The Committee considered a report on the Council’s Empty Homes Policy detailing its approach, vision and work programme for the next four years to tackle and bring empty private residential homes within the County back into use. It was noted that since 2017 the Council had reduced the number of private empty homes within the County from 2667 to 1,984 with the aim of the policy being to further reduce that number to 1500 by 2026
The following questions/issues were raised on the report:-
· Reference was made to following 6 priority bullet points detailed in report, in priority order, focusing on empty homes regardless of the time they had stood empty:-
1) Target empty homes in areas of high housing demand or in the ten towns areas that will also act as a catalyst for wider regeneration.
2) Target empty homes that will be brought back as affordable homes for people on the Housing Choice Register and a key focus on empty homes within our own Council Estates that had been previously sold off through the ‘right to buy’ scheme.
3) Support bringing empty residential units above commercial business in our town centres back into use for people that will contribute to the town centre economy.
4) Work with the families of empty homeowners that are in care, manage the properties on their behalf and the income could cover part of their care cost.
5) Respond to complaints where empty houses are a nuisance to neighbouring properties or attracting anti-social behaviour.
6) Identify empty houses that are in a poor state of repair and are detrimental to the surrounding area and take appropriate remedial action.
A view was expressed that points 5 and 6 should not be afforded any lesser priority to the others as, whilst not that important in relation to the regeneration of areas they were important to local residents by virtue of their detrimental impact on both the amenity of the area and to their mental health especially, the elderly living next to derelict or long- term empty properties.
It was confirmed the points were not ranked in any order and that each would be afforded equal priority to enable the council to take tailored and targeted action to bring an empty property back into use, regardless of whether it was located within a town centre or in a rural area.
· With regard to a question on adopting timescales for returning empty properties to use the Committee was advised that sufficient time had to be allowed to enable a property to be returned to use as the majority were only vacant for a short period of time for varying reasons e.g. applying for probate. However, it was important action was taken as soon as possible but, in any event, letters were sent to the owners of such properties annually. Grants of up to £25k were also available to improve the condition of empty homes to bring them back to habitable use for sale as affordable homes or to rent subject to the terms of the grant.
· Reference was made to whether the Council had any powers to make property owners return empty properties back into use for example by increasing the council tax premium on such homes.
It was confirmed that whilst the aim of the policy was to encourage homeowners to return their properties to the housing market, Appendix 3 to the report detailed a number of enforcement options (legislative provision) available to the Council to deal with issues caused by empty properties and to secure their return to use.
In relation to the use of the council tax premium, the Committee was advised the intention was for that to rise annually for empty properties which could be up to 300% resulting in a council tax of £2,000 per annum for example increasing to £8,000 p.a.
· In relation to a question on empty vacant plots of land within town centres, it was confirmed that whilst they did not fall within the policy’s remit, that point could be raised with the Council’s regeneration division.
· It was confirmed that second or holiday homes did not fall within the policy’s remit. However, such properties were being considered by the Council as a separate issue and been subject to a recent consultation exercise which had now closed. The responses received thereto were currently being analysed for subsequent submission and consideration via the council’s democratic process. That would also include, for example, the position where homes had been inherited and only occupied for a short period during the year.
· It was confirmed that all empty properties brought back into use via a grant/loan for sale or rent would be classed as affordable homes and be subject to the grant/loan terms and conditions.
· It was confirmed that any safety issues arising from empty properties would fall within the remit of the Council’s building control responsibilities.
· Reference was made on the timescale for the policy’s implementation being over a four-year period whereas the policy document stipulated the timescale as being from January 2023 to April 26. The Head of Homes and Safer Communities confirmed that would be clarified for the reports’ adoption by the Council.
The Committee noted the main points of summary of its debate related to the following and the report would be amended where appropriate for onward to submission to Cabinet /Council for consideration:-
a. The report to clarify that the 6 priority bullet points were not in ranked any order of priority with each being afforded equal priority to enable the council to take tailored and targeted action to bring an empty property back into use,
b. The timescales for undertaking enforcement action particularly in relation to Compulsory Purchase Order procedures and Empty Dwelling Management Orders,
c. Powers to deal with safety issues lay with the council’s building control responsibilities in relation to ruinous, dilapidated and dangerous structures,
d. To link in with the Council’s regeneration department with regard to empty land within town centres
e. The policy timescales on the front cover of the report to be clarified.
UNANIMOUSLY RESOLVED that the Empty Homes Policy be endorsed and referred to the Cabinet subject to the report being amended to incorporate:
- clarifying that the 6 priority bullet points were not ranked in any order of priority with each being afforded equal priority to enable the council to take tailored and targeted action to bring an empty property back into use,
- The policy timescales on the front cover of the report to be clarified.