Forty thousand empty homes blight our communities and our current rate of house-building is inadequate, writes Mike Hedges
Housing is one of the key issues facing Wales.
Far too many houses are empty, not enough council housing is being built, we have seen the return of leasehold and high maintenance charges, and we are seeing estates built with their roads and pavements not up to adoptable standard.
According to data obtained by ITN News, in 2018, there were 43,028 empty homes in Wales, with at least 18,000 empty for more than six months. These include all kinds of property with even houses in sought after areas being left empty for several years.
Empty homes are a wasted resource at a time of substantial housing demand. They can also cause a range of social and environmental problems. Empty homes can be a focus for increased levels of crime, vandalism, anti-social behaviour, drug abuse as well as other issues such as overgrown gardens, unsteady boundary fences and damp.
They also represent a potential housing resource that is currently underutilised. Bringing empty homes back into use can help address a number of housing and social issues by increasing supply in areas where there are housing shortages.
If all efforts to persuade owners to bring their properties back into use fail, and such properties continue to be a nuisance or be in poor condition, councils need to consider their enforcement powers.
Local authorities should use their powers where attempts to get the owner to bring back the property into use have failed. But the difficulty of using these powers should not be underestimated.
The Welsh Government introduced ‘Houses into Homes’ loans that are available to renovate empty properties and make them fit for habitation. The loans are interest-free and the money is available before any work starts to pay for work on houses or commercial buildings, including splitting a property into flats.
Anyone can apply but the most that can be borrowed is £25,000 for each property, the loan offered will be secured on the property and will take into account the existing mortgage. It can’t be more than 80% of the property’s value.
Despite the availability of these loans, not enough properties are being brought back into use. We need a system where if a dwelling is empty for over 12 months, is not being marketed or not undergoing repair, then councils should be given a duty to ‘compulsory purchase’ these properties at the current market price. After completing this purchase, they should then either repair or sell the property on the open market or to a housing association.
Between 1945 and 1959, six years of Labour and 8 years of Conservative governments built 120,000 council houses in Wales – an average of 15,000 a year.
According to an answer from the Minister of Housing “from Business Plans submitted to the Welsh Government by the 11 stock-retaining authorities; they intend to deliver 425 homes in 2019/20. With the removal of the HRA borrowing cap, we expect councils to step up to the challenge to build at pace”.
Less than 500 per annum compared to an average of 15,000 between 1945 and 1959 period does not compare well.
With thousands homeless or inadequately housed, the only means of providing quality affordable housing is via the building of council houses. Currently, a Housing Finance Grant is given to housing associations and a separate fund called the Affordable Housing Grant is given to local authorities. The social housing grant is given to housing associations for funding new social housing, but can also help people buy a home.
Funding can help:
- projects aimed at increasing the supply of affordable rented housing.
- projects aimed at older people known as ‘Extra care’ housing. These are houses for older people, but also provide extra care and household jobs.
- projects where there is not a lot of demand for new houses within an area and helps to improve the community.
- projects aimed at helping people who need support to live independently.
Whilst housing association developments and renovations have provided welcome accommodation, they are not set up to build at the scale required to meet the growing housing need.
As in the 1945 to 1970 period, the only way of providing large numbers of social housing is for councils to build large numbers of properties for rent. Building council housing also increases owner-occupation as houses that are currently being bought for rent would, with the reduction in private rental demand, become owned by people to live in thus improving the stability of communities.
The Welsh Government should set a target of increasing the number of council houses built by 500 each year. That would mean in 2020/21, we would see 1000 houses being built and this target would rise to 5000 houses to be built in 2030/31.
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