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.


7.1 This chapter examines the role of organisational arrangements internal to the local authority in securing efficient working as a prerequisite for successful action to bring empty private homes back into use. It then considers the contribution of external partnerships and support systems to enhance learning and to help develop solutions to bring empty private homes back into use.

Internal organisational arrangements

7.2 Discussion of local authority organisational factors have often been omitted or taken for granted in the empty homes literature and in strategy documents. They merit consideration as they are the building blocks of efficient working and successful outcomes in terms of boosted supply. Review of the case study data on organisational factors identified three important organisational planning requirements: staffing, skills and inter-service co-operative working.

7.3 How a local authority responds to these factors will require it to weigh up a number of issues: the extent to which empty private homes are a public or policy concern; the size of the authority and the financial and officer resources at its disposal. Small authorities may find that seeking external partnerships and support will be an important part of moving forward although no authority should fail to benefit from working in partnership.


7.4 Although only a few Scottish local authorities were engaged with empty private homes work, six authorities had an officer dealing specifically with empty homes but in each case, this was part of a wider set of duties. In England, authorities tended to be better staffed but there were considerable variations in numbers, reflecting the size of the local authority and the scale of its empty private homes problem.

7.5 In South Oxfordshire Council, a small authority, empty homes was only part of one officer's job (see Annex 2) while in larger authorities such as Plymouth, Newcastle and Manchester City Councils, full teams were either dedicated solely to empty properties or working across the whole private sector. In North London, the consortium of six boroughs had their own Empty Property Officers but they were supplemented at sub-regional level by support from one co-ordinator and three specialist officers. Where there was an empty homes team, it tended also to be responsible for administering the private sector leasing scheme. In the Devon Empty Homes Partnership (see Annex 2) two of the five participating councils shared the cost of employing an empty homes officer at a daily cost of £166 per day inclusive of a mileage allowance and a share of project running costs.


7.6 This research has proposed a framework for bringing empty private homes into use ( Chapter 4) that emphasises the importance of a sound evidence base for initiatives, supportive working with owners and a capability to employ enforcement action. From the case studies, the types of skills that reflected these elements fell into three broad classes: "hard" information technology skills, "soft" people management skills and legislative interpretation skills. All were found to be necessary for delivering empty homes initiatives. The specific skills identified were:

  • Data analysis and monitoring skills - to extract data from registers and data bases, and also to carry out Graphic Information System mapping.
  • Communication and negotiation skills - to achieve effective inter-departmental working relationships and for successful liaison with the public, private landlords, other owners and other bodies.
  • Skill in interpreting the powers, duties and procedures required for prosecuting successful enforcement action.

7.7 It may be more cost-effective for a local authority to "buy in" necessary skills than to develop them in-house. This can help a small authority with a skill shortage for which employing an officer would be difficult to justify financially. An external skilled input can also be justified if the additional resource cost is shared by several authorities with the ability to offer a training opportunity for in-house staff. Kent County Council's No Use Empty initiative made extensive use of an Environmental Health professional consultant whose role was to train the Empty Properties Officers ( EPOs) in the partnership councils on the use of wide-ranging legislation to improve corporate working. Training was given during property visits where the consultant and EPO carried out a joint survey and discussed options with follow-on mentoring through the procedures from service of notices to enforced sale of the properties.

In-house collaborative working

7.8 Action to bring empty homes back into use requires collaboration across different local authority services. The Housing Service is most likely to have the lead responsibility due to its local knowledge of housing issues and responsibility for the LHS but other council services have data, powers or expertise that will need to be drawn on. From the English case studies, different approaches to co-operative working were identified but typically, where there was an empty homes officer or team, the Services that had a specific role to play were:

  • Housing Service: an officer or Private Sector Housing team - responsible for strategy, data collection and work with landlords/owners. Normally the lead Service.
  • Environmental Health Service: responsible for access to grant and use of enforcement powers (though these responsibilities could reside in the Housing Service).
  • Finance Service: responsible for CT administration and data provision to housing staff.
  • Legal: responsible for legal advice on use of enforcement powers and implementation of the more onerous powers such as a CPO or EDMO.

7.9 In Newcastle, a protocol was being finalised at the time of the fieldwork that would set out how joint working would operate and how each service would work on empty homes. Both Islington and Newcastle held regular development meetings with the co-ordinating departments. Strategic and monitoring meetings tended to be held quarterly or biannually with results reported upwards through the corporate management structure and to landlord forums. Manchester took an alternative approach with the Empty Properties Section negotiating for its staff to have the authority to serve environmental health and planning notices.

Local authority partnership working

7.10 A number of case studies demonstrated partnership working to deal with the complex and specialist aspects of empty homes work. These were sometimes partnerships between local authorities and, or, local RSLs. In one unusual case, an authority, Great Yarmouth Borough Council, provided a CPO service to other councils at a charge of £1,500 per CPO. Examples of partnership working were provided by several case studies:

  • Devon Empty Homes Partnership: An initiative of Exeter City Council, four District Councils and a number of RSLs. Consortium bids for Housing Corporation funding have been submitted and funding allocated to the initiative, not simply to schemes. The team is based in Exeter and some staff are shared under service level agreements.
  • North London Empty Property Initiative: A consortium of six Borough Councils co-ordinated by the North London Sub-Regional Working Party has created a targeted strategic approach and more robust enforcement. Borough empty property officers have been trained and common compulsory purchase procedures developed.
  • Kent County Council: A partnership of the County Council and four district councils in East Kent has developed around the joint No Use Empty campaign initiative. A regional empty property officer was appointed and a public relations company hired to promote the initiative. Information resources for owners and training for empty property officers in the districts is carried out.
  • Plymouth City Council: The council works with several RSLs who provide expertise e.g. on developing homes above shops and the management of leasing schemes. An annual subscription by the RSLs to the Council supports publicity initiatives and part of the Empty Homes team costs.

Working with other agencies

7.11 Empty homes work can be carried out by organisations other than local authorities and RSLs working in partnership with them or with other agencies. Such alternative structures can bring the benefits of greater flexibility to meet owners' needs and can attract other sources of funding. Additional benefits can also be achieved through the use of social enterprises e.g. skills development.

7.12 An interesting, though small, Scottish rural example is the not-for-profit Highland Small Communities Housing Trust ( HSCHT). Working with other agencies, its main role has related to land-purchase and release to RSLs and private individuals for housing-building but it has carried out some work to refurbish a few empty properties in remoter communities and let them to key workers, sometimes with support from employers. Overall, its work on empty homes has been limited due to capital funding constraints that, it feels, Rural Empty Property Grant ( REPG) cannot resolve.

External support models

7.13 With few Scottish local authorities currently involved with the re-use of empty private homes, the issue arises as to whether some form(s) of external support would be helpful to those authorities who decide to take forward empty homes work.

7.14 In terms of types of support, in the on-line survey, Scottish local authorities expressed a preference for some form of officer support group or for a region-wide local authority consortium model but the idea of creating a new national support agency specifically for empty homes attracted ambivalent views. The research examined two support models operating in England - the Empty Homes Agency ( EHA) and the National Association of Empty Homes Practitioners ( NAEPP) which, in their different ways, offer support to local authorities, training for officers working on empty private homes issues, sharing of good practice, providing access to a library of information and dissemination of news on empty homes policy and legislation.

7.15 The EHA (see Annex 2 for more details) is a registered English charity and was part-funded by the Dept. of Communities and Local Government ( DCLG) and by other grants and donations to 2009. Its 2006/07 running costs were about £300,000. The EHA currently performs a variety of roles - particularly campaigning on empty homes issues across England and providing support to local authorities as it believes there is:

" a need for local authorities to have an empty property strategy within their wider Housing Strategy and a dedicated Empty Property Officer) to tackle empty properties in areas where there is high demand." 22

7.16 The NAEPP (see Annex 2) has about 150 member organisations, no paid employees and its operation is dependent on the voluntary effort of officers in local authorities who work on empty homes issues. Its income comes very largely from member subscriptions and has annual running costs of around £5,000. It supports empty homes officers across England. Its website 23 is the central means of communication between members for policy discussion, dissemination of good practice, discussion of new, emerging issues, mutual learning opportunities, etc. It promotes regional empty homes forums and training sessions.

7.17 The research also identified an empty homes support model in Wales that was just starting to operate. Funded by the Welsh Assembly Government at a cost of approx £45,000 pa, it employs one specialist officer, with policy support from staff in Shelter Cymru and the EHA which is also a member of the project Steering Group. Over two years, it aims to provide local authorities with advice, consultancy, training, good practice guidance and the development of a number of regional forums.

Support Options for Scotland

7.18 The need for support to local authorities to bring empty private homes into use to help meet a range of housing needs, depends on the extent to which local authorities define empty homes as a problem and decide to give it a degree of policy and resource support. These issues are for each local authority to decide on, but given the limited engagement by local authorities with empty private homes, the uncertainty about the numbers involved due to poor data collection and the wish by the Scottish Government to see a boost in housing supply from the PRS to help meet housing need, it would suggest that some type of support would be a positive move.

7.19 The type of support and its funding cannot be separated. The concept of a "Scottish Empty Homes Agency" is over-elaborate and an expensive structural solution to address the needs of Scottish local authorities. A time-limited project of 2-3 years, on the model adopted by the Welsh Assembly Government may be a more viable way forward but would be dependent on funding by the Scottish Government. A suitable partner to manage the project, and with expertise, would be needed - a university, a voluntary housing organisation or a professional housing body, may be possibilities.

7.20 A less costly alternative would be the employment of a single facilitator or co-ordinator (or two part time co-ordinators who might focus on different aspects of the work) whose role would be to promote empty homes work primarily with local authorities but also with landlords. The cost would be less than that of a specially established project but, as with such a project, would most likely need to be promoted by the Scottish Government.


7.21 It is important for local authorities which decide to take forward work on empty private homes to establish effective organisational arrangements. Key features will be:

  • Identifying a lead Service and a lead team or officer(s) and ensuring their work is fully integrated with the LHS.
  • Securing skills in strategy, IT, communications and legislative interpretation when required.
  • Establishing inter-service working to take forward cross-service issues.

7.22 Given the specialist skills and knowledge that will be required to deal effectively with empty homes and the potentially limited resources that local authorities will be able to allocate, those authorities who consider they have a problem or would, at the least, want to explore it further, could find that informal forums, partnership-working or a more formal consortium approach would have a number of advantages:

  • More proactive councils could take a lead in initiative work and agree to defray some of the costs through sharing staff provision with other partners.
  • Partnerships between local authorities and RSLs could bring additional benefits as each may be able to make different contributions e.g. an RSL may be able to sustain more contact time with owners and then be able to nominate tenants to the final let. It would also allow the RSL to build up a body of expertise.
  • In more informal partnership arrangements across local authorities, training and good practice could be shared.
  • In a consortium approach, whilst finance from members will most probably be needed for its development, future cost savings from joint commissioning may be achieved e.g. for property surveys and advertising campaigns.

7.23 Partnerships, informal or formal, need to be built around shared commonalities. While a national grouping has some logic, regional local authority groups are another possibility. Urban and rural interest groups could also prove useful to bring together local authorities with the most common issues.

7.24 The broad aims of any type of support should be to stimulate strategic thinking, share experiences, learn about practical initiatives, trouble-shoot problems and extend expertise.

7.25 Support structures can benefit all authorities but particularly benefit smaller authorities, urban or rural, who tend to have limited staff resources and could find it difficult to justify targeting empty homes.

7.26 Given the limited engagement with empty private homes work by local authorities, there is value in providing a catalyst. In terms of developing an external support model, there is logic to a single worker (or part time equivalents) - empty homes co-ordinator, facilitator or "champion" - as more appropriate than elaborate projects or structures. It would be the least expensive of the options described above but would be most likely to accord with the probable scale of the problem in Scotland.

7.27 Such a post could operate for a fixed term; with its primary role of supporting local authorities to take (for those who chose) the first steps to address empty homes in the context of their LHS. As interest extends, a network of largely new (to empty homes work) officers (mirroring the English regional forums) could be promoted. Alternatively, partnerships could be promoted. A variation on that approach would be to draw on the Scottish Housing Best Value Network and negotiate locating a Scottish Government funded co-ordinator post in the Network with potential synergies with its other housing activities.

7.28 Finally, an important feature of the coordinator/facilitator model would be its expertise. To provide a lead for local authorities and to address issues about types of support, powers of enforcement and financial support possibilities, knowledge of these issues would have to be built into the services offered.

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