Review of the Private Rented Sector: Volume 4: Bringing Private Sector empty houses into use

A review of initiatives to address the problem of empty houses drawn from case studies across the UK.


4.1 The previous chapter concluded there was limited evidence that Scottish local authorities had developed a strategic approach to bring empty private homes into use as a contribution to meeting local housing needs. Of course, it is for each local authority to decide whether to take a strategic approach or not but this chapter makes the case for a strategic framework for empty homes issues where a local authority has concluded from discussion and review of available information and knowledge that such an approach is merited. This chapter highlights the overall framework that sets the parameters for subsequent chapters to discuss and comment on the key elements of strategy, organisation and implementation.

Examples of strategic development of empty private homes initiatives

4.2 From the case study interviews and material collected, it was clear that most English local authorities involved with empty homes initiatives had developed either a dedicated Empty Homes Strategy or empty homes objectives and policies within their Housing Strategy, from which, the rationale for specific actions (initiatives) was derived. Locating empty homes work in a strategic context can be achieved in different ways.

4.3 Examples of authorities with well-developed Empty Homes Strategies were Plymouth City Council 10 ( Annex 1) and Islington Council 11 ( Annex 2). While an explicit strategy to deal with empty private homes is desirable, a structured approach can be achieved by incorporating work in other strategies such as a Private Sector Housing Strategy 12 ( e.g. Hounslow Borough Council, case study, Annex 2) or in the overall Housing Strategy ( e.g. South Oxfordshire Council, case study 13 ). In Scotland, the City of Edinburgh Council's Private Housing Strategy 14 committed action to carrying out " research to identify empty homes in the private market and consider options for bringing them back into use" while, in a quite different context, a project management approach was adopted by theCairngorm National Park Authority ( CNPA) case study involving data gathering, property evaluation, survey, grant application and implementation.

4.4 Each of these approaches has value, as the common feature is consideration of empty private homes in a strategic context. Lessons can be learned from the examples referenced. They show how the implementation of specific initiatives ( e.g. a publicity campaign or use of enforcement powers) is derived from clear aims and objectives that are integrated within a wider consideration of housing need and supply that allows empty homes issues to be prioritised against other ways of boosting housing supply to meet a range of housing needs.

Table 4.1: A framework for action to bring empty private homes into use.


Objectives, prioritisation and targeting

  • Identifying empty homes objectives to meet housing need.
  • Identifying particular areas with a concentration of empty properties. Linkages with housing need objectives.
  • Specific actions such as dealing with homes over shops or empty private homes in regeneration areas.
  • Establishing oversight of all empty homes activities to assess opportunities for a supply 'gain' for housing need objectives.

Data collection

  • Use of the Council Tax Register.
  • Development of an empty homes register.
  • Supplementary data sources e.g. street surveys, publicity campaigns, surveys of owners of empty properties.

Organisation, partnerships and support

  • Staffing and skills.
  • Co-operation across council services/departments.
  • Partnerships with other local authorities to share resources and expertise.
  • Partnerships with other bodies.
  • External support models.


A dual approach with owners

  • Working with owners.
  • Compulsory powers.

Enabling powers

  • Support to owners to become landlords.
  • Grants (Lead Tenancies and Rural Empty Property Grants).
  • Other financial incentives.

A strategic framework

4.5 Based on a review of the strategic documentation obtained from the case studies, the interviews with key officers and from the wider internet literature review of other local authority documents, Table 4.1 summarises the key elements of an overall approach to bringing empty private homes back into use to address housing need. It combines a strategic approach and implementation methods. Subsequent chapters describe and assess their advantages and limitations in a Scottish context. Individual initiatives are presented to emphasise key points or to exemplify how particular strategic approaches and implementation methods can be reflected in practice.

The Concordat and Local Housing Strategies

4.6 It is important to take account of the changes in Scotland arising from the 2007 Concordat 15 between the Scottish Government and Local Government. It established a new relationship between the two tiers of government. While there are key national outcomes to be delivered by local government, local authorities were given the freedom to set other local priorities and allocate resources accordingly. This greater flexibility, together with a substantial reduction in the number of separate funding streams to local government, allows authorities who wish to devote effort to empty private homes work to include it in the LHS and identify its funding requirements to that purpose.

4.7 Allied to the changes in funding and local decision-making, changes in strategic housing planning have come about with the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006 ("the 2006 Act"). It has introduced changes to how local authorities develop their Local Housing Strategies ( LHS), particularly in relation to developing strategy for private sector housing. Also, recent guidance (June 2008) 16 on the LHS has broadened its coverage. For this study, the key point is that the LHS housing supply targets for housing market areas and at local authority level, can include bringing empty homes into use as well as adding new supply, conversions and replacement housing (para. 43 of the guidance). Therefore, approaches to dealing with empty private homes should be set within that strategic context.

4.8 The 2006 Act also states that the LHS should set out a strategy for dealing with Below Tolerable Standard ( BTS) houses - which will affect a number of long-term empty homes - and requires local authorities to develop the Scheme of Assistance to provide a new approach to support owners in improving and repairing their homes. Local authorities are able to offer owners access to a wider range of information, advice, practical assistance and financial assistance to help them meet their responsibilities for the repair and improvement of their homes.

4.9 Each local authority will develop its own Scheme of Assistance to suit the way it plans to use its powers and set its objectives in relation to the needs and circumstances of its area. Assistance to owners of empty private homes will be shaped by the type of local scheme drawn up by each local authority but offers scope for applying most of the types of support found in England, e.g., information leaflets, newsletters, an advice service and loans - standard or subsidised. However, not all support to owners need be channelled through the Scheme of Assistance.


4.10 For Scottish local authorities who decide to move forward with the aim of bringing private empty homes into use to contribute to meeting housing need, the Local Housing Strategy is the appropriate vehicle, as the statutory strategic overview of housing need and demand in the local authority area. It would ensure that empty homes issues are properly placed in context, integrated with wider aims and objectives and provided with an Action Plan that sets out objectives linked to implementation of initiatives, timescales and resources. Where such a course of action is adopted, the Scheme of Assistance should incorporate the types of assistance for which owners of empty private homes would be eligible.

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