9 January 2018

Why do we have so many empty houses in the UK?

Every week we are bombarded by politicians, the broadcast media and the commentariat about the “housing crisis” and the need to build millions of new houses across our green and pleasant land.

On closer inspection we find that these calls come from parties with a vested interest in new housing development such as house builders, local authorities and MP’s representing areas where housing is thought to be needed.

Whilst I too believe that we need to build appropriately priced housing in appropriate urban locations I have for some time asked why we don’t utilise the empty properties we already have.

Recent research has established that there are 11,000 homes across the country that have been empty for 10 years or more. In a country where local authorities are spending billions of pounds on temporary accommodation this is quite a scandal but I fear this is just the tip of the iceberg. In fact 60,000 properties have been empty for two years or more and 216,000 properties have been empty for 6 months or more. Councils have powers to penalise owners of empty properties but they are failing in their duty to implement these penalties and without greater intervention these properties will continue to be under-utilised. What makes these statistics even worse is the fact that the majority of these homes are in fact owned by the public sector.

Hundreds of thousands of additional homes could be created if all the redundant office and industrial buildings were converted for residential use. Much of these are also owned by central government or local authorities and are ideally located in urban areas.

In addition to hundreds of thousands of empty homes and commercial properties there are vast tracts of land already earmarked for housing developments which remains unused. Much of this is also held by government departments or local authorities. House builders own hundreds of thousands of building plots which are developed not to meet demand but to meet certain profitability criteria.

Generally I am opposed to government intervention in the housing market but I do feel that, when it comes to unused property, a little carrot and stick would sort out the housing crisis within a few years.