5. Current approaches to bring empty homes back into use
Current approaches and interventions in Scotland
There is a range of legislation, policy tools and support that are used in Scotland to tackle empty homes. The approaches and interventions examined are:
- dedicated Empty Homes Officers;
- the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership;
- wider funding and financial support;
- enforcement; and
This chapter provides a description of approaches, and analysis of outcomes in bringing empty homes back into use, including case studies of current practice across Scotland and comparison with practice elsewhere in the UK. Later sections in this chapter then consider the effectiveness of these approaches, based on local authority, wider stakeholder and homeowner opinion. Finally, a Value for Money (VFM) assessment is provided on the main approaches and interventions.
Dedicated Empty Homes Officers
Empty Homes Officers (EHO) are employed by local authorities in Scotland, and as at March 2023 there were 25 out of 32 Scottish local authorities with an EHO. The EHOs manage a caseload of empty properties by establishing ownership, locating and engaging with owners, and giving them information, advice and support to help them bring their properties back into use. Interviews with EHOs for this audit demonstrated the complexity of their work: it requires an in-depth knowledge of local markets and technical property requirements; knowledge of, and the ability to navigate various and complex systems (housing, legal, tax, finance, environmental and building regulations); the ability to negotiate with, and influence homeowners and a range of other stakeholders on how to resolve complex property problems. Cases often involved problems stretching beyond property issues e.g. finance, personal and wider family or neighbour relationships.
Many of these posts were intially funded by 50% for an initial two years by the Scottish Government through the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, after which the local authorities are encouraged to mainstream these posts. The table below shows that for 2022/23, of the 25 local authorities that have an EHO, most have one full time EHO. Most other posts are less than full time, two LAs have 1.3 and 1.8 FTE, and two LAs have 2.0 and 2.9 FTE. This profile was confirmed through the local authority survey undertaken for this audit which showed over half of the respondents completing the survey on behalf of the local authority worked in an Empty Homes officer role full time (16 respondents), while a third (10 respondents) worked in a part-time Empty Homes officer role and 1 in 10 (3 respondents) did not have an empty homes role. A minority - two out of five respondents (12) described their role as specifically relating to empty homes, while others had roles that encompassed housing management, housing policy/strategy, More Homes, housing improvement/regeneration, private sector provision or other broader roles.
|% FTE||Number of Local Authorities|
Source: Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, April 2023
Note: One of the 50% posts was vacant at April 2023
Insights gathered from interviews suggested that where roles are part-time or are limited relative to scale of workload (high volume of empty homes and/or geographic spread), then their work is often reactive rather than proactive or strategic. It was clear that many of these roles are stretched, and some of these EHOs have to prioritise investigation of complaints where there is perceived harm or nuisance from empty homes for neighbours or the wider community.
EHO capacity is an important determinant of the number of homes brought back into use. Looking across the six most recent years of data, which included details on EHO staffing, the average number of empty homes brought back into use each year was 60 properties per EHO. Areas that had a higher rate of empty homes brought back into use per EHO – of between 76-118 properties per EHO – tended to have more EHOs in total across the measurement period (an average of 6.2 EHOs over the 6-year period, or just over 1 EHO on average each year).
Those local authorities with zero properties brought back into use all had no EHO resource, while those bringing back fewer than 20 properties per EHO had an average of just 2.3 EHOs over the 6-year period (or average of 0.4 EHO per year – less than 50% of one staff member’s time).
Looking at the most recent year 2022/23 it can be seen that local authorities with at least one full time equivalent (FTE) EHO have brought on average 79 properties back into use, and those with less than one FTE have brought on average 8 properties back into use.
This suggests that sustained EHO resource is a strong positive factor in performance on empty homes. This may also be due to a more general strategic focus on empty homes where staffing levels are more sustained. There may also be additional resources that support their empty homes work.
The local authorities with the highest EHO staffing and highest rates of properties brought back into use per EHO were some of the larger local authorities. Those with lower staffing and the lowest rates of properties brought back into use were mainly large rural/mixed local authorities but included some with very high levels of empty properties. The seven local authorities with an average of 2.3 EHOs over the past 6-year period with the lowest rates of properties being brought back into use had over 9,500 empty properties in 2022. This indicates that EHO resource is likely to be critical success factor in bringing properties back into use.
Literature also evidences the valuable role played by dedicated empty homes workers, widely acknowledged beyond Scotland (Scottish Government 2019; National Assembly for Wales 2019; Greenland & Coupland 2014; Tanner 2013), suggesting that the role of providing information and effective signposting can sometimes be enough to encourage owners to bring properties back into use. The incomplete coverage of EHOs and varying arrangements in different areas was also noted as an issue in other UK nations.
The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership
The Scottish Homes Empty Partnership (SEHP) is hosted by Shelter Scotland and was established in 2010 to tackle the empty homes problem. It is funded by the Scottish Government and employs a National Project Manager and five other staff. It works mainly with local authorities, but increasingly with third sector organisations to help them develop policies and processes for engaging with private sector empty homeowners. Since the inception of SEHP in 2010 to the financial year end 2023, this work has contributed to bringing 9,014 properties back into use by working with local authorities.
The Scottish Government is now moving beyond the initial phase of work with SEHP which looked to establish empty homes services and build a network of officers across Scotland, to its second phase where the project aims to develop a more strategic approach. The expected outcomes for SEHP phase 2 are:
1. Strategy - A strategic approach to bringing empty homes back into use is adopted across the country, enabling better targeting of resources and tracking of progress to bring more empty homes back into use.
2. Capacity - Local authorities, and other organisations with a focus on housing delivery, are able to evidence the benefits of employing dedicated empty homes officers.
3. Skills - Empty homes officers undertake continuous professional development and new officers receive consistent training to ensure they are fully equipped to undertake the role, leading to improved delivery.
4. Advice - More empty homes are delivered back into use through clear, consistent advice and support to empty homeowners and anyone else impacted by empty homes.
The key activities of SEHP are described below.
Encourage every council in Scotland to mainstream empty homes work and have a dedicated Empty Homes Officer (EHO) – As noted above, as of March 2023 there were 25 out of 32 Scottish local authorities with an EHO. SEHP encourages local authorities to have a dedicated EHO by providing information and advice to the local authority on the benefits of an EHO role and as noted above has provided initial 50% funding for EHO posts for two years, matched by the local authority for many of these posts. These arrangements are governed through a contract which outlines the aims, objectives and outcomes for the EHO posts, and an ongoing monitoring relationship between the local authority and the SEHP Partnership Officer.
The number of EHOs has increased significantly since the SEHP’s inception in 2010. It is not known exactly how many dedicated EHOs were in post or how many properties were brought back into use before SEHP’s inception in 2010, but since then the number of EHOs has steadily increased as shown in table 7 below.
|Year||Number of Local Authorities with EHOs|
Source: Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, April 2023
Previous to 2010, the Scottish Government’s Review of the Private Rented sector in 2009 suggested that there had been a decline in EHO posts after the end of the former Empty Homes Initiative. This suggests that the influencing and co-ordinating role of the SEHP, combined with the accompanying initial funding of EHOs has had positive effects on the number of EHOs in Scotland.
Over the last year Scottish Government and SEHP has aimed to move the empty homes work to a more strategic footing by encouraging EHO job descriptions to have a strategic element, and through the development of the ‘Strategic Empty Homes Framework Template’ to assist local authorities achieve a more strategic focus in terms of policy, partnership, intervention and investment in empty homes management. According to the 2022 SEHP survey, about one third of local authorities had an Empty Homes Strategy at that point. This is in line with the local authority survey undertaken for this audit where over a third of respondents (11) said that the local authority had an Empty Homes Strategy or Action Plan, while a further 8 local authorities did not have a strategy in place but were in the process of preparing a strategy, and the remaining third of respondents (10) did not have an Empty Homes Strategy and did not indicate that this was being progressed. However, several survey respondents commented that empty homes strategy was covered in their Local Housing Strategy. The SEHP Strategic Empty Homes Framework Template was introduced in early 2023, and so no feedback on its value was available for this research.
Support the national network of Empty Homes Officers – SEHP leads regular best practice meetings with EHOs, encouraging officers to share and learn from complex case work, and disseminate policy and practice. SEHP provide online learning for new EHOs, and provides ongoing support to individual EHOs through the SEHP Partnership Officer connection. This support includes publishing general guidance, bespoke data analysis, and drafting business cases to support individual local authorities. There is an annual conference, again to share best practice, celebrate success and consider the strategic environment. SEHP also publishes an annual report based on a survey of all local authorities and administers an interim six-month check on the number of properties brought back into use.
Literature also points to the importance of networking; Rudman (2014) noted an important strategic and partnership role for Welsh empty homes project officers (EHPOs) beyond providing an advisory and support service to homeowners. This includes awareness raising activities, the promotion of best practice, championing successful case studies and the building and maintenance of digital platforms to share knowledge with the aim of coordinating and scaling up efforts to bring empty homes back into use.
Encourage registered social landlords, community groups and other private bodies to engage in empty homes work – in addition to working with local authority EHOs, SEHP has more recently been working with other bodies to identify and tackle empty homes. Over the last two years, five projects aimed at testing innovation through the third sector have been initiated. These include projects with Argyll and Bute Council and Health and Social Care Partnership targetting homes for key/other essential workers, Homes for Good in Glasgow testing a grant for rent initiative, Tigheann Innse Gall feasibility study in the Western Isles, South of Scotland Communities Housing Trust empty homes co-ordinator role. A further project, the HELM in Dundee, is currently being developed to fund an Empty Homes Officer to work with young people to bring empty homes back into use for them as tenants. It is intended that the learning from these pilots will then be disseminated, and potentially adopted in other areas. The following case study sets out Homes for Good approach to ‘Rent Ready’, and the Argyll and Bute Council intiative is outlined below under local authority grants.
Homes for Good – Rent Ready
Homes for Good (HfG) is a Community Interest Company and Scotland’s only social enterprise letting agency specialising in providing home for people on low income or benefits, has over 500 properties under management and works with around 130 landlords and 800 tenants in and around Glasgow and the West of Scotland. Homes for Good has launched Rent Ready – a Pilot Owners Support Scheme where HFG works with the owner to identify and deliver the programme of work required to take an empty property from its current vacant condition to a fully compliant, high-quality home ready for the private rental market. The scheme works by:
- HFG undertakes refurbishment work on behalf of the owner, on the basis that the property will then be marketed, let out and managed by HFG to someone in housing need at an affordable rent.
- HFG will support the landlord through each stage of the process of becoming a landlord (registration, insurance, compliance etc) but take on all aspects of matching a tenant and property management through its letting agency team.
- Costs associated with the refurbishment and getting the property ready for the rental market will be set out and agreed in a detailed proposal of works. Where the owner’s financial circumstances are a clear barrier to bringing the property back to use, HfG funds the refurbishment costs which will be recouped over an agreed period through net rental income proceeds (after ongoing repairs and other management costs) once the property is let out. This fund will then be recycled for the next empty homes refurbishment
- Scottish Government / SEHP funded the initial £25,000 as a grant to HfG to be used as a recycling loan for the scheme.
SEHP Empty Homes Advice Service – SEHP runs an advice service which can be accessed by anyone contacting the service. The advisor will make referrals to the local authority EHO, and where there is no EHO this service provides information and support to owners directly. Over the last five years there have been a total of 1,884 contacts to the advice service, an average of 377 per annum. Most of these are referred to local authorities for action through EHOs. Outcomes of the advice service are not tracked by SEHP which is stated to minimise bureaucracy and avoid double counting with outcomes achieved through the local authority EHOs. However, lack of outcomes data in relation to this specific aspect of SEHP means it is not possible to assess the SEHP service effectiveness.
Matchmaker schemes – SEHP also hosts a site that directs enquirers to numerous Scottish local authority ‘Matchmaker’ services. The local authority survey and interviews highlighted the use of such matchmaker schemes, with the perceived effectiveness of these schemes discussed in the following section.
Aberdeen City Council matchmaker scheme – The matchmaker scheme is a simple approach that promotes self-service amongst owners and potential buyers and tenants – it is an additional source or portfolio of information that can be accessed by all parties. Its purpose is to use the council website to help owners of long-term empty properties highlight their available properties to potential buyers or potential tenants. An additional benefit is that Housing Options Officers mention the scheme as one of the options available to residents that come to us for housing advice. This allows the Officers to provide housing information from all sectors to customers, and through this interaction, both parties can then evaluate the suitability of any of these properties for the customer. Where there might be an initial financial barrier to access these properties, other tools such as the rent deposit guarantee scheme can play a part in bridging access to private sector properties. The schemes exist as part of a holistic mechanism to provide access to housing in the city, giving customers increased access to both the social and private housing sector.
Wider literature, including experience from England and Northern Ireland, also highlights the importance of co-ordination, promotion and awareness raising to drive progress  . That includes organisations like SEHP showcasing good practice and providing information about how to replicate success and highlighting opportunities for funding.
Wider funding and financial support
Scottish Government has funded a range of other initiatives, one of which – the Empty Homes Loans Fund was specific to empty homes, while others have much wider objectives than funding work in empty homes, but have been using to bring empty homes back into use. In addition, some Scottish local authorities offer discretionary grants or loans directly to empty homeowners.
Empty Homes Loan Fund – this fund was introduced by the Scottish Government in 2012. The funding was mainly routed through local authorities where the intention was that small loans would be provided to homeowners in exchange for bringing the property back into use for affordable rent or affordable sale. There were 18 applications for the scheme covering 20 different organisations (17 local authorities, 2 housing associations and 1 private company) who were awarded total funding of £4.95m by the Scottish Government. These organisations have paid out £1.72m in loans to date which has supported 63 empty homes back into use (against a projected 461). Six organisations chose to withdraw from the programme and many others underspent on their funding allocation. This level of underspend occurred even though the criteria were amended to include other options such as affordable sale as well as affordable rent. It was noted by some local authorities and stakeholders through the survey and interviews that there was varying take up and effectiveness of the loan fund (see further discussion in effectiveness of approaches below). The majority of loan funding is due to be repaid to Scottish Government by 2024.
The Scottish experience of a national empty homes loan resonates with that of the English Empty Homes Loan Fund initiative, announced in 2013 to provide loans to empty property owners as a joint project between an empty homes charity, a building society and participating local authorities but which was abolished a year later due to low uptake (Wilson et al 2020). This experience highlights the need for promotion and awareness raising to promote loans, and effective engagement between local authorities, EHOs and homeowners, and also shows that the availability of funding may not be enough on its own to drive progress on empty homes.
Town Centre Empty Homes Fund – this was a one-off challenge fund introduced by the Scottish Government in June 2015 with the last grant offer being accepted in August 2016. The fund aimed to increase the availability of residential accommodation in Scotland’s towns by making use of existing buildings that had fallen into disuse and were causing blight in their towns. The fund targeted both the conversion of unused commercial space into residential and the refurbishment of long-term empty homes. In providing funding to increase residential accommodation in town centres, this fund extended the Scottish Government’s commitment to support the Town Centre Living strand of the Town Centre Action Plan. Post refurbishment, units would be available for rent or sale at affordable levels. The maximum permissible rent was set at Local Housing Allowance levels and the properties had to be available at that level for a minimum of 5 years.
£4 million was made available for this fund which was split between £2m loan and £2m grant. The out-turn figures show a final spend of £1.58m grant and £1.13m loan and total Scottish Government funding of £2.7m over seven projects bringing 61 properties back into use. This compares to the original anticipated out-turn of around 90-95 units to housing supply in Scotland’s urban and rural towns. Previous funding for empty homes renovation, through the Empty Homes Loan Fund, was for loan funding only, however, the grant allowance for this scheme was in recognition that unit costs would be higher for conversion from commercial use to residential or for complete refurbishment of homes that have been open to the elements for an extended period of time. Due to restrictions attached to the loan element of the funding, councils were unable to use this fund directly, however, local authorities involved partners including local RSL and developers.
Rural and Islands Housing Fund – The purpose of this funding is to increase the supply of affordable housing of all tenures in rural Scotland, and is part of the Affordable Housing Supply Programme funding (AHSP). The fund has two parts: a main fund that offers capital support (grants and loans) for direct provision of new affordable housing, and refurbishment of existing empty properties; and a small fund that contributes to feasibility studies. As of March 2023, the Rural and Islands Housing Fund has delivered 37 homes by bringing empty homes back into use, with a further 16 properties under construction. In addition, a further 28 homes were delivered by converting empty / derelict non-residential buildings, with a further 11 properties under construction. For the 37 homes completed c. £2.860m Scottish Government grant funding has been provided towards these projects.
Regeneration Capital Grant Fund – This fund supports locally developed place-based regeneration projects that involve local communities, helping to tackle inequalities and deliver inclusive growth in deprived, disadvantaged and fragile remote communities across Scotland. The Fund has been delivered in partnership between the Scottish Government and COSLA since 2014. Applications are considered in tranches. The next closing date for stage one applications is 21 June 2023 for applications that are ready to deliver during 2024/25. So far, two regeneration projects have included bringing empty homes back into use – in Dumfries and Galloway ‘The Oven Midsteeple Quarter’ which is a business start-up and enterprise space together with six new affordable flats for rent, and in Perth Y People Centre, a multi-functional Community Hub including the refurbishment of a derelict tenement to provide four flats. It is not possible to attribute distinct funding elements between the housing and the other multi-use aspects of these projects.
South of Scotland Community Housing (SoSCH) provided housing support to Scotland’s first community-led town centre regeneration initiative, the Midsteeple Quarter project. This comprehensive redevelopment of Dumfries High Street provides an example of the role for urban community-led housing within larger, mixed-use projects.
However, without accessible urban housing grants, Midsteeple Quarter faces challenges implementing its Masterplan for community-owned homes, which has been adopted by Dumfries and Galloway Council. SoSCH suggests that the experience likely foreshadows similar struggles in town centres elsewhere. To readily benefit from the power and potential of communities leading on development, SOSCH highlight the need to implement the urban programmes introduced in Housing to 2040.
Like many regions across Scotland, Dumfries faces town centre decline, long-term vacancies, absentee ownership, and significant disrepair of once attractive and historically important buildings. In the absence of adequate market responses to these problems, the local community decided to form a community benefit society – Dumfries High Street Limited.
The plan began with the acquisition and redevelopment of eight empty High Street properties into ground floor businesses, and, on the upper floors, flexible spaces to live, work, and create. The £30 million Masterplan also includes approximately 70 homes that are affordable, inclusive, environmentally sustainable, and intergenerational. A portion of these homes would be in community ownership — a strategy supported by South of Scotland Community Housing and Dumfries and Galloway Council that is central to the wider project’s viability.
Town Centre Fund (£50 million) – this fund was introduced to enable local authorities to stimulate and support investments that encourage town centres to diversify and flourish and to take a town centre first principle. The fund is now closed. There are a large range of projects that have been funded by the Scottish Government, some of which have included the conversion of upper floors in town centres, and other empty town centre properties into residential use. Three examples (from across many local authorities) include:
- Dumfries and Galloway Council – various town centre projects in Annan, Castle Douglas, Dalbeattie, Dumfries, Kirkcudbright, Langholm, Gretna, Stranraer, Sanquhar, Thornhill, and Whithorn. The actual number of residential spaces created was not available.
- Moray Council – various projects across Buckie, Cullen, Elgin, Forres and Lossiemouth where numerous empty spaces are being converted into estimated 14 residential living spaces.
- West Dunbartonshire – a range of projects including provision of housing from empty spaces including in Alexandria, Clydebank and Dumbarton. The actual number of residential spaces created was not available.
Local authority housing repair grants - Several local authorities in Scotland provide discretionary grants to enable empty homes to be brought back into use, using their powers under the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006. Five existing schemes include Angus Council, Argyll and Bute Council, Dumfries and Galloway Council, Perth and Kinross Council and Scottish Borders Council. Grant levels vary to a maximum of £20,000 per property, and some of these councils require contributions to a percentage of the total works costs from owners to bring the property back into use, and compliance with the Repairing Standard. Some schemes also require the owners to let the properties for affordable rent i.e. within the relevant Local Housing Allowance for a certain period (case studies provided in following sections).
Argyll and Bute Council offers several types of discretionary grants and loans for bringing empty homes back into use.
1) Grants and loans in association with Registered Social landlords (RSL) – the council provides discretionary grants for up to a maximum of £20,000 per property to bring properties back
iinto use where the property has been empty for at least 3 years. The owner must agree to lease the property to an RSL for a minimum of 10 years. In addition, a loan may also be available, in which case the property must be leased to an RSL for a minimum period of 5 years. Owners can apply for empty home grants and loan funding for up to a maximum of six properties across Argyll and Bute.
2) Discretionary grants for 40% of the cost of the works up to a value of £10,000 to owners of homes which have been empty for a minimum of three years who wish to renovate their property for personal occupancy. Funding is prioritised in areas of high housing need where reoccupying an empty property would mean the occupiers vacating a property in the RSL sector. This creates an RSL rental opportunity for other tenants as well as bringing an empty home back in to use.
3) Discretionary grants are available for 30% cost of works up to a maximum of £7,500 where the owners are resident in Argyll and Bute and will be privately renting the property on completion of renovation works. Rent levels must be in line for the Local Housing Allowance rate.
The Council has provided 17 empty homes grants since 2014 which have been a combination of all three that the Council offers. This compares to the estimated total of 505 empty properties brought back into use since then, less than 4% of properties brought back into use. The Council concludes this demonstrates that financial assistance is not always the main catalyst for action.
Argyll and Bute Council is now starting a project with the Health and Social Care Partnership to focus on getting homes back into use for keyworkers and other essential workers. This involves the employment of an additional empty homes officer which is 50% funded through SEHP/Scottish Government.
Local authority buy-backs – some local authorities have adopted a strategy of acquisitions of empty properties for social rent (some of which, but not all are ex-local authority homes), using Housing Revenue Account resources coupled with Scottish Government funding through the Affordable Housing Supply Programme equating to 50% up to £100,000. If the property value is over £100,000 and the local authority still wishes to buy the property, then it has to meet the shortfall of the balance.
West Dunbartonshire Council has strong links between the work of the Empty Homes Officer and the strategic focus of the local authority’s More Homes team. West Dunbartonshire has acute housing need, with very high levels of homelessness, including high levels among young people. There is an oversupply of 2-bedroom housing and not enough 1-bedroom properties, as well as not enough larger family homes. They need more homes of the right size and type.
The Buy Back policy was developed in 2018 – primarily for ex-RTB properties. They had modest aims to start with, aiming to buy back five homes each year. A number of homes were identified in poor condition and contributing to neighbourhood decline. They developed a business case for buy-back alongside new supply. The average buy-back takes about 3 months compared with 18 months to build from scratch. The cost of new-build has also increased – a 5-bedroom home costs more than £300K, but a large family second-hand home can cost around £100K, since the area does not have high house prices. Investment is planned from 5 per year to 60 buy-backs per year in future – from £0.25m to potentially £4m a year, supported through the Affordable Housing Supply funding. While originally the focus was on ex-RTB properties, the Council is now searching for family homes in the general housing market as its focus is on fufilling the need for larger familty properties in the social housing stock.
Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) - Many public sector organisations (e.g. local authorities, Transport Scotland) and a range of infrastructure providers (e.g. energy transmission companies) have powers to purchase land without the owner's agreement if there is considered to be a strong enough case in the public interest in doing so. All CPOs must be submitted to the Scottish Government for consideration and approved by a Minister[.
There is a detailed process, with specific regulations and guidance covering each stage:
- engaging with the people affected and designing the scheme
- preparatory work and investigating ownership
- justifying and deciding to use compulsory purchase
- making the compulsory purchase order
- advertising the order and serving notices
- sending the order to Scottish Ministers
- the objection period
- taking possession and legal title to the land
- assessing compensation
There are statutory notices and legal procedures that need to be followed throughout the process, with associated paperwork for each stage. Examples of timings from case studies showed a roughly two-year timeframe for the process of the CPO to be affected, although evidence from one local authority participant in this study suggested an average of 56 weeks, but this was where there are specific resources targeted to CPOs. There is also a six-year period where owners can make claim against the local authority for compensation.
There has been limited use made of CPOs to bring homes back into use since 2012 in Scotland. According to the Scottish Government register, by February 2023, a total of 26 CPOs had been completed for housing cases due to homes being empty or unoccupied, across 11 local authorities. As CPOs can cover multiple properties, this equatted to 49 empty properties brought back into use. The vast majority were in Glasgow.
The following section sets out local authority opinion from survey and interviews in relation to enforcement, and the general resistance to using CPOs due to the length of time involved in pursuing these, the very high potential cost, both in officer time and legal costs, but also in the financial commitments required to put aside the funding for compensation. While Glasgow City Council has found an effective partnering approach through immediate follow-on sales with local housing associations (see case study below) this appears dependent on the availability of a relatively high level of staff resources in this large local authority and is argued by other local authorities to be more feasible in lower value housing markets where the compensation requirements may not be as high as in some high value markets. It is also argued that this approach is only relevant for certain types of properties for onward sale to housing associations and so is likely to limit the scalability of using CPOs in the same way.
Glasgow City Council uses CPOs to tackle problems of long-term vacant properties, increasing affordable housing supply and ensuring the upkeep of pre-1919 tenements. CPOs have been used as a “last resort”, with 55 homes across Glasgow pursued for compulsory purchases since 2019. Some of the properties targeted have been lying empty for more than 14 years while other properties have been designated as being Below Tolerable Standard.
While almost three quarters of these have been progressed or confirmed (that is a CPO has been made and approved by the Scottish Government), in other cases the home has been returned to use without the need to progress to a CPO.
In all cases to date where CPOs have been confirmed, the Council has entered into a ‘back to back’ agreement with a local housing association who purchases the property once the title vests in the Council, thereby minimising the financial impact for the Council. The Housing Association carries out necessary investment work to bring it up to the Scottish Housing Quality Standard and brings it back into use to provide affordable housing for those who need it. However, Glasgow City Council note that there is a limit on how much can be achieved through CPOs alone. The steps in making and obtaining CPOs are complex, time consuming, costly and present risks to the Council. ‘We have to do them in small numbers at a time – and we have to pay market value’. This requires a huge commitment from the Council, but Glasgow has benefited from establishing a team with a council solicitor dedicated to dealing with CPOs, described as ‘invaluable for us. We have built up a lot of knowledge and expertise... It is a significant resource’.
Housing (Scotland) Act 2006 – this includes powers for a local authority to issue a work notice requiring a homeowner to bring a sub-standard home into a reasonable state of repair. As outlined above, a small minority of local authorities in Scotland use discretionary grants to incentivise owners to bring properties back into use.
Environmental Protection Act 1990 and Public Health (Scotland) Act 2008 – Local authorities have powers available under the statutory nuisance provision. Interviews with local authorities showed examples where an initial enquiry may come of Environmental Health which may be that due to vermin, foul smells, hoarding or failing the housing Tolerable Standard. In such cases it may be Environmental Health that takes the lead by using statutory powers through enforcement orders, or if it is found the property is empty this could provide an opportunity for the Empty Homes Officer to find and engage with the property owner which could remove the need for enforcement, and in turn enable dialogue to start with the owner to bring the property back into use.
Council tax - The Council Tax (Variation for Unoccupied Dwellings)(Scotland) Regulations 2013 (S.S.I. 2013/45) came into force on 1st April 2013. These Regulations were made by the Scottish Ministers in exercise of the powers conferred by section 33(1) to (4) of the Local Government in Scotland Act 2003(1). They have subsequently been amended by the Council Tax (Variation for Unoccupied Dwellings)(Scotland) Amendments Regulations 2016 (S.S.I 2016/369). These Regulations as amended (“the Regulations”) allow local authorities to charge increased council tax on certain homes that have been empty for one year or more. Local authorities can remove/reduce the empty property discount - initially a discount of between 10% and 50% may be applied, but after a property is unoccupied for 12 months (or 24 months if being actively marketed for sale or let), an increase of up to 100% may be imposed (double the full rate) . The discretionary power is used in different ways, with use also varying by local authority, but only two local authorities (East Renfrewshire and Shetland) do not apply the premium at all (SEHP 2021).
From 18th April 2023, the Scottish Government consulted on a change to the Council tax regulations asking whether councils should have additional powers giving them discretion to charge up to 100% premium (double the full rate) on council tax for second homes,or to charge more than 100% premium on council tax for second homes and long-term empty homes. The consultation also seeks views on whether there should be changes to the definition of when a property offering self-catering accomodation becomes liable for non-domestic rates.
Looking at comparative practice across the UK nations, in Wales, the council tax premium will be raised to a maximum of 300% from April 2023 and in England the premium is based on the length of time the home has been empty, with powers to charge up to 400% premium on properties empty for ten years or more. However, in 2014, evidence was reported in England of the limited use of council tax premiums, with only around one in four of long-term empty properties subject to the premium (Davies 2014).
In Ireland, the Vacant Homes Tax (VHT) applies to residential properties in use as a dwelling for less than 30 days in a 12-month chargeable period. It is a self-assessed tax and it is the responsibility of the property owner to assess their liability and to take the actions needed. Spanish municipalities can levy a 50% surcharge on the property tax on unoccupied dwellings, but in practice they do not do so because of the difficulties they have in legally defining what might be understood as a vacant property. France has recently expanded the use of empty homes tax, with up to 60% tax charged in some locations. In an effort to combat the housing shortage and soaring rents, the Austrian states of Salzburg and Styria passed laws in 2022 granting local municipalities the right to tax empty flats. Vancouver charges 1% of the value of any property left empty for at least six months a year (with significant fines for undeclared properties). In Leuven in Belgium, the city increased the vacancy tax rate in 2023, with, property owners taxed up to 3,750 euros per year for a vacant home.
Some evidence suggests a low level of council tax premium relative to property value may not be high enough to disincentivise certain types of empty property owner who are wealthier and motivated by capital gains (Wilson et al 2020). Other countries have taken approaches to taxing empty homes or issuing fines based on the rental or market value of the property, so generating larger penalties (Housing Agency Ireland 2016). Although more stringent penalties may have a role, it is argued that local authority discretion is needed to allow flexibility for owners in genuine difficulty or where economic decline/low demand issues prevail (Davies 2014).
Value Added Tax – To assist and encourage refurbishment, a VAT reduction applies on building works undertaken on properties which have been empty for two years or more. EHOs can also advise on referrals to access trade discounts on goods and services from an approved list of construction merchants maintained by SEHP.
Whilst this can support some empty property owners with limited resource to take more affordable action to bring their property back into use, critics have noted that the two-year timeframe before properties become eligible for the discount is problematic (Ceranic et al 2017).
The effectiveness of current approaches and interventions
A common theme running through the literature on approaches and interventions across the UK is that applying them effectively and at scale was limited by available capacity and resource and the length of time it takes to bring an empty home back into use.
Research in England identified decentralisation as a barrier to easy reporting as this is largely done through individual local authority services in differing ways, using multiple different websites and contact details, with a lack of clarity to people reporting how information will be acted on (Mullins 2018). A number of UK-based studies identified pressures on staff capacity and budgets for capital outlays, lack of specialist knowledge, the absence of a national level legal support service, the time and resource intensive nature of empty homes work and long timeframes involved as limiting the most effective use of the interventions available (Davies 2014; Ceranic et al 2017; Dunning and Moore 2020; National Assembly for Wales 2019).
Specific limitations to Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs) and refurb and lease models were described in England which prevent them being used at scale. The time to identify and access to suitable properties, the availability of funding and financial risk coupled with restrictions from mortgage lenders, owner expectations over rental income and the fact that Local Housing Allowance (LHA) is set well below market rate rents in many areas limited the scope to scale up these approaches (Carnuccio 2014).
The way funding often operates also limits the opportunities to use successful approaches at scale. English research found that short term funding pots ran out and funding strategies changed between governments and local authority leaderships (Mullins 2018). Learning can be lost once the funding for a successful project comes to an end, or a change in approach from government alters the funding it is possible to access. Research in Wales also found that arrangements for grant and loan funding, and the eligibility criteria and timeframes involved, varied between different places (National Assembly for Wales 2019).
Although tailoring interventions to local circumstances is beneficial it also makes the changing landscape of support options complex to understand. Dedicated empty homes roles, empty homes practitioner networks and organisations such as SEHP, Communities Housing Trust and the South of Scotland Community Housing contribute to knowledge sharing of successful approaches. However, replicating what works at a scale which can reduce the number of empty homes significantly is challenging.
Stakeholder opinion on effectiveness of approaches and interventions
The empty homes audit has sought opinion from local authorities and wider stakeholders on their views on the effectiveness of the various approaches and interventions to tackling empty homes through surveys and interview. Empty homeowners were also asked about their experience and satisfaction with the various interventions.
Local authority and wider stakeholder opinion on effectiveness of approaches and interventions
When local authorities were asked to rate the effectiveness of different initiatives, the most effective was judged to be the provision of information and advice by EHOs, and the co-ordination role of EHOs (Figure 14). This was followed by access to VAT and other discount schemes, council tax discretion policies, and the support provided by SEHP. Financial incentives provided by the local authorities or others was scored on average as 3.5 out of 5 in effectiveness, with enforcement action and partnerships with the private sector seen to be the least effective.
Open comments in survey reiterated the importance of information and advice in bringing empty homes back into use, as illustrated by one local authority response.
“Information & advice is the key tool and majority of owners just need informed choices and support on how to address issues to bring empty homes back into use.” (Local authority survey respondent)
Some survey respondents referred to the poor uptake of the Empty Homes Loan Fund (see further below) and the use of the Rural and Islands Housing Fund, while a few respondents considered the VAT discounts as popular and examples were provided on the use of council tax as a tool for bringing empty homes back into use (explored further in interviews as set out below).
Source: LA survey (base=28) Score 1=Not at all effective, 5=Very effective (average score excluding not applicable)
In-depth interviews with local authorities and wider stakeholders provided further insights as to the approaches and interventions employed and their opinion on the effectiveness. The key themes from these interviews are categorised as:
- information, advice and dialogue
- collaboration and partnership
- funded schemes and acquisitions
- council tax including use of discretion to incentivise action
- enforcement action
Information and advice, and dialogue with owners
All respondents again emphasised the importance of information and advice, and the proactive role of EHOs, with an understanding of local housing markets and having an approach which is flexible and responsive to local needs. For most interviewees, information and advice was seen as the most important tools at EHOs’ disposal. It was clear from the interviews that the effectiveness of these roles in enabling properties coming back into use was around strong influencing skills and a taking a bespoke approach – it was about establishing a positive working relationship and ‘starting a conversation with property owners’. In the words of a wider stakeholder the process is about ‘trying to understand the mindset of owners’. Several local authorities referred to the need to understand the individual circumstances of property owners, what their motivations were and potential barriers in getting an empty home back into use. Many highlighted the need for a holistic and nuanced approach with a focus on the needs of the property owner, rather than the property.
“It's almost more about the owner than it is about the property because you know the owner is the key to so where X can identify an owner and engage with an owner and help them along in whatever way [they] can help that they may need or guidance or advice.” (City local authority)
“You've got to get off on the right foot with people and get the tone right because you know, sometimes people think you have an agenda…it's very much making people realise from the start that we are here to share our experience and show that we've done this many times.” (Urban local authority).
The process was described as a ‘real balancing act’ and providing support “at the person's pace, but making sure that it doesn’t go dead - that we’re keeping it moving”. Voluntary and third sector agencies were also seen as providing an important role in building trust, due to their ability to be responsive and flexible - providing a range of independent advice and support to owners (such as recommending solicitors) in ways that may not be available to local authorities.
Some emphasised the importance of setting out options clearly and firmly speaking of the need to have a conversation about the financial implications of leaving a property empty, and making owners think about it differently. However, as one participant acknowledged, it is ‘sometimes very difficult to get them to see sense’. One respondent also explained how their approach required care and sensitivity towards property owners:
“I think the biggest thing that we've learned is to walk alongside them and…trying to give them options and make them understand that the barriers can be broken down and that we've got the skills and experience to help them go over a bridge that seems massive to them….you don't want to be railroading people…because so often there's an emotional story in the background to empty homes which you have to handle with respect and very carefully to make sure that you know, everything is thought about, before we even go into the technical stuff that goes with empty homes.” (Wider stakeholder)
All participants emphasised the importance of collaboration and partnership in managing empty homes. Local authority staff identified the fact that an empty property would also involve other services: ‘99% of the time there’s council tax debt as well’. In two locations the issues were dealt with by operational group meetings working across different services:
“We try to make it a holistic approach so different teams are not repeating action. That’s what an empty homes service tries to do – to be a one stop shop.” (Rural local authority)
Staff in this local authority where there is strong performance in relation to empty homes described an ‘excellent’ working relationship with the Council Tax team and worked closely with colleagues in revenues, benefits, corporate fraud, environmental health, planning enforcement and legal services.
“Sharing of best practice as absolutely key… a lot of our what we've achieved has being through the collaboration, cause there's a lot of expertise that…all the other teams bring to the table… We definitely wouldn't be where we were, where we are now if we didn't have that collaboration and have the buy-in from every single service and we genuinely do have every service bought in to the work that we're doing.” (City local authority).
It was notable that local authority EHO participants also valued being part of a wider network of colleagues (hosted by SEHP). As one representative of small local authority suggested: ‘I find it so beneficial hearing from colleagues in other local authorities doing similar work’. This wider network enabled local authorities to learn about experiences and share information about what works best in managing and funding strategies:
“If we hadn't had the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership and Kickstarter funding in place, we wouldn't be sitting here now with an empty home service and an empty homes team.” (City local authority)
Property matchmaker schemes where potential sellers of empty homes and buyers are matched up by the local authority were highlighted in open comments in the local authority survey and through interview. There were varying opinions about the effectiveness of these with one local authority stating that it was able to tap into the local ‘ market failure’ with benefits resulting for housing options, whereas a few other participants were more sceptical about the value of such matchmaker schemes, with one participant describing it as ‘very time intensive and for very little gain’. Nevertheless, a wider stakeholder suggested such schemes ‘move away from the owner as the focus of intervention to the buyer, by getting an interested purchaser. It…provides owners with a stress-free guaranteed route to bring their home back into use.’
Funding schemes and acquisitions
The Scottish Government Empty Homes Loan scheme was highlighted by some interviewees, and in general the effectiveness of the scheme was questioned. Several local authorities commented on the difficulties in using the scheme, pointing to the fact that a loan was less popular than a grant with homeowners, and the requirement that the property was rented out at, or below the Local Housing Allowance (LHA) rate did not suit all areas, especially in more pressured, higher value markets where landlords could easily secure higher rents than the LHA. Local authorities also commented that establishing and running the system was bureaucratic and time consuming for them and stated that homeowners could access more attractive loans in the market without the assistance of the Scottish Government loan with its various conditions. A few stakeholders suggested there was lack of promotion of the scheme and variable approaches to implementation across different areas which resulted in lack of momentum in the scheme.
There was one mention of the use of the Rural and Islands Housing Fund in the local authority survey open comments, but no-one raised this scheme, or its effectiveness in the in-depth interviews.
A few local authority participants mentioned the use of their strategic housing funds which were resourced through council tax revenue. Some mentioned the revenue went to these funds to be used for affordable housing investment purposes including empty homes work, whereas others stated that a proportion of the revenue went to housing investment with a proportion going to other local authority services. One wider stakeholder called for more local authorities to ‘ring fence’ the council tax premium internally for the purpose of empty homes work, while another argued that there should be some form of equalisation of funding across local authorities for this source of funding, especially if the premium is to be introduced for second homes, as well as empty homes. The argument here was that those local authority areas with more empty and second homes could be at a funding advantage compared to others.
One local authority gave a specific example of using its ‘internal enabling budget’ which it can use to facilitate action, working across council departments to get an empty home back into use. An example included using this enabling grant to pay for the removal of a dangerous chimney in an empty home which was a health and safety risk for a neighbouring owner who had to evacuate their home and would have meant the neighbour’s property would have laid empty for a long period had it not been for this work. This demonstrates a flexible and effective use of relatively small amounts of funding to prevent a home lying empty, and causing wider costs to the local authority.
“it's a bit like homelessness and the prevention side of it. You don't want to get to crisis point with a building, with Building Control having to put up all sorts of scaffolds and supports and never get that money back. So getting that early intervention and just showing people that if the owners are involved, we're willing to help and just that little bit of money or that little bit of goodwill tends to go along way” (Rural/island local authority).
However, there were varying reports on the use and effectiveness of local authority grant funding, with some stating that the local authority’s own empty homes budget had never been used, while more argued that they considered empty homes grants would be valued by homeowners and may be what some people needed to take action. Most local authorities do not currently have grant budgets for empty homeowners and while some consultees understood the difficulty in arguing for these funds for private owners against other priorities, others suggested the potential of grants was underestimated in bringing homes back into use, as illustrated below.
“And I think the power of grants is really, really underestimated here. If the end goal is getting an empty home, turning it into a home for somebody that needs it. And the shortfall is 10K or 15K. It’s short sighted to stop, you know, to say it has to be a loan, because the loans are not working.” (Wider stakeholder).
As discussed above, a number of local authorities operate ‘buy-back’ acquisition schemes, mainly for ex-council properties but with some also purchasing empty properties from the wider housing market to be used for social housing. Examples were also provided of partnerships with RSLs acquiring and investing in empty homes, and social enterprises (e.g. Homes for Good ‘Rent Ready’ example above). In terms of the effectiveness of these schemes, interviewees highlighted that the properties had to be carefully selected to fulfill the housing need (location, size and type) and ensure the acquisition was feasible, particularly in relation to condition and investment requirements as the properties would often have to be improved, in the case of social housing to meet the Scottish Housing Quality Standard and Energy Efficiency Standard for Social Housing. There could also be ‘non-standard’ components that present maintenance challenges for a social landlord.
“It has tended to be ex local authority stock that we've bought back. The difficulty with that is that you end up having to do a lot more investment in that property or you end up with potentially non-standard items that you are then liable to maintain. So for example, if someone's put in their own kitchen or put in a different kind of heating system then we would then left with decisions around the ongoing maintenance liability of some of those items.” (Urban/rural mixed local authority).
Council tax premiums and discretion
Examples were provided in both the local authority survey and interviews regarding occasional use of discretion for the 100% council tax premium i.e. removing the double charge to help encourage existing owners to take action to bring their property back into use. Discretion was available where owners were being seen to actively take steps to return unoccupied properties to residential use. Empty homes officers said they could assist eligible empty homeowners with a discretion request, advocating with Council Tax departments on their behalf, which had enabled owners to put the money towards repairs and other costs involved with either selling or letting the property. Several participants noted that application of this discretion was used carefully and required some insight into the homeowner’s motivations and willingness to bring the empty home back into use.
“Our Empty Property Policy allows for the imposition of a 200% charge after a period of 24-months, subject to a limited number of exceptions. For example, where council taxpayers are taking steps to bring a property back into use, either by marketing it for sale, let etc and/or undertaking renovations, the timescale for the imposition of the additional charge is delayed. While significant numbers of council taxpayers have benefited from this delay in imposing the 200% level of empty charge (since its introduction on 1 April 2015), there does still remain a large number of properties where it would appear these are being purposely kept and/or maintained as long-term empties and where we see the taxpayers pay the increased sums due.” (Local authority survey respondent)
However, two different local authorities with higher value housing markets highlighted that financial sanctions are of limited value for some homeowners with higher incomes. One local authority pointed to households resenting contact from the local authority to encourage engagement about their empty home, and whose response was that they were happy to keep an empty home (due to various reasons) and were willing to continue paying the council tax premium. Another local authority provided a specific example of an owner paying significant council tax charges:
“I think [we are] also in a unique situation because a lot of owners…have either wealth or access to wealth… One owner lived [abroad]… [we] had been chasing him and he owed £35,000 and he just paid [that] in council tax arrears… Many of the cases we deal with…they're happy to pay these amounts and just not do anything. That's where we then have to think of alternative ways of dealing with owners like this. And that's where enforcement comes into play.” (City local authority).
“Houses are still very much seen as an investment and people are quite happy to pay the premium for years… thinking that the value of that property is going to go up over those years, which can make it a little bit trickier for us, particularly if there's no complaints about it or if they are doing what they need to make sure that it's not detrimental... the neighbours are fairly happy that the grass has been cut.” (City local authority)
A few local authority participants suggested that there is a fine balance to be struck in relation to the council tax premium: on the one hand it can be a useful tool to start a dialogue, and the discretionary lever can be useful to get action. On the other hand, it was argued that it should not create hardship where there may be valid reasons for empty homes, and hence the need for discretion. It was also noted that some owners do not declare their empty home to avoid the premium, and it was suggested this would increase if the council tax premium was to increase. In summary, it is clear from these insights that while significant financial charges may be effective in encouraging some owners to bring homes back into use, this is certainly not always the case, and in fact can provide a disincentive to declare an empty home (and second homes if this premium is introduced).
Based on the survey responses and interviews, enforcement action was stated as less commonly used, mainly due to the resources involved.
CPOs - Most local authority respondents saw the use of CPOs as a high-risk strategy which would only be used in exceptional circumstances. Most saw the costs of taking action as prohibitive and using up scarce staff resources. The onus was said to be on the local authority to take responsibility for implementing the process (albeit with final Scottish Minister approvals) as well as to provide funds for legal costs and compensation payments; for the majority of participants this was not feasible and the in-house resources were not available to support such an intense process.
A few examples of local authority comments illustrated the over-riding view:
“We’ve only done two cases in the last ten years; they are very labour intensive and difficult to resource on a systematic basis. Our legal team could not handle a big caseload” (Urban/rural local authority).
“This [CPO] was an extremely complicated process and took a very long time to get to the final stages.” (Local authority survey respondent)
“CPO use has great financial cost & risk.” (Local authority survey respondent)
The exception in Scotland currently is Glasgow which has some significant success in issuing CPOs (see case study above), although there were a few other City authorities who stated they had implemented CPOs successfully, but not to the same extent. Even for these authorities, the primary aim is still to work with owners to voluntarily engage with the council, using CPOs as a last resort.
“Sometimes owners will just need a bit of motivation – to give them a focus and realise that the council will come in and compulsorily purchase…That’s the only enforcement action we have available to us… Sometimes it is very difficult to get them to see sense”. (City local authority).
A few local authorities and stakeholders suggested there may be a case for centralised (national) specialist legal services, and financial resources committed to CPO implementation, but there was a more common call for the introduction of wider enforcement powers including Compulsory Sales Orders (CSOs, as proposed by the Scottish Land Commission in 2018) and Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs) as used in England and Wales (discussed further under ‘Learning from others’ below).
Repair Notices - Other actions raised in both the local authority survey and interviews was the use of Works Notice; Defective Buildings Notice; a Dangerous Buildings Notice and an Amenities notice.
One potential tool raised for the management of empty property was the use of repair works orders (designed to compel owners to carry out repairs necessary to bring properties to an acceptable standard). However, one local authority participant claimed there were inherent flaws adopting this approach, coupled with limited resources for implementation, and therefore restricted its application for empty homes management:
“The basic problem is that we don't have a right of access as we do have under other legislation to inspect the property and decide what needs done to serve the notice in the first place. But the other problem with the notices is they are toothless really, because if the person doesn't comply with them, it's not an offence and we're not going to then follow up. And the other thing on works notices is works can be expensive and the Council would not have the funds to step in and do work if it wasn't done by the owner of the property. So works notices, I think the short answer is no.” (Urban/rural local authority)
Homeowner opinion on effectiveness of approaches and interventions
All homeowners responding to the survey were asked what support they had received to help them bring back their property or properties.
|Support||% of Respondents|
|Information and advice from Local Authority Empty Homes Officer||44%|
|Council tax discretion policies (for example, discounts or exemptions)||43%|
|Access to VAT and other discount schemes e.g. merchant discounts||15%|
|Information and advice provided by other parties||8%|
|Financial incentives provided by the Local Authority or other bodies||4%|
|Support through the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership||2%|
|None of the above||29%|
Source: Empty homeowners survey. Note: The base is only respondents that in the last 5 years had at least one long-term empty property that has not been occupied for a period of 6 months or more.
Taking all respondents as the base, 71% indicated at least some form of support to bring empty properties back into use. Most commonly, this related to information and advice from the local authority EHOs (44% of the total sample) and council tax discretion policies (43%). Significantly fewer respondents indicated that they had received support in the form of access to VAT and other discount schemes (15% of all responents), information and advice provided by other parties (8%), financial incentives from the local authority or other bodies (4%), or support through the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (4%).
The small number of “other” responses included a number of comments of a general nature relating to local authority support, some stating lack of support, and 3% (3 cases) of respondents referred to the doubling of their council tax. This (admittedly small) group of respondents expressed very negative views as to how the action was undertaken with comments including phrases such as “very little help given”, “unreasonable” and “unfair”. The only additional specific support referenced (by only 2 respondents) related to support from Home Energy Scotland.
The level of satisfaction with the support provided is illustrated in the figure below.
Source: Homeowners survey.
Overall, the largest proportion of respondents gave a neutral view on their satisfaction with the support received. Only 27% of respondents expressed satisfaction compared to 40% that expressed dissatisfaction with the support received. It is worth noting that the proportion of respondents expressing satisfaction rises to 47% amongst those that said they received information and advice from a local authority EHO and 38% amongst those that received some discretion in relation to council tax policies.
Positive open comments from the survey related to support from local authority staff:
“Empty Homes Officer has been brilliant but I’m just struggling with funding the renovations.”
“Good information and contacts with other parties.”
(Homeowner survey respondents)
This was reiterated by the empty homeowners interviewed, nearly all of whom were familiar with the role of an EHO and had been in contact with an empty homes team at some point. Routes to accessing an EHO seemed to vary; in some cases an empty homes team would first contact the owner proactively, to see what assistance they could provide in bringing the property back into use, whereas in other situations owners described being ‘fortunate’ to come across an empty homes service after searching online for assistance. In general, owners were satisfied with the service they received from the EHO, although some explained that help was limited to relatively minor assistance, such as securing council tax concessions or providing recommendations for local suppliers and building firms. One owner was very impressed with the service she received, as part of a matchmaker scheme in a large urban area. She felt she would not have been able to find her current tenant without the assistance of the EHO in introducing her to a potential applicant, and the scheme also paid the tenant’s deposit. She was surprised that the matchmaker scheme did not have a higher profile in the community and emphasised that the service was hard to find, having only ‘stumbled upon’ it after several hours of searching online. Although this owner was very satisfied with the assistance she did receive, there was an expectation that the EHO could have done more, for example helping with making the property compliant for private renting and providing support for getting repairs done.
Most of the respondents emphasised needing a unique skill-set, knowledge and experience to ensure their properties could be brought back into use. Owners described how backgrounds in architecture, structural engineering, planning law, property development or involvement on community councils could be instrumental in enabling properties being brought back into use, including minimising the costs involved. Equally having the technical ability to navigate what was described as a complex financial and regulatory system was seen as imperative. Some owners stressed that luck also played a part in bringing properties back into use, explaining for example being fortunate to have met a tradesman who introduced them to key players within the council, or having friends within the construction industry who could offer free advice. This demonstrated the difficulties and frustrations that the owners faced in engaging with the construction industry (as discussed above under the barriers to bringing empty homes back into use).
However, there were negative comments in the homeowner survey open responses relating to lack of awareness of any support being available and to criticisms of the extent and scope of this support, especially in relation to lack of financial support:
“I wasn’t aware there was help available.”
“We have had no support.”
“I had no knowledge of any support except the Council Tax Reduction.”
(Homeowner survey respondents)
Some of the owners interviewed did express frustration with the variability of service provision and funding support in different areas. One owner who was unfamiliar with the role of an EHO expressed frustration at not being aware of services available to owners of empty properties. This respondent wondered how he was expected to know what an ‘empty home’ was in a regulatory sense, and how it is defined by council services, and may show the relatively low public profile and promotion associated with tackling empty homes in some areas.
Another owner expressed similar dismay at differential services in different areas, reflecting on how her experience of renovating an empty property in a major urban area varied considerably from her experience in dealing with empty property in a rural location. In the urban location she was able to access a large non-repayable grant for extensive repairs to a flat in a tenement in danger of collapse, whereas in the rural area she was told by an EHO that her derelict cottage was not in poor enough condition for direct financial assistance, despite it ‘raining indoors’.
Another owner in a rural local authority felt similar frustration in attempting to access an empty homes grant when an EHO told him the property was ineligible, unless he was able to document that it was located in a high demand rental market. This owner also discovered his property was ineligible for an Energy Savings Trust loan to bring the property up to EPC D or better because he had a rental portfolio of more than six properties. He described spending ‘countless hours’ researching what assistance was available in his area, and that it would have saved him a lot of time had an EHO been able to advise him of available finance options.
Specialist legal advice was also mentioned by some owners as needed to help them get a property back into use, for example to ‘decroft’ properties or to assist in the cost of settling separation agreements.
Owners also expressed how technical knowledge and assistance was required to undertake empty home projects.
An owner raised the problem of organising common repairs as a significant barrier to bringing her property back into use. Despite having the finance secured and otherwise being ready to address critical disrepair to the roof, she could not get the agreement of the majority of the owners to make the repairs needed. She explained the heartbreak she felt watching her tenanted flat ‘go to waste’ due to inaction of her neighbours and feeling powerless to do anything about it. She explained that it was sheer luck that she had engaged a building surveyor for another empty property who was able to introduce her to the empty homes team within the council. She explained the pivotal role the Empty Homes Officer played in securing a large grant covering 50% of all costs, as well as influencing other owners to participate in the common repairs, which included the threat of enforcement action. She was extremely grateful for the support from the Empty Homes Officer who she considered saved her from extensive repair and legal costs if she had to pursue the other owners to implement the works and recover the costs herself. She is convinced that she would have lost her property to disrepair had it not been for the intervention of the EHO, explaining that in her view the Tenements (Scotland) Act 2003 was ‘toothless’ and ineffective in addressing the practical problems of organising common repairs.
The majority of homeowner survey open comments relating to council tax were negative and were associated with the application of the council tax premium. The occasional positive comments were in relation to council tax to discretion being applied:
“Disappointing that I am now charged 200% council tax.”
“Council gave discounted council tax rate which gave me time to tidy up, empty flat and furnish it so it could be rented out again.”
(Homeowner survey respondents)
Most of the homeowners interviewed were assessed for the empty homes council tax premium at some point while their property was empty. In contrast to the common negative open comments in the survey relating to the council tax premium, the owners interviewed explained that the penalty ‘did not help’ their efforts to market or renovate the property, but they generally did not identify the penalty as a major financial burden. However, there were two noticeable exceptions, one of which related to debt, and the another related to the standard and length of time for improvement and financial burdens incurred as a result.
One homeowner explained that being charged double council tax was keeping him in a cycle of debt, which was itself a barrier to bringing his property back into use. This respondent explained that he co-owned a cottage in a rural area with his estranged wife, whose whereabouts were unknown. He had exhausted his resources in a legal dispute and was ineligible for receiving additional legal aid for a separation agreement which would enable him to dispose of the property, therefore ending his liability for council tax. The property was purchased in a semi-derelict state, without being connected to utilities and seven years later was now in an advanced state of deterioration. He had written to the council on a number of occasions requesting an exemption from council tax arguing that the cottage was uninhabitable, and he cannot afford to pay the double rate. He had not heard of an ‘empty homes team’ within the council and has only ever dealt with Council Tax staff.
An owner who was renovating a cottage to passivhaus standard in an urban area was aggrieved by having to pay an additional £5k in council tax, for a property that is considered empty but not habitable. He was ‘stunned’ that it didn’t qualify for council tax relief because it had been lived in 12 months prior to the start of the refurbishment and felt he is being penalised for adopting a higher standard of build. He explained from a financial point of view it would have been considerably cheaper to have knocked down the property and built new – in that scenario he would have been assessed as nil for council tax and would have received 100% discount on VAT for materials, compared to being assessed 200% for council tax and 5% VAT.
Most owners participating in the qualitative research had received a 6-month exemption period for council tax when their property first became empty and there was clearly some variability in how local authorities applied exemptions. Some owners expressed gratitude for their EHO who arranged further council tax concessions, with one owner explaining that the officer had classed their renovation as ‘full structural refurbishment,’ so they could get the exemption. Another owner explained they had obtained concessions for a full year due to Covid, which was crucial for him to afford the necessary repair work. Another owner believed the concession she received from Council Tax was ‘exceedingly exceptional’ and down to the determination of one EHO in persuading the Council Tax team to lift the empty homes penalty. She contrasted this experience with another empty property she had in a rural area where she received no concession, despite the property effectively not having a roof. She emphasised that council tax rules bore no resemblance to the reality of construction work, lamenting that the 6-month exemption could start from November – a time when construction work cannot be undertaken - and for major renovation work which was likely to take more than a year in most cases. All of the owners with experience of undertaking refurbishments explained that Council Tax should take into consideration the length of time actually taken to get a property back into use.
The extent to which interviewees felt that a 5% VAT discount was helpful in bringing properties back into use was mixed. One respondent who held the crofting tenure of a derelict cottage on an island that had not been ‘decrofted’, explained that the VAT discount would be very helpful once she is able to claim the funds, upon completing the renovation. Other owners who were renovating property explained the help was much more limited, as it only provides relief on materials and does not cover professional fees such as architect’s drawings and building warrants. Some owners were disappointed to learn they were ineligible for the discount because they had not met certain conditions required by the local authority. One owner who had sought planning permission twice, explained that starting works within 12 months would not have been possible as it had taken a year to obtain the necessary building warrants. These owners felt the scheme did not take into account the reality of undertaking major renovations, and wider regulatory constraints, with one owner in a rural area describing it as a ‘complete waste of time’.
Other owners who pursued merchant discounts suggested by an EHO explained that the offers advertised ‘did not really exist’ or were limited to the finishing trades, which is only a small part of the cost of a build. One owner who was renovating a derelict cottage in a rural area explained that she didn’t need an EHO to organise discounts and that she was able to negotiate a trade discount herself.
Key findings summary
- There are a range of approaches and interventions used in Scotland to bring homes back into use, focused on information and advice, sanctions through the council tax premium and a few schemes providing financial support, although these are not available consistently across Scotland.
- The role of the EHOs is a critical resource in supporting owners with information, advice and influence to bring homes back into use. Critical success factors in the EHO’s role are the importance of understanding local housing markets, and taking a bespoke approach, responsive to individual homeowners’ needs. Having a dialogue with owners, to build trust and to persuade is key.
- However, the EHO resource is limited relative to volume of empty homes and geographic coverage. It is clear the higher the EHO resource, the better the outcomes on number of empty homes brought back into use, and where resources are more restricted the work tends to be more reactive than strategic.
- SEHP provides a support and networking centralised service funded by Scottish Government to encourage local authorities to employ EHOs and to develop their empty homes response. The number of EHOs has increased considerably since the inception of SEHP and it is clear, given the progress in the number of EHOs now in place and the number of empty properties brought back into use since SEHP’s inception that this would not have been achieved without its support and influencing role. It is now developing its reach to third sector community-based organisations and social enterprises, as well as supporting local authorities in bespoke data analyses and providing advice on taking strategic approaches to tackle empty homes (as discussed in chapter 3). Due to a lack of monitoring data, it is not possible to assess the effectiveness of SEHP’s specific advice service.
- Homeowner survey respondents were most commonly neutral or very dissatisfied about the support they had received to bring the property back into use. When EHOs were involved, satisfaction from homeowners was higher who welcomed the information, advice and support, and their expertise.
- Negative comments from homeowner respondents related to lack of awareness of support and to criticisms of the extent and scope of this support, especially in relation to lack of financial support.
- There did appear to be variability in awareness of EHO services which raises questions around the consistency of profile and promotion of empty homes work across Scotland. There were also perceptions around the variability of EHO services across different areas.
- A number of Scottish Government funding schemes have been available for empty homes, with varying levels of effectiveness. Loan schemes appear to have been limited by differing promotion and application, with preferences from both local authorities and homeowners for grant instead of loans.
- A few local authorities currently fund grants and loans to prevent homes falling empty, or bring empty homes back into use and are seen as effective in some cases, but not necessarily essential to bring most properties back into use. There are a few emerging new schemes led by local authorities, social enterprises and community organisations to increase the amount of private rented housing, including to keyworkers.
- Using discretion around the council tax premium (applying it and also potentially removing it through negotiation with empty homeowners) is considered an effective tool by local authorities, but it was noted that some owners will continue to hold empty homes for various reasons, regardless of financial sanctions (at current rates). While significant financial charges may be effective in encouraging some owners to bring homes back into use, this is certainly not always the case, and in fact can provide a disincentive to declare an empty home or cause financial hardship. The use of local taxation on empty properties is used across Europe and internationally, with up to 300% and 400% premium discretion allowable in Wales and England respectively, although wider research evidence suggests limited use of the discretion in England.
- There were negative opinions from homeowner survey respondents in relation to the council tax premium but the discretion around the premium being applied by local authorities was welcomed. However, it was argued that the timescales for long-term empty homes sanctions being applied bore no relation to the reality of the time taken to getting empty homes improved and inhabited (e.g. planning, building warrant, obtaining contractors, getting improvement works completed).
- Other sanctions including enforcement action are rarely used, and accordingly to local authority participants are unlikely to be used in future due to the levels of specialist resource required and compensation requirements that local authorities would have to fund. One local authority with considerable resources committed to empty homes has established an effective CPO system, specific to its circumstances, but this approach is unlikely to be scalable without more and specialist resources committed to this approach.
- Local authorities and wider stakeholders highlighted that proactive and strategic approaches were preferable in providing effective outcomes but highlighted that such initiatives required a significant increase in resources (and higher levels of priority) than are currently offered.
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