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More than 1,000 empty homes brought back in record-breaking year

Published: 12 June 2019

More than 1,000 empty homes brought back in record-breaking year

In its latest annual report, the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SEHP) said that 1,128 properties became homes again in 2018-2019, the best year yet for the group which supports a network of empty homes officers working in 20 local authorities across Scotland.  It brings the total number of homes brought back into use since the SEHP was set up in 2010 to 4,340 which is roughly equivalent to a town the size of Peebles.

The report includes the results of a survey of council officers. A key finding is that 93% of the homes brought back were in areas where the council employs staff with time dedicated to tackling the issue of empty property. It also found that 18% of homes brought back went on to become affordable housing.

The SEHP, which is run by Shelter Scotland with funding by the Scottish Government, is leading the drive to tackle the 39,000 homes which are sitting empty. Thanks to an increase in funding last year the Partnership has been able to expand the support it offers empty homes officers and to provide direct financial support to local authorities to set up new services. In 2018 this included new roles in Aberdeen City Council and Comhair nan Eilean Siar where Kickstarter grants are part-funding two pilot posts.

Shaheena Din, SEHP National Manager, said:

“In 2010 there were only seven councils where staff had time dedicated to empty homes work. Today we have more staff working on empty homes than ever before and it’s delivering results - not just on reducing the number of empty homes but improving communities where empty properties can cause nuisance and even blight.”

Housing Minister Kevin Stewart said:

“Privately owned empty homes are a missed opportunity to provide warm, safe, sustainable places to live.

“That’s why I strongly welcome the rise in the number of homes being brought back into use, which is down to the hard work and expertise of empty homes officers.

“I want to see this expertise working across the whole of Scotland, so we have doubled our funding for the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership to more than £400,000 a year to help local authorities realise the benefits of this successful approach.”

Last year’s announcement of increased funding, which includes £105,000 a year for grants to councils to increase empty homes work, is also supporting the SEHP to invest more in research, training and marketing its services.

The annual report shows that empty homes officers typically work with the owners of empty property providing tailored advice and information.

In a survey answered by council officers the Partnership found that repairs taking longer or costing more than expected was one of the big reasons for delays bringing property back into use. As a result, the Partnership has recommended that where they are not already doing so councils use discretion when applying the additional council tax levy which increases council tax bills to up to 200% on property left empty for more than a year.

The survey also discovered that while most empty homes are brought back into use in less than two years the chances of a home being brought back into use drops off after it has sat unoccupied for five years. SEHP supports the Scottish Government’s commitment to bring in Compulsory Sale Orders which will force owners whose empty properties are causing issues to sell them on the open market. It also supports the use of existing Compulsory Purchase Orders but acknowledges that this is a more time-consuming process with higher risks for local councils.

Shaheena Din added:

“On behalf of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership I want to thank the empty homes officers for a record-breaking year but we know we still have work to do. Empty properties are a wasted asset at a time of a housing shortage and our goal is to see staff with time to dedicate to this issue working in every council in Scotland over the next three years.”

Anyone with concerns or queries about an empty property they own or live near can contact the Empty Homes Advice Service 0344 515 1941 or email emptyhomes@shelter.org.uk.

Spotlight on new Western Isles Service 

With approximately 3.5% of privately-owned homes on the Western Isles classed as long-term empty the islands have the second highest rate of vacant housing stock in Scotland. While some areas have suffered from depopulation resulting in empty homes, others lose people due to a shortage of affordable accommodation.

Reducing the empty homes problem is an important way of strengthening these fragile rural communities. The new empty homes service on the Western Isles launched in October 2018 and has already brought 40 properties back into use with more than 70 currently being renovated. It’s run by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar with seed funding and ongoing support from the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership.

The area’s first empty homes officer, Murdo MacLeod, has a background in the construction industry. He can put owners in touch with local suppliers where he’s negotiated discounts for people bringing long-term empty property back into use. He can also certify homes as very long-term empty which provides access to VAT discounts on major work.

He said: “For a lot of people it’s the cost of renovating that has been holding them back so getting the discounts from local suppliers and additional VAT discounts has made a huge difference.

For people doing a lot of work to a property it can save them thousands of pounds and can make a project viable when it wasn’t before. Some of them are eligible for Government funding for energy efficiency measures like insultation and new heating systems too. With this help available people are waking up and realising that it’s cost-effective to do the work now.”

A considerable amount of the property has been inherited by people who live in mainland Scotland and even further afield. To get in touch with them the council produced a leaflet explaining the advice available from the empty homes service and distributed it with council tax bills.

Murdo MacLeod said: “The leaflet really worked. People on the islands called up their friends and family who had moved away and let them know, it’s generated a lot of interest in the service.”

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