The UK is trapped in a housing crisis and solving it is not just a case of building thousands of new affordable homes – bringing empty homes back into use must also be part of the strategy too.
It’s not just a case of finding homes for people trapped in temporary accommodation or homelessness either. Renovating and retrofitting homes can have a big impact on the UK’s efforts to tackle the climate crisis.
According to Mike Berners-Lee’s book How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, building a new home has a carbon footprint of 80 tonnes of CO2 – equivalent to building five brand-new cars. But refurbishing an old house carried much less of a carbon footprint, equating to just eight tonnes in comparison.
Action on Empty Homes are one of the major campaigners calling for homes to be brought back into use in the UK. Each year they hold an awareness week to put the spotlight on empty homes as well as a day of action.
The awareness week took place between February 28 and March 6 in 2022 while the day of action was held on October 22 with protests around London raising awareness of the issue.
According to the most recent government council taxbase figures released in November 2022, there are 257,331 homes in England that are classed as long-term empty homes. This means that they have been left vacant for more than six months.
That is a rise of 20,000 compared to the previous year and the highest level in over a decade, outside the height of the pandemic.
Chris Bailey, national campaign manager for AEH, said: “After more than a decade of intense housing crisis it is shocking to see long-term empty homes in England rise to 257,331 – another 20,000 more wasted empties, while nearly 100,000 families are trapped in temporary accommodation, costing the nation over one and a half billion pounds a year.
“A new national empty homes programme is long overdue – government needs to step up to the plate and offer funding and incentives to get these homes back into use.
“Long-term empties are a huge missed opportunity to invest in green retrofit and create new jobs.”
Generally, the number of long-term empty homes has increased in the last few years. Empty homes were at the lowest point in the last decade back in 2016 when there were just over 200,000 properties left vacant. Since then that figure has risen by 20 per cent.
AEH’s most recent research – the Nobody Home report – found one in three homes in London’s financial centre are empty, many left to appreciate in value on the housing market.
While the City of London came out on top, Kensington and Chelsea – the borough where the Grenfell Tower disaster happened in 2017 – followed with one in eight homes left unoccupied.
AEH’s Will McMahon said: “With at least 100,000 homes with no permanent residents it’s time for action. That means getting to grips with the 30,000 long-term empty homes in the capital, controls on Airbnb, and support for local communities that want the low-cost homes Londoners need, not more of the ones they can’t afford or never even get a chance to rent.”
Outside of the English capital, second homes that are left empty for large parts of the year are a problem particularly damaging in coastal and rural areas.
In some parts of the country the number of holiday lets and short-term lets outnumber the amount of rental homes on the market by up to 100 to one, The Big Issue found in an investigation in July.
Homes left empty in these towns and villages often make it difficult for locals to get on the property ladder which can also impact on employment too. That’s why some residents have held second homes referendums in recent years. St Ives in Cornwall has held a vote while a second homes ban was approved in Beadnell, Northumberland, back in 2018.
Jayne Kirkham, a Labour councillor in Falmouth and Truro, Cornwall, told The Big Issue: “If everybody who had a holiday or second home let someone who needs a home live in it then we would have more than ample houses to solve our problem. These numbers tie up to a point where the problem is really obvious.”
As for Scotland, there are around 43,000 long-term empty properties in the country, according to the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership. Wales has fewer properties left vacant for more than six months, with around 27,000 empty homes. The Welsh government has previously targeted bringing that figure down to around 5,000 homes.
Charities warn housing waiting lists are growing, with increasing numbers who have nowhere else to go being put up in council-provided temporary accommodation.
At the most recent count, there were 95,060 households living in temporary accommodation in England as of March 2022. That can be costly with councils spending £1.6bn on housing people in temporary accommodation between April 2021 and March 2022 – a four per cent rise on the previous year.
In Scotland there are 13,945 households put up in B&Bs and other makeshift properties while Wales has 7,498 households in temporary accommodation.
It’s not quite as simple as repossessing empty homes and giving them to families in need, though. Many are old, in need of investment and aren’t currently ready to be lived in.
Bailey said most long-term empty properties were Victorian and Edwardian terraced homes that are difficult to insulate. But, he added, this doesn’t necessarily mean knocking them down is the best course of action.
He said retrofitting old-style housing would be more efficient and help the Westminster government’s environmental credentials as it looks to reach net-zero carbon by 2050.
According to a report from the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, as many as one million new homes could need retrofitting to hit new climate targets and it could cost owners more than £10,000.
Action on Empty Homes estimate retrofitting England’s long-term empty homes and council estates can play a significant role on the UK’s path towards net-zero carbon emissions.
“The answer in many cases is to retrofit because that’s a much more efficient thing to do.”
What can the government do about unused homes?
The government is looking to take action as part of the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill that is currently making its way through parliament.
The bill is looking to allow local authorities to force empty home owners to pay a council tax premium after one year instead of two. That’s the current length of time before councils can impose a 100 per cent council tax rise for unfurnished and unoccupied homes.
The Levelling Up bill is also taking aim at furnished holiday homes with plans to include charges up to 200 per cent for leaving them empty for too much of the year.
Some councils are not waiting for the legislation to come into effect before hiking tax, such as Powys County Council, while other local authorities in Burnley, Glasgow and Aberdeen have brought empty properties back into use themselves.
Action on Empty Homes is calling on Westminster leaders to launch a national empty homes strategy, saying £200 million is needed to support local authorities to bring long-term unused houses in England back into use.
A government scheme was set up in 2012 to provide £100 million for refurbishments but it ended in 2015.
The Local Government Association is also calling on the government to give councils more power to acquire homes, including making it easier to buy unused properties and move households on from temporary accommodation.
“Not all empty homes are in need of refurbishment, though many would benefit from the type of government-backed investment programme we saw working well until it was scrapped in 2015,” added Action on Empty Homes director McMahon.
“That’s why we call for a new programme of government investment and why we back local council’s calls for better and simpler powers to act where owners and landlords won’t or can’t.”
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