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Empty houses - The Liberal Democrat Success Story

May 30, 2012 1:41 PM
By Andrew Stunell MP in Liberal Democrat Voice

Andrew Stunnell ( avid readers of Lib Dem Voice will know, tackling the scourge of empty homes has been high up my agenda since entering government. Empty Homes bring down communities, and doing something to tackle this growing problem was one of our big housing "asks" in the coalition negotiations. Previous governments hadn't paid empty homes much heed at all, with the numbers left to soar, peaking in 2008 at 783,000. Labour's failed Pathfinder scheme had set out to demolish thousands of homes, but ran out of cash, leaving some families marooned on what had become "ghost streets". I was determined that this government was going to be different.

We started back in October 2010 with two key announcements. The first was that we had secured £100m in the CSR for the first ever government empty homes fund. This fund was designed to bring empty homes back into use as affordable housing, with an initial estimate of 3,300 properties being brought back into use. The second was the announcement that the rules for the New Homes Bonus had been tweaked (at my urging), so that councils would be rewarded in exactly the same way for bringing empty homes back into use as they would for building a new home, an important incentive.

Then, at our Autumn Conference in Birmingham, I announced that we would consult on plans to allow councils to charge extra council tax on long-term empty properties through the empty homes premium. The proposals will allow councils to charge up to 50% extra on any property left vacant for two years or more.

By November, we'd published our empty homes strategy. This was the first time that a government had ever had an empty homes strategy, and was announced alongside an extra £50m (now boosted to £60m) to tackle localities with large "clusters" of empty homes, primarily in the north. Finally, last month, I announced the appointment of George Clarke (presenter of the Great British Property Scandal on Channel 4 and an empty homes campaigner) as the government's independent advisor on empty homes. George will work with me to promote the renovation of empty properties over demolition, and act as an ambassador and trouble shooter.

Now, we're moving on to the delivery. In February, I awarded the first £70m of the £100m empty homes fund, to local authorities and other registered housing providers to bring properties back into use as affordable housing. Where we once envisioned bringing 3,300 homes back into use with the £100m investment, we've been able to use just £70m to bring 5,600 back into use. Projects are now getting underway to make this happen.

Today I spoke at the national empty homes conference in Birmingham, and was able to announce the successful bidders for the remaining cash. Just over £25m will be shared amongst community groups, whilst £60m from government will be match-funded to £120m by local partners, taking the total investment so far to £215m. A further 5,600 empty homes will be brought back into use across the funding streams announced today, taking our total to 11,200, with £5m still in the bank to be spent at a later date. I was also able to confirm that we're going full speed ahead with the council tax changes, and the empty homes premium, so councils will soon have extra weapons in their arsenal to tackle the problem of empty homes - and will no longer have to forgo £420m or more in council tax payments due to mandatory discounts.

So far, our efforts seem to be paying dividends, with long-term empty homes (properties vacant for more than six months) falling by 21,000 to their lowest level since 2004. But they still stand at 278,000. That's bigger than a city the size of Sheffield. We need to do much more to tackle this problem and this government is determined to breathe life back into these neglected neighbourhoods up and down the country.

* Andrew Stunell MP is the Lib Dem Communities Minister with responsibility for community cohesion and race equality. He is also Chair of the Liberal Democrats Local Election Campaign Team.