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Empty Homes

November 23, 2011 5:32 PM
By Peter Black
Originally published by Peter Black and South Wales West Liberal Democrats

Peter Black: I move the motion.

Long-term empty homes are a blight on many communities around Wales. Houses that lie empty look unsightly, and the damage done to them by weather means that they can deteriorate over time, which means that damp can get into other people's homes. They are often vandalised, and they can be the target of squatters or those who break into them to have a bit of fun, but it is no fun at all for the neighbours. Their gardens become overgrown, and rodents tend to camp out in them. They are a dreadful blight on many communities, and it needs to be tackled. In my view, the large number of empty homes around Wales requires much more action than is being taken at the moment, although, as I am sure the Minister will point out in reply to the debate, there are some very good examples of good practice in dealing with this issue.

I welcome the Minister for Finance's statement yesterday that £15 million has been allocated to increase the supply, choice and quality of our housing, including investment in the innovative all-Wales recyclable loans fund to bring empty properties back into use and to support housing improvement and regeneration. It is almost as though she had foreknowledge of our motion when it was tabled. Certainly, it is one of the actions that needs to be taken, because there can be many reasons, both good and bad, why a home may be left empty for a length of time, but certainly, the longer it remains empty, the worse the property's condition becomes and the harder it is to bring it back into use.

People tend to leave homes empty because they are trying to resolve a situation regarding the will or estate of a deceased relative or because they are being renovated. However, once a house has been empty for a year or two or three, you start to question whether there is any valid excuse for allowing such a valuable asset to lie in the community in such a condition when it could be brought back into use. It could be sold, and it certainly could be used to house somebody who does not have a home of their own. So, the provision of a loan fund is one way forward in trying to encourage landlords or owners to take the necessary steps to bring those properties back into use. Obviously, this would be subject to the detail, and I am sure that the Minister, as he indicated in committee this morning, will give us some information on the details. We believe, however, that partnership working between local councils, housing associations and owners is needed as part of these loans to identify suitable properties for improvement and to make the most of the money available. I would hope that if any public money is given as a loan, when the property is brought back up to a reasonable standard, we could set some conditions to insist that it is used for social housing, or for affordable housing, so that people who are experiencing difficulties in getting on the housing ladder can make use of such a home for a short period until they find their feet.

The Essex review of affordable housing called on the Government to establish a programme to tackle private empty homes. This money may be the start of the programme, but I do not think that it adds up to a programme in itself. In our motion, we have set out a number of ideas that we believe should be in the programme, and I think that the Minister has indicated in the past that he is supportive of a number of those ideas.

We believe that a carrot-and-stick approach may be needed. The carrot is in the loans, while the stick is in saying to the owner of a property that, if they allow their house to stay empty for a long time, they will pay a penalty for that, perhaps through additional council tax to compensate the community for the blight that has been wrought upon it and to compensate the council for having to take action through its officers in working with residents, in having to serve statutory notices and in having to work with the owner to try to bring the property back into use. The idea behind this motion is that it is a positive and, we hope, helpful way forward to rid Wales of the 22,000 to 26,000 private homes that lie empty in our communities.

The demand for housing is increasing in Wales, especially for affordable and social housing. Young people are struggling to get on to the housing ladder, and an increasing number of people are applying to be classed as homeless. Shelter Cymru recently reported that the amount of advice that it is providing on home repossession has risen 300 per cent in the past three years. So, there is no shortage of takers for these houses.

What is our approach? We want councils to be allowed to be flexible in their approach to council tax. This is a power for local councils to use and not a duty imposed on them, so they have the power, if need be, to impose additional council tax on empty properties if they think that that is appropriate. Owners of empty properties currently pay no council tax for the first six months of the property being empty, and are then required to pay just 50 per cent council tax. Councils have a power at the moment to increase the council tax beyond 100 per cent, but they must impose that after 12 months. That period of 12 months is often not long enough to resolve any problems, particularly when there is a disputed estate to be sorted out after the death of the property owner. That is why there needs to be a change in the law to extend that period and give even more flexibility to councils to deal with that.

There are also areas where we want to see the Welsh Government working with the UK Government on this issue. It will come as no news to the Chamber that we want to bring the VAT rate for home renovations down from 20 per cent to 5 per cent. This issue has been raised in the Chamber from the beginning of the Assembly. It was raised with the previous UK Labour Government and it has been raised with the present UK coalition Government. Both Governments have so far rejected it, but that is no reason why we should give up on pursuing this, because the rewards of that type of VAT reduction could be huge. For example, the Federation of Master Builders estimates that a reduction in VAT from 20 per cent to 5 per cent would create almost 1,000 new construction jobs in Wales in 2012, and up to 1,461 jobs by 2015. That is quite a precise figure, but I think that you get the picture in terms of the number of jobs that could be created by the extra work that would be generated, because the amount of money that we have in the public sector to regenerate houses would stretch further because we would not have to pay so much VAT. Owners would also have an additional incentive to bring those properties back into use.

Therefore, I hope that the motion provides a constructive and useful way forward. I look forward to the Minister's response to it, and I would urge the Assembly to support it as a possible basis for an empty homes strategy, which is long overdue for introduction by the Welsh Government.