his team’s efforts are directed at tackling the properties that are most likely to be able to be returned to use.

Finally, as the information provided by the report is valuable to other departments within the council, Francis has become the sole source of statistical data release by the Information Team when replying to FOIA requests as well as liaising with Council Tax department to monitor trends in empty properties.

WITH THANKS TO AWARD SPONSORS
E.ON EMPTY HOME SOLUTIONS

 

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