Empty homes: Calls for greater action on hundreds of properties across Harrogate district

There are calls for greater action to reduce the number of homes lying empty across the Harrogate district while thousands of residents remain stuck on the social housing waiting list due to a "desperate" lack of affordable properties.

Friday, 28th May 2021, 8:39 am
Updated Friday, 28th May 2021, 8:40 am
A total of 774 homes in Harrogate have sat empty for more than six months - a slight reduction from 838 in 2019.

Official data shows 774 homes have sat empty for more than six months - a figure which has fallen slightly from 838 in 2019 but councillors and campaigners say must come down at a more dramatic rate in order to get to grips with the housing crisis.

It comes as there are around 1,700 households sat in the queue for council housing, and with property prices reaching record heights the fear is many may be stuck there for some time unless greater action is taken by Harrogate Borough Council.

The council itself has previously said there is a "desperate" need for more affordable properties but has defended its record on empty homes, with its cabinet member for safer communities and housing, councillor Mike Chambers, saying "every effort" is made to work with landlords and that tougher action is taken whenever necessary.

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Councillor Chambers said: “In the last two years, through this proactive approach, we have seen a 25% reduction of properties empty for more than five years.

“Our dedicated empty homes officer is working hard to identify empty properties, engage with owners and look at what else can be done to increase this reduction.

“It is important that everyone living in Harrogate district has the opportunity of a decent and quality home. We are committed to providing this and have a number of plans in place – such as requiring developers to provide a specific amount of affordable housing as well the aims of our own housing company Bracewell Homes – that will support local people into affordable rented homes or to get on the property ladder.”

Over the last 12 months, the council has carried out just two compulsory purchase orders (CPOs) where efforts to bring empty homes back into use have failed and legal action is taken against landlords as a last resort to force them to sell their properties.

The opposition Liberal Democrat group on the council said a stricter approach on CPOs was needed in order to reduce empty homes which are "compounding deeply entrenched problems" including high property prices, the lack of affordable homes and long stays in temporary accommodation.

Liberal Democrat leader councillor Pat Marsh said: "I know there is a cost to compulsory purchase and the refurbishment of properties, but it still must be cheaper than buying on the open market and it means less green space being taken away.

"Alternatively, the council could actively build houses on land it owns, such as at Pannal.

"We cannot stand by and allow people to live in bed and breakfast or hostel accommodation for weeks on end and then the only accommodation we build is temporary on Spa Lane in Starbeck. People need homes on a permanent not temporary basis.

"With 1,700 people on the waiting list we need action now. Relying solely on the delivery of affordable homes from planning permissions for large development is never going to address this issue.

"When will this council start to take the issue of homelessness and lack of affordable housing seriously? The council needs to take a proactive leadership role now."

What is the national picture?

Action on Empty Homes is England's leading campaign group and has published figures which show numbers hit a record high in 2020 with 268,385 long-term empty homes across the country.

They are calling on the government to launch a national Empty Homes Strategy backed by a £200m fund and new powers to support local authorities.

Through this fund, they want to see a streamlining of CPO powers and more cash for community-led projects which sustainably refurbish long-term empty homes.

Speaking earlier this year, Will McMahon, director of Action on Empty Homes, said: “In 2020 there was a 20% rise in long term empty homes numbers with increases in nine out of every ten local council areas. That is a national scandal of wasted homes that mirrors our national housing crisis – and that calls into question why these homes are not being brought back to use to help address that.

“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.”

Why are homes left empty?

There are numerous reasons properties can lie empty. In some instances, landlords cannot afford to renovate their property to sell or rent out.

Properties may also have been inherited and the new owners don’t know what to do with them. Rentals can also fall below safety standards which means they sit vacant until the problems are fixed.

What else can be done?

As well as carrying out CPOs, the government has also given councils powers to charge an additional 100% council tax on properties that have been empty for two years.

Empty Dwelling Management Order (EDMO) can also be issued for long term empty properties that are attracting vandalism and causing a nuisance to the community.

By Jacob Webster, Local Democracy Reporter