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From empty home to home sweet home

Source: PSE Feb/March 2019

Paul Dennett, city mayor of Salford, reports on how his council has been cracking down on empty homes.

Salford City Council brought almost one empty home a day back into use between 2011 and 2016 – and the battle continues.

The strategy cut the number of empty properties in the city by nearly 3,000 – the fifth highest reduction in England. With more than 5,800 people on the housing register and 39 people bidding for every affordable home which becomes available, it’s all part of the city’s plans to tackle the housing crisis and create more affordable homes.

Cllr Tracy Kelly, lead member for housing and neighbourhoods, said: “While some people just abandon and neglect them, most owners just don’t have the funds to refurbish their property.

“That’s why we set up a dedicated empty properties team to work with owners, secure government and other funding and, if necessary, use the legal system to get these homes brought back to Decent Homes Standard and back into use.”

In 2010 there were 6,237 vacant properties in Salford, 6% of the city’s total housing stock – 3,761 of which had been empty for more than six months. Many were privately owned and drawing complaints from local communities which felt the properties blighted their areas.

The new empty properties team, made up of five housing officers, was charged with halving the number within three years. “Our first step was to map empty homes, trace the owners if we could, and find out why the property was empty,” said Cllr Kelly.

“The team used council tax data, information from council staff who were out and about in the community, details from partner organisations (such as registered social landlords) and complaints from members of the public.

“That gave us a list of properties – which included houses and flats above shops – and our next task was to find the owners, sit down and discuss the situation with them ,and agree the best way to get these properties refurbished and back into use.

“We always seek to work with owners as far as possible and have been very successful with that. For many people, the offer of help is a huge relief, but the team can use legal powers if the owner cannot be traced or rejects every attempt at co-operation. Going down the legal route is always proportionate and is only used if all other options fail as we much prefer to work with the owner to find the best solution,” said Cllr Kelly.

“If the building has certain hazards we can inspect it, serve an improvement notice, and follow that up with legal action if the owner does not respond. We can put a charge on the property which can only be revoked if works are carried out and, sometimes, the knowledge of that is enough to galvanise owners who can into dealing with the problems.

“As a last resort, we can and do use compulsory purchase order powers to acquire properties. We have only had to do that four times in the last few years – and two of those properties were compulsorily acquired by agreement. All four properties were then sold on condition that they were refurbished and brought back into use as homes.”

The council has also used the council tax system to encourage homeowners to take action by abolishing or reducing council tax discount on empty properties and adding a 50% premium to those that have been unoccupied and substantially unfurnished for over two years. That has affected around 1,400 properties and encouraged owners to take action, as well as generating around £70,000 in additional council tax revenue.

“If an owner owes council tax on a property, councils can register a liability order with the magistrates – in effect a demand to pay the money owed. Under council tax law we can then go to the county court and ask the court to order the sale of the property so we can recover that unpaid council tax from the proceeds of sale.

“The threat of such action prompted 37 owners to settle their bills, which amounted to £50,000 and brought their properties back into use. We were also able to bring six more properties back into use by forcing a sale as well as recovering unpaid council tax.”

Funding of more than £6.3m from various government agencies allowed the team to work with local organisations and housing associations to offer grants of between £8,000 and £34,000 to owners to refurbish their properties. Some were asked to match-fund the grant while others were offered funding on condition that the properties were leased to social landlords who lease them to local residents at affordable rents, guarantee the owners rent even during empty periods, and provide them with a full management service.

Cllr Kelly added: “Tackling empty properties is just one strand of our plan to create more affordable housing in the city by working with partners and using Section 106 money to set up our own local housing company to build council houses once again.

“Not only do people and communities benefit, but the refurbishments cost an estimated £9.8m, which benefitted local contractors by around £6m and helped protect and create jobs.

“Salford City Council has received over £2.1m in extra council tax over five years. In addition, since 2011 up to 2018 Salford has secured £62.7m in New Homes Bonus monies, 24% of which came from our success in reducing empty homes. “It makes sense to recycle the empties.”


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