Council tax premiums not enough by itself to bring empty homes back into use

(Title Image: National Assembly of Wales)

Communities Committee
Empty Properties (pdf)
Published: 10th October 2019

“Tackling the problem of empty properties can make a significant contribution to wider community regeneration; it can make an area more attractive and increase available housing stock. It is important though, to take account of individual communities’ needs and to ensure action is tailored appropriately.”
– Committee Chair, John Griffiths AM (Lab, Newport East)

1. Empty properties are a drag on communities and a new national action plan is needed

There was widespread agreement that empty properties were a sign that a community was in decline and – at the risk of stating the obvious – they become a magnet for anti-social behaviour and become an environmental health hazard.

There were a number of reasons given as to why properties may be left empty including owners being unable to cover the cost of making a property habitable, inheriting a property they don’t know what to do with, being deliberately left empty (i.e a flat above a shop) or unrealistic expectations regarding how much a property is worth (making owners reluctant to sell).

The response to empty properties by local authorities is described as “fragmented”; some (like Swansea) may have a long-term housing strategy that factors in empty properties, while others might deal with them on a case-by-case basis.

The Committee recommended a national action plan on empty properties is developed and published by October 2020. They also recommended that the Welsh Government provide resources to enable councils to appoint an empty properties officer – a post shared between multiple councils if necessary.

2. Taking enforcement action is “complex and costly” and financial support to owners is integral to bringing properties back into use

Local authorities do have many tools at their disposal to discourage or prosecute absent property owners, including Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMO) or historic powers of compulsory purchase/forced sale (in specific circumstances). The powers are, however, underused due to a lack of knowledge or lack of specialist support – the Economy & Infrastructure Committee published a report on compulsory purchase in June 2019.

Some witnesses – including housing charity, Shelter – argued that the enforcement process needed to be simplified or consolidated, but it always comes at a price; Carmarthenshire Council said enforcement action can cost £40,000.

Scotland is considering introducing a Compulsory Sale Order (CSO) which would require empty homes to be sold (after a set period of being derelict) by public auction. This obviously raised human rights issues and it wouldn’t be appropriate in all cases, but it could be used where all other avenues have failed.

There are many financial grant schemes made available by local authorities and the Welsh Government to help owners bring empty homes up to scratch; Swansea Council said they’ve issued around £2.4million in interest-free loans which have resulted in 123 housing units being brought back into use. Rhondda Cynon Taf is considering introducing a similar £10million scheme, which could fund up to 500 individual projects.

3. The effectiveness of council tax premiums needs to be properly monitored

Councils can apply a 100% premium on unoccupied homes – though some authorities still provide a discount. The councils which have introduced premiums tend to be rural and coastal local authorities (where there’s an acute housing shortage) rather than the Valleys (where there’s plenty of housing supply but in the wrong places or not up to scratch).

The premium was also said to have had little effect where it’s been introduced and some people have tried to get around it by claiming a largely empty second home is self-catering accommodation (and therefore subject to business rates), or that a single family member has moved in to the empty property making them eligible for a single person council tax discount.

The Welsh Government is monitoring developments in England where empty properties will be charged three times the standard council tax rate after being empty for 5 years or more (from 2020) and four times if empty for 10 years or more (from 2021).

The Committee recommended ring-fencing any additional money raised from empty home premiums for housing-related purposes and also to try to close loopholes used to avoid paying a premium.

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