Tuesday, 28 Mar 2023  |  Reading time:  13 mins  | Read online

Abandoned housing and land

In this week's Global Local, we're focusing on vacant, abandoned and derelict buildings and land and how local governments can repurpose these for better use for the public.

As our cities, towns and villages transform, this development often leaves behind abandoned places.

With the decline of some industries, shifting migration patterns, the increased popularity of online shopping and the preference for big city living, vacancy is on the rise. While the definition of vacancy is often contested, the U.S Census Bureau estimated 16 million dwellings were empty in 2020, and the issue is perhaps even more striking in town centres, with one 2019 study finding that one in ten UK high street shops have been left vacant.

Abandoned housing and derelict sites create numerous issues for local governments. These range from public safety concerns, health hazards, loss in revenue from low taxation, high maintenance costs and surrounding property value decreases, and other issues concerning amenity, communities, and local economies. Local governments may also face concern from residents questioning why abandoned housing isn't used to help address housing issues or homelessness.

While an obvious problem, abandoned buildings and sites are also a missed opportunity. Many of us, particularly in urban settings, live in close proximity to vacant or derelict land. Revitalising these sites could mean a new park, business, housing development or service within walking distance. In addition, renovating and retrofitting abandoned homes carries much less of a carbon footprint, making it a far more sustainable choice.

Councils around the world have the power to intervene, be it through enforcing high taxes, property maintenance laws or by working with community organisations, such as guardianship groups. In this edition of Global Local, we'll take a look at some success stories of local authorities repurposing abandoned housing and land. We'll also explore why abandoned buildings and land end up vacant in the first place.

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This week's featured content

Lessons from Mayo County Council on tackling vacancy and dereliction

By Thomas Lynch, LGIU

Across Europe, local government is at the forefront of addressing the scourge of vacancy and dereliction in our town centres and communities. Unfortunately, like the housing crisis, there is no simple solution. While the metrics for defining vacancy and dereliction prove highly contested, GeoDirectory Residential Buildings Report Q4 2022 classified there as 83,662 vacant properties across Ireland – with Mayo County ranking as having the 2nd highest vacancy rate.

To find out just how Mayo County Council is tackling the issue head-on, LGIU’s Thomas Lynch spoke to Thomas Gilligan, Director of Services at Mayo County Council. They chatted about the Irish Government's plan to tackle vacancy and dereliction, the difficulties in defining vacancy, the importance of town centres, what drives vacancy, and what Mayo County Council's experience and plans are to tackle dereliction.

LGIU Global Local Highlights


Understanding empty homes in Scotland

Across Scotland, there is a total of 42,865 long-term empty homes. This article from 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.

This article is open to all, read here.

Re-use derelict land to support economic growth and wellbeing

Kathie Pollard, Policy Officer at the Scottish Land Commission, blogs about recommendations made by the Vacant and Derelict Land Taskforce which aim to transform Scotland’s approach to tackling the legacy of derelict land and ensure that it is no longer acceptable to allow land to fall into long term disrepair.

This article is open to all, read here.

Anyone at home? Second homes and holiday lets in the UK

This briefing tackles a different kind of vacant house - second and holiday homes. These dwellings can outnumber the amount of rental homes by up to 100 to one in some parts of the UK, making it much more difficult for locals to get on the property ladder. Higher council tax and licensing are two of the measures being used to tackle the problem of second homes and short-term lets. But how do they help areas that are dependent on tourism? And where house prices are beyond many residents? This new briefing considers the options and implications for local government.

Members and subscribers can read here.

What do we do when the economic and social infrastructure of a city collapses?

LGIU's Peter Smith explores the historic issues facing the Detroit, from the dereliction of the Motor City's housing to ongoing issues with social unrest and violence, and what community groups and actors are doing to help the city's economic and social situation.

Click here to read this article, open to everyone.

Innovation & Inspiration

Curated case studies and news from around the globe.

USA: Baltimore pursues urban farming to tackle vacancy and food insecurity

The City of Baltimore has an overabundance of vacant properties, with 30,000 abandoned lots and derelict buildings that cost over $7 million annually to maintain. Coupled with widespread concerns with food insecurity in low-income neighbourhoods and a suitable climate, the city has pushed to become a leading hub for urban farming. Seventeen urban farms have launched in the city since 2010, and the local government has moved to support this growth through a new initiative that leases vacant city-owned land to qualified urban farmers, alongside a new zoning code, a program to provide water access to growers, and an urban agriculture plan. 


FRANCE: Revitalising abandoned buildings for new Parisian cultural hotspots

Across Paris, a wave of abandoned urban plots are being transformed into cultural hubs, from artists’ studios, theatres, charity offices and club venues. These friches (abandoned buildings) range from former railway premises, to office blocks, to the world’s first airship manufacturing hangar, and offer a solution for city authorities where space does not come easily. Emmanuel Grégoire, deputy urban planner for the city council, has said that Paris no longer demolishes but transforms. According to a local urban planning study, 75% of work requests are for the transformation of existing structures, with 44 of these projects the subject of a new gallery exhibition. 

Le Monde

DENMARK: Danish municipality houses Ukrainian refugees in empty nursing homes

The municipality of Haderslev, Denmark has found a unique solution to Europe’s refugee issue while helping to reduce its own vacant home problem. Last April, authorities moved to accommodate Ukrainian refugees in public housing usually reserved for the elderly, but unused at the time due to low demand. Launched in April 2022, some 40 empty nursing homes were selected to house hundreds of Ukrainian refugees. Chairman of the senior and health committee Allan Emiliussen said the scheme is helping to ensure proper housing for all, while contributing to the smoother processing of migrants.

The Mayor

AUSTRIA: City reverses ‘death of high street’ and vacancy crisis

Two years ago, the City of Eisenstadt, Austria was facing an issue common amongst smaller places, the ‘Death of the High Street’. The ever-growing popularity of online shopping and out-of-town retailers can lead to drops-in-business and closure for small and medium-sized outlets on the high street and central shopping centres. Facing this issue themselves, Eisenstadt’s local authorities implemented a comprehensive strategy to reverse this trend. Measures included improving amenities and accessibility through more, free bus services and new trees, a vacancy management program, a shop local voucher scheme, frequent event days, bonuses to new business, and the removal of sidewalk business fees. The strategy has been successful, with the number of vacant shops in the city’s pedestrianised district dropping from 18 seven years ago to six today. 

The Mayor

Policy & Resources

Report: Nobody's Home
This report examines modern housing development in London, finding that mostly the wrong housing is being built in the UK capital, leading to empty homes and rising homelessness. It calls for retrofitting, not demolishing, council homes for a more sustainable future.

Research: Repurposing Empty Spaces to Help Address the Housing Crisis Across England, Scotland and Wales
This research delves into the opportunities for repurposing socially-owned vacant buildings and spaces to house people at risk of homelessness in Great Britain.

Community guide: Vacancy to Vibrancy
This guide published by the City of St. Louis was designed to support local community organisations and neighbours interested in revitalising vacant spaces. Offering project descriptions, budgets, tools, worksheets, local resources and more to help interested parties make informed plans, this guide can act as inspiration to planners looking to support community-led revitalisation in their area.

Report: How vacant offices could offer a solution to Brussels' housing crisis
This report by Perspective.Brussels examines whether the city's housing crisis could be swiftly addressed by converting vacant office space into new homes. The city currently has a vacant office floor space of over a million square metres. However, not all of it is usable and much of it is located in the city's more remote industrial areas.

Case study roundup, February 2023

We rounded up the best case studies from our articles and exclusive Member briefings as well as examples of interesting practice from our Daily News Service available to everyone at member organisations.

Have a story you’d like to tell? Drop your idea in our online suggestion box or email us at info@lgiu.org

Global Local Executive Panel

Later this year, we'll be bringing together executive speakers from local government across the countries we work in and beyond to consider how councils can use derelict and abandoned buildings to address the housing crisis.

Click here to sign up when the event goes live!

Thanks for reading!

Global Local is a subscription service that brings you the best innovation, ideas and experience to be found in local government around the world. We believe that we learn, adapt and deliver better for our communities when we are connected.

Next week, we’ll be looking at the difficulties of tackling climate change during cost of living crisis.

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