Persistence pays. And so it is that the government revealed this week the progress made in tackling empty homes. Eric Pickles announced on Wednesday that the number of empty homes in England is now at a 10 year low. Significant progress appears to have been made on long-term empties, which are down by around a third since 2009. This is quite remarkable given the period this data covers, i.e. post-recession austerity.
Certain factors seem to be relevant in terms of this improvement. Firstly, government’s own package of incentives has been important, from dedicated funding for social landlords and community organisations, to enhanced new homes bonuses. Added to this, the recurrent discourse from Ministers about the importance of empty housing has been an important factor. This has given local practitioners and property owners (across the public, private and voluntary sectors) the confidence to take this issue on. It has been interesting to watch local initiatives spring up, such as this one in Leeds and this knowledge transfer partnership in Manchester. It is hard to see how these initiatives would’ve developed without a wider discourse about the importance of this issue.
However, beyond the good news story there lurks important questions about where these improvements have taken place and why. With this in mind, I want to share three lessons that have emerge from deeper scrutiny of the data;
1. Northern urban areas are doing well in terms of net reductions
Of the ten local authorities with the biggest reduction in empty homes since 2010, six are in the north of England*. This includes the big cities of Manchester, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield. The picture for long term empties (those empty for more than six months) is very similar. Of course, some of these cities had the biggest numbers of empty properties to start with, but that does not negate the fact that progress has been made.
2. Despite net reductions, the pace of change in northern areas is slow in comparison
Given the above, it comes as a surprise that those authorities making the biggest change in percentage terms are not in the north. Of the ten local authorities seeing the biggest percentage drop in empty homes, only two are north of Peterborough (Manchester and Salford). In fact, five are London Boroughs. What this means is that the pace of change is not as quick in northern cities as it is in the South East.
3. The tenure of empty housing is an important factor
Thinking about the areas where the biggest progress has been made, it would be easy to make certain assumptions, i.e. in the north progress is being fuelled by repair and re-letting of social housing, and in the south by private properties coming back into use. Surprisingly, in Manchester, social housing accounts for only 12% of the reduction in empty homes, and in Salford there has been a net increase in empty social housing. This means that even in northern cities this change is fuelled largely by the reuse of private properties. In London however, social housing has played a more prominent role. In Lambeth 46% of the reduction in empty housing has come from the repair and re-letting of social housing.
All of this leads me to think that, in the aftermath of the recession, a huge opportunity was missed. Local authorities, social landlords and community organisations had the chance to vastly increase our stock of social/affordable housing, by acquiring privately owned empty housing. Private investors have been able to make these properties financially viable and are now reaping the rewards. Local authorities and other providers should have been acquiring some these when their value was at its lowest. What a return on investment we would now be seeing, not just financially but socially. This was perhaps a golden opportunity to address the chronic shortage of affordable housing in this country. It has, sadly, been missed.
* By north of England I mean in the regions of Yorkshire and the Humber, the North East and the North West