London's empty houses
Given the capital's housing shortage, it's little short of a scandal that there are nearly 75,000 empty private houses across London – many of which are left to fall into ruin. Now councils are taking action, as Kurt Barling reports.
The Satwick family home in Edmonton, in the London Borough of Enfield, was a typical three bedroom end of terrace property. It began to deteriorate shortly after the elderly owner fell ill and was moved into long-term care.
Initially the owner believed he would come home and wanted the house left alone. Unfortunately squatters moved in and ended up ransacking the property. After several years it became a haven for heroin users who left their needles everywhere.
When they were cold in winter they would light fires in the property and eventually after a particularly serious fire the property was boarded up.
This didn’t stop it being broken into again and again. Exasperated neighbours could do little to halt the deterioration of the property and in turn their road began to suffer the blight that is commonly caused by these empty homes.
Dave Carter from Enfield Council
Enfield Council’s Dave Carter is the equivalent of an empty homes sleuth. It’s his job to track down the landlords of empty properties and to persuade them to bring them back into public use.
He, like equivalent council officers in the majority of London boroughs, has a range of inducements including substantial grants of up to £25,000 to help landlords restore private properties to good order.
Increasingly, local authorities try and negotiate a lease with the landlord so they can re-house families in temporary accommodation. This is what has happened in the case of the Satwick family. Chris Satwick is restoring his grandfather’s house with the help of a grant and will lease it back to the council once it’s finished.
The backlog of homes falling into serious disrepair has become so bad that Enfield Council has decided to apply to have some properties compulsorily purchased.
The blight caused to neighbours' properties is a trigger for all sorts of maladies. Some people suffer stress and serious illness. One elderly couple I spoke with want to move from their pleasant mid-terraced family home to something smaller, but can’t, because no-one wants to pay a market price for their home.
The fire damaged property next door has remained that way for over 18 months. The owner of that property seemed less than concerned when I raised the issue with him.
Perhaps surprisingly given the potential value of these properties, some landlords refuse to have anything to do with the local authority, even if the property is practically falling down. There are an estimated 40,000 properties that have been left empty for longer than six months.
Incredibly, given their proximity to other properties, some of the houses I visited last week had been empty for over a decade.
Local authorities are beginning to recognise that the social and economic blight caused by empty homes needs to be higher up the political agenda. The Empty Homes Agency has long lobbied government to give authorities the legal tools to speed up reclaiming properties.
Of course private property is sacrosanct in our legal system and there are good reasons for that.
Yet councils are beginning to argue that when a landlord does not take care of a property for a prolonged period of time (usually running into years) then they have no option but to reclaim such properties to make them public assets to benefit the community. It can of course take years to get a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO).
But legislation which came into force in July enables authorities to take over the management of private properties after as little as six months depending on the circumstances of the landlord.
The Empty Dwellings Management Orders which came into force in April 2006 are not yet being widely used but Dave Carter thinks that they may prove a useful compromise between the current carrot and big stick approach. They are less draconian than CPOs and do not involve a change in ownership.
Public/private partnerships can restore empty properties and lift individual and social blight. The Owusu family in Ponders End moved into a reclaimed property a few months ago from temporary accommodation. Vivian Owusu told me her three boys have become more settled at home and at school and the family feels their lives have been transformed.
They’re beneficiaries of a five year lease that the landlord signed with the local authority after using a council grant to improve the property.
Coincidentally the issue of the blight caused by empty homes has been getting greater local focus since the introduction of safer neighbourhood policing.
Each ward across the capital will, by the year’s end, have a full complement of Safer Neighbourhood Policing teams. One sergeant, two PCs and three community support officers have the brief of holding local meetings to assess the needs and priorities of local residents and tenants.
Perhaps unsurprisingly one issue being regularly reported to the teams in Enfield policing district is the anti-social behaviour that surrounds long-term empty properties.
The Demetrious in Ponders End live next door to a property that has been empty for over a decade. They told me that each year when they go for their annual visit to Cyprus they fear for their home. The abuse they’ve faced from people lingering around the property has even led to deterioration in their health.
They have had so many attempted break-ins and arson attacks because of the wreck next door that the council have given up trying to reason with the landlord and are simply going to compulsorily purchase the property.
Of course it's not just private landlords that keep properties empty. Local authorities and other public authorities like Transport for London also leave properties empty. But in reality public housing stock has diminished so much since 1979 that this is far less significant in terms of numbers.
Along a mile long corridor of the North Circular road around New Southgate, decades of administrative dithering over what to do with the road have let houses fall into serious dilapidation. Of course whilst the various agencies responsible for this blight cannot reach a decision, the local authority cannot consider ways of using or replacing the housing stock.
There is a growing recognition across London’s boroughs that this is an issue they need to work on together. There are regular meetings for Dave Carter and his fellow empty homes officers where they can share remedies and best practice.
It is clear from their immediate priority to re-house homeless families, that the pressure on housing needs in London is growing and that irrespective of the relative affluence or poverty of a locality the problems caused by empty properties are often similar.
Whilst there are no simple solutions to the problems that give rise to homelessness, getting empty homes back into use, offers some hope to those who cannot afford a home of their own and removes blight on local neighbourhoods.
last updated: 19/05/2008 at 18:21