Is Derby making the best use of empty homes?

It seems almost criminal that homes can stay unused, often for years at a time, when there are so many people needing a roof over their heads. And this is a matter of major national concern.

So is Derby making the best use of its empty homes?

Our April 2016 Lunar21 event, considered ‘How can Housing Help Derby Thrive?’ The topic was in response to the news that 2,000 new homes were planned in Derby’s city centre within the next couple of years.

After the event, volunteers were invited to join a Core Team to determine whether there were needs not being met by the proposed developments, and whether more could be done to harness the momentum generated by the new developments.

Meanwhile, in early 2017, we have learned from Marketing Derby that the number of city centre new homes has grown to 2,400.

But we all know that the housing challenge is massive, so the work of the Core Team is still valid. Before settling on a particular topic for more detailed investigation, Core Team members pursued a number of lines of enquiry; one of which was whether Derby is making the best use of empty homes. Core Team members Peter Robinson and Ben Tribbensee have investigated this, and their findings below, make encouraging reading.

Making better use of existing housing is an obvious starting point in managing housing stock. Rescuing empty homes is one arm of this strategy.

There is a track record of initiatives in dealing with empty homes in Derby. Derby City Council had a policy for dealing with empty homes from 2008-11 and now has a Private Sector Empty Homes Strategy, 2015-2020.

Strategic analysis identified both need and opportunities:

  • 4,000 families are on the waiting list: bringing empty homes back into use could make a difference.
  • 3,500 empty homes were identified in Derby in 2015, of which 1,600 empty were vacant for more than six months; considered to be ‘long-term’.

Derby is in the top 10% of local authorities in England in dealing with empty homes because it has taken a pro-active approach. Tony Briggs, author of the latest Strategy, was named recently as ‘Empty Homes Practitioner of the Year’.

Long-term empties are easier to target, as short term vacancies can occur legitimately because people move house, carry out repairs, or improve.

Because of the City Council’s strategic approach, it has been possible to bring houses back into use relatively quickly. Doing so can remove eyesores and influence social behaviour for the better. There are other benefits such as reducing the opportunity for crime and improving the appearance of an area.

Central Government supported this work by introducing a New Homes Bonus (NHB) initiative in 2010, backed with a £100m fund. Thus, reducing empty homes attracted income to a local authority, as well as increasing Council Tax receipts. Derby has earned £4.8m in NHB, resulting in a total of more than £5m when recovered debt is added.

This appears to have been achieved by a small team of Council officers working with property owners through persuasion, rather than using compulsory powers.
The current Strategy target rate of 140 a year for the financial years 2015-16 to 2019-2020 would bring back into use a total of 700 empty homes.

From their investigations, Peter and Ben have concluded:

  • Derby City Council’s Empty Homes Strategy is working.
  • We are lucky to have a council addressing the issue effectively.
  • Rescuing property is a ‘green’ option, reducing the need for new build and helping to reinforce existing communities. It is worthy of recognition and support.
  • Targets for long term empties might be more ambitious, though this will depend on the City Council’s team’s capacity, which itself might be impacted upon by financial limitations.
  • There may also be an opportunity to take this idea into the arena of shorter term empties, as there will be many more houses that might be physically repaired and improved to the long-term benefit of occupiers where legitimate vacant time might be constructively used for routine maintenance and improvements. There are at least three possible strands: public lettings through Derby Homes, private sector landlords and owner occupiers, each demanding a different approach.
  • In principle a complementary repair and improvement programme for short term vacancies, building on the skills and experience of the empty homes policy, could extend the serviceable life of a much broader band of property. In time this could reduce the need to renew larger geographical areas of housing, and help to retain existing communities with a minimum of disturbance. Such a programme could also produce benefits in terms of reinforcing traditional building skills, apprenticeships and employment. This work is often seen as more costly, financially, than new build housing, though it has a very high social value.

Peter and Ben have acknowledged that these issues are not unique to Derby. They would therefore welcome comments and observations, including from those people who are aware of other work being undertaken within Derby, and elsewhere.

For those seeking further information:

For Derby City Council’s Empty Homes Strategy, giving examples of high quality, excellent work carried out in bring properties back into use:

For information about a national charity supporting the rescue of empty homes:

An example of a different way of working, from Leeds: