Rutland County Council Empty Homes Improvement Plan 2008-2011 FOREWORD There are a number of privately owned empty homes in the County, some of which are not maintained in good condition. An empty property can impact on the quality of the local environment, creating a poor image of an area. It may lead to increased fear of crime, attract anti-social behaviour and make a place less attractive for local people to live in. Whilst we recognise that there are relatively low numbers of empty homes in Rutland that are in a poor condition, it needs to be acknowledged that each empty property is a wasted resource, particularly where there are limited opportunities for meeting housing needs in the area. It is accepted that turnover in the housing market will lead to some homes remaining vacant for a period of time, however it is those homes which remain vacant for a longer term, for example 6 months or more, that give rise to concern. This Improvement Plan has been developed with the aim of ensuring that every effort is made to return these valuable homes back into use, and that neighbourhoods are not unnecessarily adversely affected by empty homes. This Plan links closely with the Council’s Housing Strategy, Corporate Plan, Rutland Performance Plan, Rutland Community Safety Partnership –Partnership Plan 2008- 11, Homelessness Strategy; Sustainable Community Strategy; Rutland Community Plan (Rutland Together). Roger Begy OBE Leader of the Council BACKGROUND 1. Introduction 1.1 Empty homes can be vacant for a variety of reasons. They can normally be separated into two types. 1.2 Transactional vacancies: As homes are bought and sold, or re-let, there will be a period of vacancy in between the changes in occupation. Such ‘transactional vacancies’ are not usually the cause of problems, but are a normal part of the operation of the housing market. These properties seldom require the intervention of the Council in order to ensure they are brought back into use within 6 months. Problematic vacancies: These are properties that are inactive in the housing market and empty for six months or more. These long-term properties cause the greatest concern and will be considered when assessing the extent of the problem and how best to target remedial action. 1.3 In 2006 881 homes were known to be empty in Rutland. Of which 25 were known to be Council owned properties. August 2008 Council Tax reports showed 163 properties were empty for at least 6 months. Known reasons for these empty properties include a deceased owner, the owner being in prison, the owner being in hospital or residential care home, or simply that the landlord didn’t wish to let their property to anyone out of fear that the tenants may damage it. A separate tally was recorded for second homes, this accounts for a further 156 empty properties. It is recognised that as Rutland is an area of pleasant countryside relatively close to a number of urban conurbations, this is a feature of the Rutland Housing Stock and brings prosperity to the area. 1.4 Why empty Homes are a problem in Rutland: There are 163 Long term Empty homes in Rutland. This accounts for 20% of the current Council Housing Waiting List (approximately 836). These 163 properties account for approximately 1.6% of the total Housing stock of 15,649. By reducing the number of empty homes we will contribute to making more affordable housing available to people in Rutland. It will also make better use of the existing stock and help reduce the need to build on Greenfield sites. 1.5 The 2005 House Condition Survey (HCS) covering Rutland, Melton & Harborough estimated an overall figure of empty dwellings as 5% (approx 720 dwellings). This figure resulted in responses relating to properties that have been empty for more than 2 months. However it should be noted that houses do sometimes require to be empty as part of a healthy housing market. The number of long term empty properties in Rutland was estimated at about 100 and of that 60 were estimated to be not suitable for habitation with an average cost to make habitable of £54,000. 1.6 It is interesting to note that for a number of the properties empty for more than 6 months, there are probate issues following the death of the owner. This suggests that a number of empty homes in the County are a result of ongoing legal ownership matters. 1.7 However, it should be recognised that:- (a) Each property can become a major cause for concern for those who live nearby if the house and/or garden looks unkempt or attracts vandalism, arson or other forms of anti-social behaviour. (b) In an area of high demand for affordable housing and with many households who are homeless or in need of larger accommodation, an empty property is a wasted housing resource. There are currently 836 households on the housing register in Rutland, and in 2007-2008 approximately 100 households applied for help under the homelessness legislation. In 40 of these cases the Council was under a legal obligation to rehouse the household. (c) There is a loss of valuable council tax revenue, as only 50% council tax is payable on an empty property for the first 6 months. After 6 months the full amount is payable. Further details are available at http://www.rutland.gov.uk/pp/service/directory.asp?id=5341&Tree=525 4,5333&DetailID=2672 (d) An empty property is also a waste of a resource for an owner as there are holding costs incurred for empty properties, for example, maintenance, insurance and investment in security measures. It has been estimated1 that the annual cost of keeping a home empty is around £7,000. (1Empty Homes Agency: www emptyhomes.com) 2. Background and other strategic objectives 2.1 The need to reduce empty homes has been widely recognised for a number of years, mainly through the campaigning of organisations such as the Empty Homes Agency (www.emptyhomes.com). 2.2 Nationally, the government has identified that the ‘reuse’ of empty homes and the conversion of vacant commercial property lie at the heart of the government’s commitment to securing Urban Renaissance in towns and cities (Empty Property: Unlocking the Potential, ODPM 2003). 2.3 The government’s response to the Barker Review 2 (which highlighted the need to increase the supply of housing), states that, “In addition to new build, it is essential to make better use of existing housing stock and one way of doing this is to address the issue of the number of private sector empty properties vacant for 6 months or more”. (2The government’s response to Kate Barker’s Review of Housing Supply. December 2005) 2.4 The increasing commitment to meeting housing needs is also emphasised in the Local Government White Paper3, published in October 2006. In addition, Planning Policy Statement 3– Housing4 encourages local planning authorities to develop positive policies to identify and bring into residential use empty houses and buildings and, where appropriate, acquire properties under compulsory procedures.(3 Strong and Prosperous Communities – the Local Government 4 White Paper. 26 October 2006, Planning Policy Statement 3 (PP33) –Housing. November 2006) 2.5 An Empty Homes Improvement Plan (the Plan) is an essential part of any local authority strategy for the provision of housing for those in need; the regeneration and sustainability of rundown sites encompasses the work not only of several different departments within the Council but also many different organisations, groups and individuals within the private sector. 2.6 The government has introduced a number of measures aimed at encouraging the re-use of empty homes and has produced guidance and handbooks which provides advice to help bring empty properties into use. These can be accessed via the Council’s website www.rutland.gov.uk/emptyhomes 2.7 Regional Priorities The Regional Housing Board for the East Midlands has developed a Regional Housing Strategy which sets out the housing needs of the region, identifies priorities for action and demonstrates how these link with wider regeneration work and other strategies and plans. A copy of the document can be found at http://www.goem.gov.uk/497296/docs/191913/232488/288818/strategy Policy 5 of the Regional Housing Strategy identifies ‘Renewing and Revitalising the Private Sector’ as a priority and states that the development of strategies and plans to tackle the problems of empty properties can underpin initiatives aimed at delivering this priority. 2.8 The Draft East Midland Regional Plan (September 2006) encourages the production of Empty Property Strategies linked to planning policies. Policy 17 of the Draft Plan outlines the aim to achieve a 3% vacancy rate for the region as a whole. 2.9 Local Priorities The Council and its partners have identified key aims and priorities which the Plan links to, and can play a part in delivering. These are listed below. (a) Rutland Performance Plan- listening to improve; (b) Housing Strategy (Chapter 8) ; (c) Rutland Community Safety Partnership –Partnership Plan 2008-11; (d) Homelessness strategy; (e) Community Strategy; (f) Rutland Community Plan (Rutland Together). 3. Monitoring Performance 3.1 Prior to April 2008, the national best value performance indicator (BVPI) 64 required a local authority to monitor private sector empty properties that are returned into occupation or demolished as a result of direct action by the local authority. Best Value Performance Indicators were replaced for 2008/09 by a new set of National Indicators and do not include an indicator for empty homes brought back into use. To enable the Council to monitor performance in bringing back into use empty homes, a local indicator is required; the target in the annual action plan for empty homes being brought back into use will be used as a local indicator, and performance against this target will be included in the annual report to Cabinet. 3.2 No properties have been brought back into use since 2003 as a direct result of the Council’s action. 4. Delivering the Empty Homes Improvement Plan 4.1 In order to bring a greater number of empty properties back into use, a robust planned approach to tackling the problem is required. 4.2 The Council wishes to tackle empty properties and bring them back into use and to consider innovative ways to achieve this. It is proposed that this will be achieved as follows: 4.3 Commitment of staff and resources To fully carry out the aims, objectives and actions outlined in this Plan, existing officer resources will be committed to: i) Develop up-to-date knowledge and expertise of relevant issues through ongoing research, liaising with other internal sections and external partners; ii) Initiate and record reports of empty properties from the general public, Members, Parish Councils and other Council sections, and partner organisations; iii) Carry out surveys and site visits; iv) Chase progress on individual cases; v) Advise owners on the options available to them in bringing their empty property back into use; vi) Develop new initiatives and incentives so that a complete range of enabling and enforcing options is available to use in appropriate circumstances; and vii) Work with other Council departments to enable a corporate approach to be developed that supports the bringing of empty properties back into use. 4.4 Raise awareness of empty homes issues and giving advice Rutland County Council will work corporately to share information, develop solutions to reduce empty homes in the County and involve external partners. In particular, the following partners will have a role: Public Protection Team - Officers within the Public Protection Team are well placed to identify empty private sector homes and those properties likely to become vacant because of disrepair. They have an overview of local housing standards, and their technical knowledge and input can accelerate the processes by which homes are brought back into use. They will be able to assist by providing information on availability of financial assistance, their application procedures and eligibility criteria. They will also be able to advise owners on enforcement action that may be taken as a last resort. Revenues - If a property is left empty, the owners only have to pay 50% of the council tax charge. Owners have to apply to the Council for this discount. At this point, the Council receives some of the most valuable information on the properties which are empty in Rutland. Officers involved in providing council tax information to owners of empty homes can invite such owners to contact the relevant officer to discuss the options available to return properties into occupation. Information can also be sent out with council tax demands. Elected Members are able to promote the Plan within their local community. In addition their local knowledge of empty properties in their ward enables them to identify empty properties within their respective wards and refer them to the Public Protection Team. Housing Strategy - Identification of housing need and how best to try to meet this need is an integral part of the Housing Strategy, which outlines how reduction in empty properties can contribute to increased provision of homes. The Housing Strategy Manager can assist in identifying the need for affordable housing, and work with partners to purchase or lease empty properties to help meet this need. The Manager is also responsible for the management of the Spire Contract. The introduction of a Private Sector Leasing Scheme is currently being investigated. Landlords and Estate Agents- Contact and dialogue with Landlords and Estate Agents will be important in the delivery of this Plan. We aim to establish a Landlords forum in 2009 to share information and best practice with Landlords and Estate Agents, with the aim of returning empty properties back into use and establishing closer working relationships. External Partners - Partnerships exist with other local authorities via the East Midland Empty Property Forum. The opportunity to forge partnerships with for example, landlords, homeowners, estate agents, letting agents, and building societies and the Home Improvement Trust, will be investigated. The Home Improvement Trust provides an equity release scheme. A further list of Council Services and external organisations that may be involved in the delivery of this plan is included in Appendix 4 4.5 Compile an empty homes database This will include records of property owners, addresses and vacation dates. It will record and diarise any action taken in an attempt to return empty properties back into use and to improve monitoring of the scheme. Information can be obtained from council tax records of empty properties, Land Registry and the electoral register. Improved recording will also assist the Council in reporting its progress in returning empty properties back into occupation 4.6 Bringing empty properties back into use – direct action The Council will pursue action through formal or informal means to ensure that properties are not left empty, particularly those which have been empty for more than 6 months. Appendix 2 provides a guide to the available action open to the Council to ensure that effective use will be made of these properties. 4.7 Direct Action: The informal approach The Council will strive to work with owners of empty properties to bring them back into use through an informal approach in the first instance. Accordingly every effort will be made to establish who owns the empty property and their contact details. Once the information regarding ownership has been obtained, the Council will work towards establishing the owner’s future plans for the property and the proposed timescale. Providing that there is evidence that plans are in place for the owner to: (a) Occupy the property; (b) Let it to tenants; (c) Offer it for sale on the open market; or (d) Have another proposed use within a reasonable timescale then no further action will be taken by the Council other than to monitor the situation through to a satisfactory conclusion. The Council is keen to work with the owners of these properties. Advice and assistance will be given by the Council on the various options available to owners to help to bring their empty property back into use. Some of these options are outlined in Appendix 1. 4.8 Financial Assistance. The use of financial incentives to encourage owners of empty homes to bring them back into use will be investigated. This will include using some of the council’s capital budget for private sector housing repairs grants, the identification of external funding, and existing schemes in used by other local authorities. The feasibility of linking financial assistance to the acquisition of nomination rights will also be investigated This work will be included in the annual report to Cabinet. 4.9 Private Sector Leasing Scheme The Council does not operate a Private Sector Leasing Scheme. However the feasibility of a Private Sector Leasing Scheme is currently being investigated and the Council may consider the introduction of such a scheme subject to financial viability. It is likely to involve a partnership of the Council, a lettings/management agency (possibly a RSL) and private landlords. The partnership would encourage landlords to let their properties in return for a secure income stream, good management standards, and a promise to return the properties in good condition. The Council would use any properties that came forward in this way to rehouse people who are homeless or who are on the waiting list. In exchange for the nomination rights the landlord is guaranteed rent for a set number of years, no stress from managing the property, no council tax to pay and peace of mind that they are providing a home in an area of high demand for those wishing to remain in the area but who cannot afford to buy. These properties will be offered to people on the Council’s housing waiting list, and they might well be attractive to those who do not have a realistic chance of an offer of re-housing into Council or RSL properties. These properties could also be used to re-house homeless households 4.10 Direct Action: The formal approach As previously stated the Council will pursue every available course of action to ensure that a property is brought back into use through the informal measures described above. However, if this is unsuccessful, further measures will be considered by the Council. The Council does have a number of legal options open to it and will use those powers where it is deemed necessary and all avenues of informal action have failed and where the property continues to blight a neighbourhood. This may include the service of statutory notices, or even compulsory purchase where appropriate. An overview of the various legal options open to the Council, are outlined in Appendix 3. 5. Action Plan 5.1 In setting out the mechanisms that will be used to increase the numbers of empty homes brought back into use an Action Plan for 2008/09 has been produced. This sets out key activities required to deliver improved performance. 6. Conclusion 6.1 Whilst Rutland does not have a large number of empty properties remaining vacant for 6 months or more, nor does it experience concentrated areas of void housing, there is a need to proactively manage the reduction of longer term empty homes. An empty home is a wasted resource. 6.2 The Plan will provide a ‘route map’ for the work that is being and will be carried out to tackle this issue. Contact Details In the first instance you should contact the Public Protection Team Telephone: 01572722577 e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or write to us at:- Rutland County Council, Community Services Department, Catmose, Oakham, Rutland LE15 6HP Council Office opening hours are: 8:30 am –4.45pm Monday to Thursday; 8:30 am - 4.15 pm Fridays Appendix 1: Options proposed to be made available to empty property owners to bring back into use Advice/assistance to Agency who be provided by Additional Option Rutland County can assist information Council staff Sale on open Estate agents Details of estate Purchaser may be market And Rutland agents. Planning entitled to Empty County Council advice on e.g. change Homes Assistance Planning of use from (TBC and subject to Service commercial to conditions). residential. Private Rutland County Details of bond renting Council housing scheme, free strategy team / advertising, pre- RSL tenancy determinations, and housing law advice. Private Letting/ Details of List of agents to be renting management letting/management included on website agents agents (with the agents permission) Empty Rutland Applying for and Possible grants are Property County Council administering empty being investigated Grants Public property grants. and will be detailed in (not yet in Protection future amendments to place) Team the plan. Registered RSLs involved Whether any schemes Limited funding for Social in scheme currently operating. these schemes. Not Landlords Details of RSLs all properties are (RSLs) purchasing properties. suitable. purchasing empty properties for affordable housing Private Rutland County Whether any schemes Limited need for Sector Council currently operating. properties for this Leasing Housing Referral to Homeless purpose. Not all Scheme Strategy and Housing Support properties are Manager team for details suitable. regarding leasing. Appendix 2 – Action Plan 2008/09 Target Task Resources Responsibility Anticipated Outcomes Measures of Success Date 1. Promote the Plan August 2008 Staff time Senior EHO , Increased awareness, Key stakeholders and public with key stakeholders onwards Communications resulting in more empty shown to be aware of empty and public Officer. properties being property issues and how the identified and brought partners are working together back into use. Update to tackle. website. 2. Develop a database September Staff time Senior EHO/ Accurate information and Database developed and kept of long term empty 2008 Public Protection audit trail for the local up to date continuously. properties Database Ongoing Manager indicator (para.3.1) Clear continuously updated demonstrable with new cases and understanding of the progress extent of the issue in Rutland. Information easily made available to partners who can assist in bringing back into use. 3. Bring 4 empty March 2009 Staff Time Senior EHO/ 4 empty properties Meeting Target properties back into Public Protection available for occupation occupation Manager 4. Investigate the TBC Staff time Housing Strategy Creation of a new Creation of a scheme bringing feasibility of a Private Manager scheme more empty homes back into Sector Lettings scheme use/ manage successfully any homes signed up to the scheme. 5. Investigate possible Ongoing Staff time Senior EHO/ Begin offering some Increase in number of empty financial incentives to Public Protection form of financial properties brought back into assist Landlords of Manager incentive to empty use. Empty Homes in bringing them back into homes owners. use. Investigate external and internal funding streams. To include feasibility of securing nomination rights. 6. Produce annual March 2009 Staff time Public Protection Continued Approval of annual action action plan for 2009/10 Manager implementation of the plan by Cabinet and a report of the Empty Homes outcomes of the Senior EHO Improvement plan 2008/2009 action plan. To be considered by cabinet Appendix 3- Powers available to the Council Problem Legislation Power Granted Department Condition and Section 215 To require owner to take necessary steps to improve the condition and Development appearance of Town and appearance of the property. Where the owner fails to take action the Council may Control property Country undertake the work and an appropriate charge will be imposed on the owner. adversely Planning Act affecting the 1990 amenity of the Enforced Sale: If the Council carry out works as above, the Council can ensure that the costs of Legal Services neighbourhood Law of the work can be recovered for example through a charge on the property. If the Property Act monies remain unpaid, the Council may force the sale of the property. 1925 Compulsory Where all available avenues of action have been explored and have been Legal Services Purchase: unsuccessful, as a last resort the Council can use compulsory purchase orders. Housing Act These orders have to be approved by the Government Office and may be subject 1985, section to public inquiry. The Council’s intention to use these powers will be 17 communicated with owners who would be given the opportunity to voluntarily take the necessary remedial action to resolve the situation. Disposal by the Council of a property subject to a compulsory purchase order, would normally mean that the property would be transferred for use as Affordable Housing. However, if this proves not to be possible, it will be disposed of on the open market to an owner who makes an undertaking to bring the property back into use as a home. Empty In specific circumstances for properties which have been unoccupied for a period Public Protection Dwelling of 6 months or more enables an authority, once approved by a residential Team Management property tribunal, to issue an EDMO which results in an empty property becoming Orders: re-occupied. Housing Act 2007 Problem Legislation Power Granted Department Dangerous or Building Act To require the owner to make the property safe (Section 77) or enable the local Building Control dilapidated 1984, Sections authority to take emergency action to make the building safe (Section 78). buildings or 77 and 78 structures Housing Act To require the owner to carry out works where the local authority consider Public Protection 2004, Section housing conditions to be unacceptable, on the basis of the impact of hazards on Team 5 and 7 the health or safety of the most vulnerable potential occupant. Enforced Sale: If the Council carry out works as above, the Council can ensure that the costs of Legal Services Law of the work can be recovered for example through a charge on the property. If the Property Act monies remain unpaid, the Council may force the sale of the property. 1925 Demolition In certain circumstances the condition of the empty property will not warrant Public Protection Order: bringing it back into use will not be feasible and the most satisfactory course of Team Housing Act action will be to serve a demolition order. 1985, Section 265 Problem Legislation Power Granted Department Unsecured Local To require the owner to take steps to secure a property or allow the local authority Building Control properties (if it Government to board it up in an emergency. poses the risk (Miscellaneous that it may be Provisions) Act entered or 1982, Section suffer 29 vandalism, arson or similar) Blocked or Local To require the owner to remove obstructions from private sewers. Public Protection defective Government Team drainage or (Miscellaneous private sewers Provisions) Act 1976, Section 35 Building Act To require the owner to address blocked or defective drainage. Public Protection 1984, Section Team 59 Public Health To require the owner to address defective drainage or private sewers. Public Protection Act 1961, Team Section 17 Vermin (If it is Public Health To require the owner to remove waste so that vermin is not attracted to the site Public Protection either present Act 1961, (relates to accumulation of rubbish). Obligation of occupier of land to notify local Team or there is a Section 34 authority of rats and mice. risk of attracting vermin that Prevention of Power to require the treatment and control of vermin Public Protection may Damage by Team detrimentally Pests Act affect people’s 1949, Section health) 4 Environmental Power to require owners causing a statutory nuisance arising from the defective Public Protection Protection Act condition of a property Team 1990, Section 80 Building Act Power to serve an abatement notice on any premises that are in such a defective Public Protection 1984, Section state as to be prejudicial to health or a nuisance. Team 76 Public Health To require the owner to remove waste from the property (relates to accumulation Public Protection Act 1961, of rubbish). Team Section 34 (see above) Unsightly land Town and To require the owner to address unsightly land or the external appearance of a Development and property Country property. Control affecting the Planning Act /Planning amenity of an 1990, Section area 215 Appendix 4- Other departments and organisations who may assist in the implementation of the Empty Homes plan. 1. Building Control - Building Control is responsible for inspecting empty properties which have been reported as dangerous and there is therefore scope for these properties to be referred to the relevant officer. Officers are also well placed to ident ify empty homes whilst carrying out their duties in the district. 2. Environmental Health (Pollution) Officers and Pest Control Officers- can identify empty homes in the course of their duties and refer them to the relevant officer. 3. Housing Benefits - Owners of empty properties may be reluctant to offer rented properties to tenants who are in receipt of benefits due to concerns about the benefits system and speed of payments. Officers offer information and advice which help reassure property owners. 4. Communications Officer - Can advise on the marketing and advertising of the Plan and its implementation. This may prove valuable in reaching owners of Empty Homes. 5. Planning Services - Planning officers are well placed to develop relationships with building owners and developers and thus promote the Plan. Local planning policy can also facilitate the bringing of empty properties back into residential use, for examp le, through permission to turn houses into flats and the change of use for other buildings to residential. Such changes will be encouraged where appropriate. Planning officers and enforcement officers are also able to identify empty properties which are, as a result of their condition, detrimental to the surrounding amenities. The local planning authority has the power under Section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, to require the owner to take necessary steps to improve the condition and appearance of properties. 6. Legal Services - Legal officers assist Council officers in tracing ownership for land and buildings. These established procedures are useful in tackling empty homes. Other legal queries surrounding empty homes are referred to the legal team. 7. Registered Social Landlords (RSLs) - The Council’s housing stock of approximately 1250 homes is managed by Spire Homes. Other RSLs own over 240+ properties in Rutland. RSLs need to keep the length of time their properties are empty to a minimum; their performance is measured by the Housing Corporation. They may assist in any possible Private Sector Leasing Schemes that are set up.