Britain’s empty houses

Close to a million properties are sitting empty in Britain. Why? And what can be done about it? Simon Wilson reports.

How big is the problem?

According to the charity Empty Homes, there are 737,491 vacant properties in England (as of early December). Of these, 279,000 are classified as long term', meaning the property has been left empty for more than six months. These numbers come mostly from council-tax data. Councils usually offer exemptions for empty houses, giving owners an obvious incentive to declare that their property is empty.

Across the United Kingdom as a whole it is harder to put an accurate figure on empty properties as equivalent statistics are not published in Wales and Northern Ireland. But the charity's best estimate of the total number of empty properties across Britain is 930,000, of which 350,000 are long term. This is in the same region as a Halifax survey from 2006, which put the figure then at around 300,000.

What counts as empty'?

Any house that is habitable but not lived in, with some exceptions. The figures do not include second homes' that are occupied periodically by their owners or holiday let tenants. More controversially, they don't include flats above shops. That's because many unused flats above shops have no residential planning status, even though they are laid out as dwellings and have been used as such. These flats are charged business rates rather than council tax, so do not show up in empty house statistics. A government report from 2004 put the number of potential houses in the category at 300,000 in England.

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The figures also specifically exclude uninhabitable houses and those that are due for demolition. Empty Homes argues that houses due for demolition, where regeneration schemes have been scrapped and demolition is now in doubt or cancelled, should count as empty. This would add a further 40,000 to the long-term empty figure, bringing it close to 400,000 (still excluding flats above shops).

Why are houses empty?

Lots of reasons. Sometimes they belong to elderly people who have moved into residential care. They may be empty because the people who have inherited them don't know whether to keep, sell, or let them. Surveys show that most empty houses are privately owned, by people who own just one or two properties. Most typically, they are rented dwellings that have fallen into disrepair and are owned by people who lack the skills or money to refurbish and let them out, or offer them to housing associations.

The other main category is houses and flats owned by businesses, and often located close by. In the past, these dwellings would have been used by employees (including agricultural workers), but changing employment patterns have left them unused. Other categories include unsold or unoccupied flats left over from housing boom developments and large-scale regeneration projects that have stalled. These often leave houses emptied of residents but not yet redeveloped.

Why has nothing been done?

George Clarke, the architect who fronted some of Channel 4's housing programmes that investigated the issue last week, discovered exactly what many analysts have been saying for some time: that the Pathfinder scheme introduced under Labour had not worked. The idea was to get rid of cramped flats or small terraced houses with doors opening directly on to the street (councils believe people do not wish to live in such houses) and replace them with a new house with a front garden. The result was billions of pounds spent emptying and demolishing houses, but as the recession bit few new ones were ever built.

Clarke argues that instead of exempting uninhabitable houses from local property taxes, councils should quadruple them. Charles Clover in The Sunday Times argues that councils must be forced to sell off, or give away, empty houses that the private sector could more cheaply bring into use. Selling off property at a low price to people who undertake to do it up has worked in Rotterdam, says Clover. There, such a scheme has so successfully helped alleviate related social problems that it's now over-subscribed.

What is the government doing?

As part of its overall housing strategy revealed in November, the government announced £150m in funding to bring empty houses back into use. Measures include encouraging private landlords and housing associations to use Green Deal funding to renovate empty dwellings; changes to empty dwelling management orders to target long-term empty houses; and a New Homes Bonus, a cash incentive to be awarded to empty houses brought back into use. In addition, the government has started a consultation period on an empty homes premium' addition to council tax, payable if a house is empty for more than two years.

Will the initiative work?

Anne Ashworth in The Times doubts that the whole of the £150m pledged by the government to tackle the issue is going to productive use by councils and housing associations. It is unclear how many empty dwelling management orders which require owners to co-operate with the council on restoring a property have actually been issued or will be issued, for example. Some of those funds, she argues, should be used to give discounts to first-time buyers who are happy to carry out the refurbishment. "Publicly funded gentrification must be preferable to the public sector's dismal record in the endeavour."

Simon Wilson’s first career was in book publishing, as an economics editor at Routledge, and as a publisher of non-fiction at Random House, specialising in popular business and management books. While there, he published, a bestselling classic of the early days of e-commerce, and The Money or Your Life: Reuniting Work and Joy, an inspirational book that helped inspire its publisher towards a post-corporate, portfolio life.   

Since 2001, he has been a writer for MoneyWeek, a financial copywriter, and a long-time contributing editor at The Week. Simon also works as an actor and corporate trainer; current and past clients include investment banks, the Bank of England, the UK government, several Magic Circle law firms and all of the Big Four accountancy firms. He has a degree in languages (German and Spanish) and social and political sciences from the University of Cambridge.