Bringing empty homes back into use: audit of privately owned empty homes

An independent audit of long-term empty homes policy and interventions in Scotland.

2. Research methodology

The audit has involved a mixed method research approach including:

  • an evidence review
  • a policy review and analysis of the existing approaches and interventions currently used in Scotland to bring empty homes back into use
  • a value of money assessment of current approaches and interventions
  • quantitative surveys of local authorities and empty homes owners
  • qualitative research through in-depth interviews with local authority and wider stakeholder representatives, and empty homeowners

Evidence review

The evidence review has been informed by a recent literature review and analysis undertaken in-house by the Scottish Government[3]. To ensure the research is robust and independent we have also conducted our own additional analysis and interpretation of the evidence.

As part of the evidence review, data has been compiled from the following data sources:

  • National Records of Scotland data on households and dwellings
  • Scottish Government Housing Statistics on empty properties and second homes
  • Scottish Empty Homes Partnership annual reports.
  • Comparative data for England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The analysis looks at trends over time and analysis by local authority, highlighting different experiences.

Policy review

A review of the existing approaches and interventions used in tackling empty homes has been undertaken through desk top analysis of documentation combined with in-depth interviews with representatives of the Scottish Government, the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SEHP), a sample of local authorities and wider stakeholders. The main findings of the policy review are held in Chapter 5.

Value for money assessment

In examining value for money (VFM), for the purposes of this report, Indigo House examined:

  • Data over a 13-year period from April 2010 to March 2023. This included published data to 31st March 2022 provided by the Scottish Government for the purposes of the study together with data for the last financial year 2022-23 made available by the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership from their Annual Report to 31st March 2023[4], which was being prepared at the time Indigo House conducted this audit.
  • A long list of 13 discrete interventions for possible VFM assessment were idenfitied. Due to availability of Scotland-wide data, five of these interventions were examined in detail.
  • The nature, the cost of the intervention and the outputs delivered (i.e the empty homes brought back into use), the various sources of funding of the interventions, the period over which the interventions took place and the VFM from the perspective of the various participants.

This enabled Indigo House to create a VFM framework to consider each of the options, on a consistent a basis as possible, given the differing time frames and characteristics of each intervention. In terms of limitations of the VFM approach, it should be noted that the interventions being analysed here are not mutually exclusive and that double counting may occur in terms of homes brought back on line.

Quantitative surveys

Local authority survey

The purpose of the local authority survey was to obtain a range of data on the local authority empty homes service, strategy, detailed quantitative data on the number, type and condition of empty homes, opinion on the effectiveness of current approaches and interventions, and on areas for improvement.

The questionnaire used for the local authority survey is included in Appendix 1. This includes the consent and data protection requirements on the front sheet of the survey, and a statement on anonymity of survey responses. All analysis and reporting of the survey findings is provided on an aggregate and anonymous basis.

A total of 29 local authority representatives responded to the local authority survey, from a total of 32 local authorities – a response rate of 91%. The majority of those responding to the survey on behalf of the local authority (26 respondents) worked in an Empty Homes Officer role, and three respondents were not empty homes officers (where the local authority did not have such a role). In completing the survey, around two-thirds of respondents also liaised across local authority departments – including Council Tax, Housing Strategy, the Private Sector team, Building Standards and Environmental Health.

The survey findings are interspersed throughout the audit report with responses included in the relevant sections of the report.

Survey of empty homeowners

The purpose of the empty homeowner survey was to obtain a range of data from empty homeowners on the number of empty homes they owned (or had owned over the previous five years), the property condition, reasons for the property being empty, barriers for bringing their property back into use, their satisfaction with the approaches and interventions that they may have experienced to bring their property back into use, and opinion on areas for improvement.

The questonnaire used for the empty homeowner survey is included in Appendix 2. This includes the consent and data protection requirements on the front sheet of the survey, and a statement on anonymity of survey responses. Again, all analysis and reporting of the survey findings is provided on an aggregate and anonymous basis. Due to the number of returns it is not possible to disaggregate or analyse on an area basis.

Local authority empty homes contacts were asked by the research team if they could distribute the homeowner survey to their database of empty homeowners. The survey was distributed by officers within local authorities in one of two ways:[5]

  • By direct email invitation to contacts understood to either be, or have been, owners of long-term empty homes.
  • Through social media invitation.

There was a total of 197 responses to the survey. The survey respondents appeared to come from 18 different local authority areas, based on the location of the property locations provided, and there was a wide spread of types of areas reflected in the responses including three large cities, and a mix of urban and rural areas, including two island areas. However, there may be some respondents who owned empty properties in more than one local authority area.

The direct email approach was considerably more successful, and the greater majority of responses were secured through this approach. The survey design was not intended to obtain a representative sample of empty homeowners across the country, and therefore a margin of error is not provided for this survey. However, it is considered that the survey findings provide a valuable indication of the experiences and perceptions of empty homeowners.[6] [7] The survey findings are interspersed throughout the audit report with responses included in the relevant sections of the report.

Location of properties from homeowner survey responses

For the purposes of the survey, the following long-term empty homes were defined as “privately owned residential properties that have not been occupied for a period of 6 months or more.”

Respondents were asked to indicate how many long-term empty homes they either have currently or which would have met this definition at some point over the past 5 years (but which are either now occupied, changed in use or demolished). As shown in Table 1 below, respondents to the survey most commonly owned an empty home, or homes that have been empty at some point over the past 5 years, in Glasgow City Council (19% of total responses), Aberdeenshire Council (17%), Fife Council (15%) and Stirling Council (11%). It is noted that this is influenced greatly by the extent and nature of efforts that individual local authorities took to promote the survey, and should not be seen as reflecting the profile of empty homes across the country as a whole.

Table 1 Profile of Respondents’ Empty Homes by Local Authority Area [8]
Local Authority Number of Empty Homes % of Empty Homes from responses Base
Aberdeen City Council 24 8% 19
Aberdeenshire Council 49 17% 24
Angus Council 5 2% 2
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar 11 4% 6
Dumfries and Galloway Council 1 <1% 1
Dundee City Council 2 1% 2
East Ayrshire Council 1 <1% 1
Falkirk Council 10 3% 9
Fife Council 42 15% 37
Glasgow City Council 55 19% 21
Inverclyde Council 1 <1% 1
North Ayrshire Council 2 1% 2
North Lanarkshire Council 2 1% 1
Orkney Council 24 8% 21
Perth and Kinross Council 22 8% 15
Scottish Borders Council 2 1% 2
South Lanarkshire Council 3 1% 2
Stirling Council 32 11% 29
Total 288 100% 182

It should be noted that the individual bases do not sum to the total base as some respondents have empty homes in more than one local authority areas.

Qualitative research

The purpose of the qualitative research was to provide in-depth understanding into particular issues, by exploring experiences, characteristics or behaviours relating to the incidence of empty homes and how to bring them back into use. As is typical, the sample sizes were much smaller than those used for the quantitative surveys, and it is not the intention to obtain a statistically representative sample through this type of research, but to understand matters in more depth. Reporting of qualitative data has been done through analysis and description of opinion, rather than counts or measures. The following descriptions are used in reporting qualitative findings:

  • all - everyone participating in the interviews made this point
  • most - more than half of participants
  • many - more than some but less than most
  • some - less than half but more than three participants
  • a few – two or three participants
  • and one/an individual - just one person

In this research quotes are used to illustrate key points and may be drawn from the three different types of participants – local authorities, wider stakeholders and empty homeowners. The use of quotes does not infer any weight of response by that type of stakeholder, rather it serves to illustrate a point which may be made by several different participants.

Participants in the qualitative research were invited to interview based on their experience, or in the case of local authorities the profile of their area and prevalence of empty homes as set out below:

  • Local authorities – eight local authorities were sampled on the basis of prevalence of empty homes (high, medium and low), household population (large, medium and small), type of area (city, urban, rural), type of housing market (pressured, mixed, unpressured) and engagement with empty homes policies (high or low). Further detail is provided in Appendix 3.
  • Wider stakeholders – five wider stakeholders were interviewed from different perspectives including representatives from the Scottish Government, local government, local authority housing leaders, and national housing sector specialists.
  • Empty homeowners – a sample of six homeowners were drawn from the homeowner survey where they had stated interest in participating in a follow up interview. The sample was drawn from different types of areas – three owners had properties in city/urban areas, two in rural areas and one on an island. The six owners were selected to reflect a variety of reasons why their empty home was empty (for personal, financial, legal and practical reasons) based on their responses to a survey they had already completed.

Appendix 4 includes the topic guides used for the qualitative interviews. All interviewees were provided with a topic guide in advance of interview, which included the consent and data protection requirements on the front sheet, and a statement on anonymity of analysis and reporting of findings. All prospective interviewees were informed in advance that their participation was entirely voluntary. Interviews with local authorities and wider stakeholder representatives took place online and typically lasted up to 1.5 hours, involved between one and five people in each interview, with a total of 29 people interviewed. Six individual empty homeowner interviews were conducted by telephone or online, as the owner preferred, and lasted up to one hour. The empty homeowners were provided with a shopping voucher to thank them for participating in the research.


Scope of the brief and disclosures

The terms of reference for this report were established by the Scottish Government to which the Indigo House Group Ltd (Indigo House) submitted a detailed proposal and methodology accepted by the Scottish Government. The scope of our work involved an ‘audit’ of the empty homes social policy interventions in Scotland. The work did not constitute an audit as defined by the Auditing Standards for the UK and except where specifically stated Indigo House has not sought to establish the reliability of any sources or information provided to Indigo House by reference to independent evidence. The scope of our review was not an audit conducted in accordance with the Auditing Standards applicable to, and applied for the purposes, of the external audit of financial statements for reporting purposes in the UK and our report should not therefore be relied upon to provide the same level of assurance as an audit prepared in accordance with these standards.

Indigo House accepts no duty of care or liability towards any other party other than the Scottish Government in respect of any matters arising from, or in connection with this report and accordingly if such other persons choose to rely upon any of the contents of this report they do so at their own risk. The Indigo House Group has reviewed the information provided to us by the Scottish Government and other stakeholders as referenced, and have sought information and explanations from Scottish Government representatives and other stakeholders as deemed necessary. Indigo House has also satisfied itself, so far as possible, the information provided to the company is consistent with other information obtained by Indigo House in the course of our work. Scottish Government and other stakeholders participating in this research are responsible for all information provided to Indigo House for the purposes of this work and we accept no responsibility for such information or the completeness or accuracy of such information.

Research limitations

Qualitative research

The qualitative research enables intensive exploration and description of key issues, thus allowing for insights into participants’ views. The researcher can make reasonable judgements as to the prevalence of such views, although the nature of qualitative research (i.e. the number of interviews typically achieved, the free-form nature of responses, etc.) means that it is not possible to generalise the findings in a statistical sense. The qualitative approach allows the researchers, given the number of interviews involved in this research and the recurring themes found, to summarise and develop general propositions and conclusions. This was possible for the local authority and wider stakeholder interviews where 29 people were interviewed. For the homeowners, a small number of six interviews was achieved, and their opinion and case studies provide illustrations of lived experience.

Quantitative research

The local authority survey resulted in a 91% response rate. For the homeowners survey 197 responses were received, but we cannot calculate a response rate or quote a level of statistical significance for this survey as the population of empty homeowners is unknown. As such the homeowner survey results should be treated as indicative only. The small number of responses at a local level means that there has been no disaggregation of responses by different local authority areas.



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