Wednesday, 3 October 2012

If you won't put your empty house to use, the state should.

I am constantly frustrated when people talk about a 'housing shortage' in the UK. There is no shortage of housing: there is a shortage of housing available to those who need it. It may seem a matter of semantics but it's not. The language is key in driving housing policy. If you start from a position of shortage then the most obvious and only solution is to create more housing. From that point on, ideas about bringing properties that already exist back into the active housing stock are sidelined and deemed not as important.


Within Northern Ireland there is currently no legislation that allows local authorities to properly deal with vacant and abandoned properties. I say 'properly deal' because, whilst there is some legislation, it doesn't adequately address the issue and it's solutions are not framed to meet what should be the key objective - the reintroduction of housing stock to the market.

In England & Wales the Empty Dwellings Management Order within the Housing Act allows councils to enter and take possession of (but not ownership of) vacant properties or properties that have been abandoned or fallen into disrepair. These orders go way beyond the legislation in Northern Ireland because they allow authorities to make the properties fit for purpose AND put them into the rental market.

The good thing about EDMO's is that the owner of the property still retains property rights but in a situation where the owner cannot or will not carry out the necessary repairs - often in the case of an inheritance - but the council takes on the responsibility for the property. Any repairs and maintenance carried out by councils to make the property right are recovered through subsequent rental income. Any deficit will be included as an attachment to the deeds of the property & recovered on sale.


It may just be the left wing, socialist in me, but I can't see a downside to this kind of action. The owner, who has shown no interest so far, gets to retain his ownership rights whilst at the same time, his property is maintained and possibly improved. The state, without having to build or buy houses gets to address the issue of the shortage of available housing. In addition, there is the added bonus of those properties not being a blight within communities.

I remember that only a few months ago, when the subject of vacant properties was raised in my own area, North Down, that one of the DUP's senior MLAs wrote that it was a shame to see so many vacant properties in the area and whilst he wished that something could be done, it was 'impossible' to take over the properties and fix them up. I was genuinely angry about this attitude coming from a legislator because the only thing that stops this being possible is legislation. So let's have it.

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