Government rules out new empty homes scheme

The Department for Communities & Local Government played down the necessity for another programme as a spokesman said the number of empty homes in England has fallen to a 10-year low and the “legacy” of the programme will live on without its renewal.

The coalition government’s Empty Homes Community Grants Programme provided community-led housing organisations with £50m in funding a year between April 2012 and March 2015, bringing almost 9,000 homes back into use.

The number of empty homes in England has fallen by 160,000 since the end of 2009, however government figures still placed the number in excess of 610,000. Of that number 232,000 homes were empty for more than six months.

The DCLG spokesman said: “Long-term empty properties are at a record low, so we currently have no plans for a further empty homes funding programme.

“However, the legacy of this programme will continue with other incentives which bring empty properties back into use.”

Before the general election took place in May Nationwide building society wrote to MPs calling for a renewal of the scheme – but the mutual’s plan to discuss securing further private funding with Conservative ministers and MPs fell on deaf ears.

Nationwide Foundation, an independent charity funded by Nationwide, has itself been providing grants to organisations to bring empty properties back into use.

Leigh Pearce, its chief executive, said: “We are disappointed that the government is not committing to renewing funding for community-led organisations that are bringing empty properties back into use.

“We have seen how these community groups are able to deliver much needed decent affordable homes and in doing so, transform communities blighted by rundown properties.”

A Nationwide spokesperson added: “We continue to discuss the issue of funding to bring empty homes back into use with ministers and MPs as one of a shortlist of priorities deserving of urgent attention.”

Funding from the now defunct programme brought homes back into use at the cost of just £25,000 per home – making it a value for money method to free up supply.

Last month Nationwide research revealed that 29.8% of people have a property on their street which has been unoccupied for at least six months.

Adam Tyler, chief executive of the National Association of Consumer Finance Brokers, said the government’s stance sent out the wrong message to voters after the Conservatives spoke of building a “northern powerhouse” in the lead up to the election and dedicated a section to housing in the party manifesto.

He said: “This looks like a step in the wrong direction. Just one month ago, David Cameron said the Conservatives are going to close the North-South growth gap.

“But the cities with the biggest empty housing problems include Liverpool, Glasgow, Sheffield and Cardiff.

“It doesn’t send out the right message. Supply and demand dictates that shutting off this empty homes scheme can only have a negative effect on housing affordability in this country.”

The DCLG defended its position by pointing to The New Homes Bonus, a scheme launched in 2011 which rewards council for building homes. Under the terms of the scheme £3.4bn has already been awarded to councils in five years to recognise 100,000 long-term empty homes being brought back into use.

The National Affordable Housing Programme, led the Homes & Communities Agency and the Greater London Authority, is also set to provide 165,000 affordable homes by March 2018 with £1.7bn of funding in England and 42,000 affordable homes with £1.25bn of funding in the capital for homeowners and tenants.

The DCLG spokesman added: “Local authorities have strong powers to tackle empty homes, as well as the discretion to charge higher levels of council tax for empty properties and be rewarded through the New Homes Bonus, and we expect them to continue to use these to reduce the number of empty properties.

“Housing associations can also apply for funding through the government’s National Affordable Housing Programme to bring empty properties back into use as affordable housing.”

Tyler, writing in this month’s Mortgage Introducer, also brought up the role of the investor and the commercial finance broker in bringing empty homes back into use.

He said: “Two thirds of a million homes could easily accommodate two million people – and if the home has to change hands, then that’s work for a lot of commercial finance brokers.

“The advantages of bringing empty houses back to life are many; compared to putting up a new building on a brownfield site, the possibilities for local opposition are all but eliminated, and the infrastructure around an existing building has likely already taken into account that it will be occupied.

He added: “But of course it’s a hidden problem – an unoccupied house doesn’t call attention to itself like a brownfield site does. An investor sees a corner of land near a railway station and thinks of the development opportunities.

“That same investor might walk past a house with an overgrown garden and think vaguely someone should get the Flymo out of the shed – and patch up the shed roof while they’re at it!”

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