In this article, Andy Moseley, Policy and Projects Manager at the Scottish Empty Homes Partnerships shines a spotlight on the true scale of vacancy in Scotland and how local government can be forefront in tackling this critical issue head-on. The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership works with local authorities, third-sector organisations and homeowners across Scotland to help to bring empty homes back to use. In his role, Andy leads on policy development and data analysis and works with third-sector organisations to establish innovative projects that bring empty homes back into use as social or affordable housing.
Across Scotland, we have a total of 42,865 long-term empty homes – this is approximately 1.6% of all homes in the country.
Alternatively, in Scotland, we have a total of 90,021 vacant properties – this is approximately 3.3% of all homes in the country.
Both of these statements are correct (as far as we know) and they come from the same source. Yet, the results are very different. It all comes down to definitions.
In Scotland, a long-term empty home is a property that has been empty for six months or more and is liable for council tax. However, while all long-term empty homes are vacant properties, not all vacant properties are long-term empty homes.
The gap (some 47,156 properties) is made up of unoccupied exemptions – properties that are empty and exempt from paying council tax irrespective of how long they have been empty. While many of these may be transactional vacancies, empty and unfurnished properties that will be sold or let within six months, they also include, amongst other things:
- Homes where the owner is in long-term care;
- Homes where the owner has died and their estate has not yet been settled;
- And, repossessed homes that have not been sold to new buyers.
At the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, our aim is to support work to bring privately owned long-term empty homes back to use, where possible as social or affordable housing. We are hosted by Shelter Scotland and funded by the Scottish Government. This makes us unique, as the only national empty homes organisation in any of the four nations of the UK to be funded by the government of the country that it is based.
While our focus is on long-term empty homes, we know that for people living next door to a home that has been empty for several years, the reason why it became empty, and the official term that is applied to it, is irrelevant. Definitions cease to be important when a property on your street is an eyesore that is becoming a magnet for anti-social behaviour and affecting the value of your own home.
Our work is guided by five strategic objectives:
- Encourage every council in Scotland to have a dedicated Empty Homes Officer.
- Support the national network of Empty Homes Officers.
- Encourage registered social landlords, community groups and other private bodies to engage in empty homes work.
- Encourage councils to mainstream empty homes work.
- Deliver the Scottish Empty Homes Advice Service.
Underpinning all of these is a recognition of another couple of things that are difficult to define, which are the reasons why homes become empty and the reasons why homes remain empty. The reason why a home is long-term empty and the length of time it has been empty aren’t really relevant when it comes to answering the question of whether it should be brought back to use. The answer is always yes, if possible. But the answer will make a difference to what needs to happen to bring it back to use, and how easy it will be to do this.
For example, a home in need of modernisation in a small coastal town or village that has lost its traditional industries and is suffering from long-term declining population levels is a very different prospect from a home in a commuter town with an active economy as well as good transport links and reliable broadband. If one of those properties was inherited after the death of a previous owner, while the other is owned by someone who underestimated just how much work was needed and how much money it would cost, the number of factors that have to be addressed if the property is ever to become a home again will grow.
While it isn’t quite the case that no two empty homes’ stories are the same, the number of different stories and the variations between them are vast. The empty homes officers working in councils across the country, and the members of our own advice service, know this and know the importance of offering owners advice and information tailored to turn their particular situation. They also know that owners are only one part of the picture, and they are just as likely to be speaking to neighbours or even to would-be investors. In each case their aim is the same, to help to solve the problems that an empty home is causing by working to bring it back to use.
Since the partnership began in 2010, we have seen more than 8,000 long-term empty homes brought back to use. But individual interventions can only take us so far in tackling the systemic issues that can increase the chances of properties becoming and remaining long-term empty. Similarly, they can only begin to scratch the surface of helping to tackle the wider housing emergency that Scotland, and other parts of the UK, are experiencing at the moment.
In recent years, as the experience and knowledge within the partnership and the network has grown, we have been keen to encourage and support local authorities to take a more strategic approach to empty homes work, recognising the contribution it can make towards delivering wider housing and social policy priorities. Last year, we published a report called Why Empty Homes Matter which set out the contribution that empty homes could make to the delivery of the four parts of the ambitious Housing to 2040 route map published by the Scottish Government in 2021. This year we are publishing our Strategic Empty Homes Framework Guidance report which will include a template document that local authorities can use to link empty homes and work fully with the delivery of all parts of their Local Housing Strategy.
Whether we’re talking just about the 42,865 long-term empty homes in Scotland, or the other unoccupied properties that may have been empty for several years, we know that we shouldn’t just see empty homes as a problem, we should also see them as a possible part of the solution to other problems. That’s why we believe it’s vital that local authorities and the Scottish Government continue to invest in empty homes work and work to bring as many empty homes back to use as possible.
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