Tackling empty homes remains a priority for the Scottish Government. Annual statistics show that as at January 2023, there were 42,865 long-term empty properties in Scotland. Empty properties are part of the solution to meet housing demand and we want to see all homes occupied and no homes left empty without good reason.
Ensuring that empty homes are maintained, improved and put to the best possible use forms part of the Housing to 2040 strategy. The strategy sets out a vision for housing in Scotland to 2040 and a route map to get there. It aims to deliver Scottish Government's ambition for everyone to have a safe, good quality and affordable home that meets their needs in the place they want to be (Scottish Government 2021). Within the strategy there are commitments to:
- work with local authorities (LAs) to audit empty homes and determine those that should be brought back into use
- support the work of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SEHP) and continue to roll out the approach across Scotland
- give LAs the powers they need to regulate and charge owners appropriately for homes lying empty and ensure they have the mechanisms to bring them back into productive use
- create a support package for homeowners in trouble to help them stay in their home, if that is right for them, and to prevent homes falling into disrepair or becoming empty in the first place
As part of our commitment to take forward aims within Housing to 2040, an Empty Homes Audit was commissioned last year. This evidence review was undertaken to complement and inform the Empty Homes Audit.
This scoping review aims to explore the literature and present relevant examples to better understand the range of approaches that have been employed to bring empty homes back in to use, with a focus on the UK, Scotland and internationally, as well as some of the challenges they highlight. It is intended to provide an initial summary of evidence from the literature in terms of a brief description of their outcomes and relevance to the Scottish context.
Challenges identified within the empty homes literature
There were two main themes related to challenges in bringing empty homes back into use noted in the literature: data quality in the identification and classification of empty homes; and challenges related to the application of interventions.
LA Council Tax data is the main source used for the identification of empty homes in Scotland, but complexities may make this data less reliable for adequately measuring empty homes. Difficulties may arise because owners are required to self-report empty homes; some categories of empty homes are exempt or appear in different figures and current data collection arrangements are not designed to gather information about the condition of homes, making it difficult to identify the most appropriate intervention.
Pressures on human resource capacity and budgets for repair and renovation; the time and resource intensive nature of empty homes work; and long timeframes involved in carrying out processes required to bring empty homes back into use were cited as limiting the effectiveness of the interventions available.
Reasons for empty homes
The reasons for the existence of empty homes are locally specific and can vary depending on whether the empty home is located in an area of high or low housing demand. Underlying causes identified in the literature included systemic effects relating to de-population, demographic change and socio-economic decline. Individual level reasons ranged from emotional attachment to the property, inheritance and probate processes, ill-health to a lack of knowledge or finances.
Bringing empty homes back into use: approaches and interventions
The review identified approaches designed to tackle these issues could be grouped into five thematic areas: dedicated empty homes roles; the provision of information to support engagement; financial measures; statutory powers; and community action initiatives:
- dedicated empty homes roles were found to be effective because they provide specialist knowledge and act strategically to push the empty homes agenda to promote good practice with the overall aim of reducing the numbers of empty homes
- providing information to support engagement was found to sometimes be enough in itself. For example, several studies noted that signposting empty homes owners, housing associations, third sector organisations and potential buyers to opportunities can lead to successful outcomes
- financial measures discussed in the literature focused on Council Tax arrangements, loan and grant funding and reduced VAT on renovation of empty homes - several studies reported that uneven application meant the use of these discretionary powers was not maximised
- statutory powers, such as CPOs, were found to be effective but required considerable resource and time to undertake the processes involved
- community action initiatives that integrated bringing empty homes back into use with actions to address other social and economic priorities were able to provide skills training and routes into work, and increase affordable housing provision - however, alignment of the different participants values towards the common goal of bringing empty homes back into use was found to be important to achieve delivery
This scoping review identified a range of approaches and activities that have been used to bring empty homes back into use and identified a number of related challenges. Data related to empty homes can be limited and challenging to collect, and homes can be empty for various and complex reasons at individual, societal and structural levels. Additionally, bringing homes back into use can require dedicated effort. For these reasons, it is likely that a range of interventions may be required to bring empty homes back into use.
Based on the findings of this evidence review, research on the following topics may help to understand the complexities related to bringing long term empty homes back into use by:
- understanding potential behavioural impacts of planned interventions, such as changes to taxation, as these may have unintended consequences on rates of empty homes.
- exploring the practicalities of partnership management to increase the evidence on how shared culture can develop between public, private and third sector groups and accelerate achieving common goals around empty homes work.
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