Empty homes – empty tomorrows

I promised six months ago to update you on the story of my old house. You might recall that the modest terraced house in Kirkby, Merseyside where I spent most of my childhood had become, by last Christmas, a vandalised wreck. It gives me a very personal connection to the kind of urban deprivation problems I try to solve in my professional life.

A private landlord had left the place empty, and during that time it became so badly damaged he or she couldn’t afford to refurbish and put it back on the market. Knowsley Council was aware of the problem, but couldn’t use its reserve powers to take action because, at that point, it had been empty for less than six months.

My initial concern was whether the state of the place reflected the gloomier prospects for places like Kirkby, which have long featured at the wrong end of deprivation league tables, as spending cuts bite and fragile markets begin to shrink.

As you can see from the new photo below, which was taken over Easter, the place has been tidied up. The graffiti has been removed and the half-demolished wall has gone completely. Beyond that, the pictures are essentially the same; a depressingly quick game of spot-the-difference. My old house remains empty, derelict and boarded up.

The more I reflected on the problem, the more I felt this wasn’t a Kirkby issue, but a national one. Not just a problem of housing or economics, but a deeper dysfunction in the way we organise and distribute the resources we have in the face of growing social and environmental problems.

My old house is one of around 300,000 homes in England, and over 1,000 in Knowsley, that have been empty for more than six months. 300,000 homes that could house a million people, according to the campaign organisation Empty Homes.

At the same time, we have 1.7 million families on council waiting lists, many of whom will never get the housing they need. We have over 40,000 families registered as homeless and over a million children living in overcrowded housing, with implications for their physical and mental wellbeing that will last for decades. A million kids denied the space and comfort of making a nest they can cherish from the fragile twigs and sticks of first experience.

Of course, national figures only tell half the story. Place is what matters. Having empty homes in the northwest of England doesn’t necessarily help over-crowded families in Lambeth or Hackney. But this is a national problem that reflects an unsustainable dereliction in the way society as a whole manages existing resources and infrastructure.

In the face of growing environmental and social strains we need to get much better at re-using and recycling our existing stock of buildings. The combination of rising energy prices and tighter restrictions on carbon emissions make large building projects less and less feasible. We’ve already reached what Julian Dobson calls ‘peak property‘: the era of ‘wealth created by speculation, easy credit and generous public investment’ has passed permanently.

Outside a small number of hotspots, the era of big regeneration deals is over. The era of resilience is dawning. The much anticipated ‘new normal’ has already arrived: tight constraints on available finance, land and raw materials, and an ever greater pressure to make better use of what we have.

Knowsley Council is currently refreshing its empty homes strategy. They should take a look at how Barnsley Council and the Berneslai Homes ALMO are planning to deal with public and private empty homes there.
Berneslai Homes is offering a property and tenancy management service to private landlords, designed to protect the landlord’s investment while preventing negligence and mismanagement from impacting on the wider community. Alongside this, the council is investing in a combination of grant support and stricter enforcement to bring empty homes back into use.

We need more innovative local schemes like the one in Barnsley, but they need to be reinforced by smarter national incentives. Empty Homes highlights a number of changes that would make a big difference, such as: including empty homes returned to use in the New Homes Bonus; abolishing the council tax discount on empty homes; and the equalisation of VAT on refurbishing empty homes at the same low level as new build. The last point is a change I’ve argued many times.

What we don’t need is the government’s decision to make it more difficult to deal with empty homes by extending the period after which councils can take action from six months to two years. By selectively citing a small number of unusual cases, ministers are pretending that councils are waiting in prey to wrest empty homes from the hands of vulnerable owners.

What nonsense. If anything, the opposite is the case. Councils need to be much more vigilant, and take firmer action to stop temporarily empty becoming long-term empty, and before slightly vandalised become utterly derelict.

According to an update Knowsley Council gave me for this article, the house was repaired for a new tenant, but it was vandalised again, requiring further, still ongoing repair work. One step forward, one step back.

People who read my original blog often had the same response: ‘John, you must feel awful, seeing your old house like that’. I did feel awful, but it’s the future of the place, and the 300,000 like it, that makes me anxious.

What was once a home could be so again; a home to one of the kids currently living in an overcrowded house, in a freezing bedroom or with an abusive parent because the other parent can’t afford to move out.

Or it could continue to rot away, if we continue down the ruinous path of neglecting our existing assets and wasting evermore precious resources on building the empty homes of the future.

Whether they’re occupied or not, we load houses with meaning. My old house once stood for security and stability. Now it stands for the boredom and misplaced anger of the people who smashed it up. For the fear and anxiety of the neighbours who worry that this is their ’new normal’. A place that once gave off warmth now gives off waves of anti-social toxin with the power of a broken reactor.

To return the question of my original blog: is my old house a reminder of the past or a sign of the future? I’m increasingly worried that it’s the latter, and not just for Kirkby. If we don’t get much smarter at re-using and recycling our existing urban infrastructure then the future for us all is one of environmental degradation and social division.

You can read more about Empty Homes’ campaign here:


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