Policy Empty Homes Strategy

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4. What we do and what we intend to do

Locating and engaging with the owner providing advice and assistance to bring the property back into use.

We use our wide ranging powers to identify and engage with empty home owners, to find out why the property remains empty and offer advice about how to bring the property back into use.

We have procedures that we follow which commence with informal discussions and move to formal actions if the owners refuse to do anything.

4.2 Working with other departments

We collaborate with council tax, planning, building control and environmental health.  This collaboration is essential in several ways.  Firstly, close working with council tax is vital in identifying empty properties and also in subsequent investigations and we hold regular joint meetings.  Often the owner has not paid council tax so our joint working enables the council to retrieve often significant debts by enforcement.

Each department within the Council has it’s own area of expertise and, most importantly, the appropriate legislative powers required if enforcement action is to be pursued. 

4.3 Advice

We offer advice and support to anyone concerned about empty homes.  This advice and support can be accessed by mail, phone and a dedicated online page on the East Devon District Council website.

We can offer advice on letting, selling, auctions and have an empty homes ‘matchmaking scheme’.  The matchmaking scheme is designed to put potential buyers, who wish to buy and renovate empty homes, in touch with owners who wish to sell.  We do not act as an estate agent in this respect but merely connect potential buyers with potential sellers.  No personal details are ever given out without the owners written permission.

4.4 Investigations and Enforcement

In all empty homes cases we provide every assistance to the owner to help them bring the property back into use.  However, in cases where the owners cannot be found or where the owner refuses to engage with us, we will consider using the wide range of enforcement options open to us.

There are many pieces of legislation, including the Housing Act 2004 that may be used to resolve problems associated with long term empty properties, including Public Health Acts, Environmental Pollution Act, Prevention of Damage by Pests Act, Planning Acts, Listed Buildings legislation.  Some of the legislation also allows the Council to carry out works in default and recover the costs from the owner.  In cases, where the costs are not recovered , we may apply to the court to put a charge on the property and seek to recover the debt through an Enforced Sale of the property.

Since the publication of the last Empty Homes Strategy we have successfully completed an enforced sale on one empty property and that property has now been sold.

Enforced Sale is one enforcement option we can use if there are significant outstanding debts on a property and the owner is unwilling to pay off those debts.  This procedure is time consuming but ultimately we recover all of the outstanding debts and are able to sell the property.  The outstanding funds are kept for the owner to collect.

We are now in the process of carrying out this same action on  five other long term empty properties which have significant debts and are in a dilapidated state.  Our aims are the same, to sell the properties, recover the outstanding debts and bring the properties back into use.

Empty Dwelling Management Order (EDMO)

The criteria for obtaining an EDMO through the court is that the property must be in an area of housing need with no prospect of the property being bought back into use without intervention by us.  The property must have been empty for a period of two years or more for the court to consider an EDMO.  If the court grants an EDMO, then we take possession (but not ownership) of the property for a period of up to seven years.  During this time the property will be let, at an affordable rent, to a household registered as waiting for social housing with Devon Home Choice.  If works are needed to bring the property up to habitable standard, the works can be done and paid for by us and then recovered from the rent over the term of the lease.  If there is any balance left after paying for works, then this is paid to the owner.

Compulsory Purchase Order

Compulsory Purchase Orders, which can be used by local authorities is a time-consuming and costly process which can cost us as much as £20,000 to obtain . This can be prohibitively expensive and presents a particular challenge for us.  Early in 2014, the Local Government Association called upon the Government to streamline the Compulsory Purchase Order process in order to make it easier for local authorities to use this particular piece of legislation, however to date there has been no indication of change.

Where the property is long term empty, in poor condition, in an area of housing need and where the owner either cannot be found or refuses to co-operate with us then we can apply to the courts to compulsory purchase a property. 

We are considering this action with 2 properties in East Devon.

4.5 Pro-active and targeted work

  • The Public.  We rely on members of the public reporting long term empty properties and respond to every report of an empty home that we receive.  
  • Council Tax data. We receive information from council tax to help with this pro-active work.  This data provides us with a list of long term empty properties and how long they have been empty. 
  • Prioritising and targeting. We then prioritise and target our resources on those properties which have been empty the longest and also empty properties which are causing a problem to neighbours or the community.
  • Website.  We have developed an Empty Homes page on our website and have a web form through which members of the public can report empty properties.  
  • ‘Empty Homes toolkits’ which are information leaflets  specifically designed to inform and help empty home owners, members of the public and also Parish and Town councils understand the issues that empty homes create and how we can help to bring these wasted assets back into use.

 4.6 New and innovative schemes

  • The Matchmaking Scheme, where we put an owner of a long term empty home in touch with a developer who subsequently buys the property for re-development. We have had two successes with this scheme over the past two years.
  • Partnership working,  we have a partnership with the Residential  Provider Chapter 1 which specialises in providing accommodation and support for vulnerable people , and Shekinah, a social enterprise group, who aim to provide building/construction training and employment  opportunities to vulnerable people. We have had 9 empty home owners engaging with this partnership over the past 3 years.
  • Mail- outs,  we produce targeted mail-outs to empty home owners to encourage them to contact us so that we can help to bring their empty properties back into use.
  • Loans and Grants, we offer low cost loans through our partnership with Wessex to help empty homes owners renovate their properties and bring them back into use. To date we have had no take up, so this is an area we intend to target during the life of this plan.

The Action plan appended to this plan provides priorities and targets for actions over the lifetime of this plan.