How homes lying empty in Stevenage and North Herts could be contributing to the ​current housing crisis

PUBLISHED: 12:13 20 January 2018 | UPDATED: 21:47 20 January 2018

Areas outlined for housing in Stevenage Borough Council's Local Plan are shown in orange. Picture: SBC.

Areas outlined for housing in Stevenage Borough Council's Local Plan are shown in orange. Picture: SBC.

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The Government is demanding councils build thousands of homes right across our area to meet rising demand. But could large numbers of homes lying empty make a contribution to solving the crisis? Comet chief reporter Martin Elvery investigates.

Jeanette Thomas, right, unveiling new flats at the council-built Archer Road development last year with council leader Sharon Taylor, left and new resident Abbie Stock with Charlie Kavanagh. Picture: Martin ElveryJeanette Thomas, right, unveiling new flats at the council-built Archer Road development last year with council leader Sharon Taylor, left and new resident Abbie Stock with Charlie Kavanagh. Picture: Martin Elvery

With councils being ordered to build thousands of new homes by the Government, the question of whether there are any alternative approaches is an important one.

The Liberal Democrats started the debate with a big national campaign citing empty homes as a crisis facing society.

In the party’s publicity they pointed to dramatic figures showing 11,000 homes in the UK have been empty for at least a decade, 60,000 properties have lain empty for two years or more, 23,000 for five years or more and more than 11,000 for 10 years or more.

The Comet has investigated the numbers of homes lying empty across our area to see if these figures play out locally and if they could be part of the reason why there are not enough houses around for people to buy or rent.

North Herts lead member for housing, Bernard Lovewell. Picture: NHDCNorth Herts lead member for housing, Bernard Lovewell. Picture: NHDC

The number of empty homes in Stevenage stood at 348 as of October last year. In October 2016 it was 563, in October 2015 it was 424, 507 in October 2014, 547 in October 2013 and 623 in October 2012. The number of properties vacant for six months or more stood at 175 in October 2017.

This has decreased from five years previously in 2012 when it was 234. Of the vacant homes listed in 2016, 46 were owned by the council and the rest were private. This number has remained relatively stable – in 2012 the number of vacant council-owned homes was 54.

With the council being asked by the Government to build more than 7,000 new homes over the next 20 years, the numbers of empty homes in our area are not quite the crisis the Lib Dems would have us believe, but they are still a significant number that could be being lived in.

The borough council for its part says it is working hard to bring any vacant homes back into circulation and to discourage homes being left empty.

Britain is facing an increasing problem of homes being left vacant for long periods according to the Liberal Democrat PartyBritain is facing an increasing problem of homes being left vacant for long periods according to the Liberal Democrat Party

The council’s lead member for housing, Councillor Jeanette Thomas, said: “The quicker we can get empty homes turned around the better. It’s getting people into the homes they need and that’s absolutely vital and it’s also increasing our income. If they are empty we’re not getting any rent.

“There’s always going to be the odd home that takes a long time to turn around because someone has dies or fora similar reason, but that’s in the minority.”

Mrs Thomas said the council also does everything it can to ensure that private landlords keep their properties in circulation.

The council states on its website: “Where the owner of a property, which has been vacant for a long time, is unwilling or unable to return it to use, the council may take enforcement action including, if appropriate, the making of a compulsory purchase order.”

The leader of the Liberal Democrat group on the council, Robin Parker, said empty homes are just a drop in the ocean when it comes to meeting the “huge” need for homes in Stevenage. He said it is difficult to solve the problem because the vast number of empty properties are privately owned, but said his party will keep pressuring the council to act against landlords who are sitting on empty homes.

But Stevenage MP Stephen McPartland says more does need to be done.

He told the Comet: “Stevenage Borough Council has a number of empty council properties each year and are pretty poor at getting them to local people. I get daily complaints from people on the waiting list complaining about properties sitting empty.”

In North Herts the number of empty homes. as of October 2017, was 860 – a big drop from October 2016 when it was 1,099 and 1,449 five years previously in 2012. 368 properties were vacant for more than six months as of October 2017. This had dropped slightly from 458 in 2012.

Just one of the vacant homes was owned by the council in both these years.

But again, the council has earmarked some 14,000 to be built under its Local Plan, so the empty homes figures is really a drop in the sea.

Councillor Bernard Lovewell, North Herts District Council’s executive member for housing and environmental health, told the Comet: “The council’s housing and homelessness strategy highlights the council’s position on empty homes.

“For many properties there are legitimate reasons why they are empty, for example where an owner has died and probate has not yet been granted. However, there are a number of long term empty properties that the council is aware of where there are less compelling reasons for their lack of occupation.

“Our approach is to seek to identify the owners of such properties and to offer support and assistance to help them bring their property back into use. If this approach is not successful the council is prepared to use its enforcement powers”.

In conclusion, there is clearly some room for improvement in getting empty properties back into circulation, but it clearly isn’t going to solve the housing crisis.

For this we have to look to the Local Plans which are coming into force across the area with their outlines for thousands of new homes. This in turn of course depends if we believe the government strategic assessments for the huge numbers that need to be built – and that’s another story.

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