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Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council

Taking responsibility for Empty Homes

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The empty homes work undertaken by Doncaster Council consisted of a series of substantial activities ranging from research, partnership working through the Neighbourhood Hit Squad and landlords’ forum, and from enforcement to individual property intervention projects.  The work of the empty homes team helped to:

  • Reduce the number of long term empty homes in Doncaster.
  • Provide property owners with a range of options to return homes back into use.
  • Created better working relations with the local community, residents and landlords.
  • Increased the availability of affordable housing to those in need.
  • Improved neighbourhoods and created sustainable communities.
     

Background

“An empty property is a missed opportunity to provide homes for those who need them and make best use of local housing. The Council has failed to tackle the large number of empty properties”. This was the feedback to Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council (DMBC) by the Audit Commission back in December 2009. This stark assessment of Doncaster’s approach to tackling their large number of properties standing empty, at that point 5236, gave the Council the impetus and drive to get them back into use.

At the time that the Audit Commission were reporting on Doncaster’s ‘missed opportunities’ the country was going through a housing market collapse. Those who had bought properties as an investment found it difficult to finance repairs and some were in negative equity. Incentives to get empty homes back into use were limited due to a lack of available funding but DMBC knew the urgency they faced in terms of taking responsibility for their empty homes problem.

With the political and operational support for change and investment of resources to tackle Doncaster’s empty homes problem, from elected members and latterly from their new Chief Executive, Rob Vincent, work started on the ground. An implementation and delivery plan which included establishing a dedicated empty homes team was developed. This moved the responsibility for empty homes from one empty homes officer to a dedicated multi disciplinary team.

The Empty Homes team, formed in October 2010 and part of the Private Sector Housing team, understood that returning empty homes back into use would only be successful if they had a clear understanding of why properties were empty and how support could be targeted. They set about undertaking an Empty Homes survey. The team was overwhelmed by the response which they got from empty property owners and landlords with 1,500 responses (37% return rate). The intelligence gave the team a clear set of benefits to present to owners on why they should return their empty home back into use, from achieving a regular income, securing against vandalism and long term saleability of the property. They understood that forging strong relationship with landlords and owners was also crucial and set about engaging with owners through the Landlords’ forum, targeted mailshots and providing fact sheets detailing assistance available.

Doncaster’s empty homes team strove to take a proactive approach to getting empty homes back into use but saw a few landlords and owners persistently leaving properties empty and allowing them to fall into poor condition. When this happened the Council took a reactive approach reviewing and updating procedures on the use of their enforcement powers.

The strength of Doncaster’s empty homes approach has been through their partnership work, through the establishment of multi-authority and multi-agency teams. The multi-authority team comprised:

  • Council Tax
  • Planning
  • The Council’s Public Health and Energy teams
  • Neighbourhoods
  • Warm Front Grants
  • Adult Services
  • Communications

Establishing awareness and understanding of Doncaster’s empty homes problems and crucially how each Council department could work together and join services provided the Council with examples of new ways of working. A highlight for the team was the strong partnership arrangement forged with the Council Tax team. This led to an agreement to refresh empty property dwellings on a monthly basis, resulting in a system to track new empty properties as they arose, allowing the team to approach the owners of short term properties with information and advice.

A multi-agency team consisting of the Council, South Yorkshire Police, South Yorkshire Fire and Rescue, NHS, Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder, New Deal for Communities, Neighbourhood teams, known as the Neighbourhood Hit Squad, worked together to galvanise resources and expertise across the borough to target neighbourhood ‘hot spots’.

The Neighbourhood Hit Squad is a proactive approach to focusing on a manageable area for a period of six months working closely with the local community and residents. The Hit Squad partners focus on addressing three main areas - housing conditions, environmental issues and community concerns. In the initial stages three hot spots - Hexthorpe, Hyde Park and Wheatley were targeted. Support in these targeted areas ranged from externally surveying properties, bringing empty properties back into use and in some cases issuing enforcement notices, where required.
At the start of the process DMBC realised they were counting their empty properties differently from other local authorities. This immediately reduced the figure in comparison to other councils by over 1000. However, this did not stop the Council fully embracing the opportunity to tackle the problem both proactively and reactively with landlords and owners.

In just under a year the multi-authority, multi-agency approach, led by Doncaster Council saw a reduction in the numbers of empty homes with 68 homes being brought back into use. For six months the team consisted of one Officer, subsequently after October 2010 the benefits of an enhanced multidisciplinary team are being seen across the Borough.

With a clear, collaborative approach and plan to take responsibility for their empty homes the Council demonstrated that bringing empty properties back into use does not just benefit the owner and landlord but supports a breadth of work aimed at making a difference to the communities and residents of Doncaster.
 

Project

The work undertaken by Doncaster Council consisted of a series of substantial activities ranging from research, partnership working through the Neighbourhood Hit Squad and landlords’ forum, and from enforcement to individual property intervention projects. The overall aims of the project were to:

  • Reduce the number of long term empty homes in Doncaster.
  • Provide property owners with a range of options to return homes back into use.
  • Create better working relations with the local community, residents and landlords.
  • Increase the availability of affordable housing to those in need.
  • Improve neighbourhoods and create sustainable communities.

Doncaster moved from one empty homes officer to establishing a dedicated, multi disciplinary team of six officers to lead the work across the borough. The team’s responsibilities included:

  • Leading, delivering and monitoring empty homes implementation and delivery plan.
  • Establishing robust evidence and intelligence base (empty homes survey)
  • Developing and nurturing multi-authority team (Council Tax, Planning, Housing Options, Public Health, etc).
  • Leading, in partnership, the Neighbourhood Hit Squad.
  • Establishing and running empty property grants and loans scheme.
  • Developing and delivering a proactive rather than reactive empty homes service.

Across the authority the team worked with a range of other teams raising awareness of empty homes and establishing service level agreements to jointly bring properties back into use. In partnership with planning they made better use of the Section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to deal with properties causing blight in a community by establishing a local agreement with the planning team to utilise the powers to take action on properties causing an ‘eyesore’ and by obtaining Warrants from the Magistrates Court to enter empty homes creating a Statutory Nuisance to adjoining properties.

The biggest breakthrough for the empty homes team was the relationship which they developed with the Council Tax team, as one member of the private sector housing team said “they were amazing!” This relationship resulted in a system to alert the team to track new empty properties on a monthly basis so that support could be targeted as soon as the home became empty rather than waiting between 6-12 months.

The Neighbourhood Hit Squad, has been important in delivering a holistic approach to services and support on the ground. The ability of partners to pool their resources through a ‘whole systems’ approach to working in an area, with the Council acting as co-ordinators ensuring that everyone reaps benefits from the targeted approach has delivered action on the ground for community groups and local residents. The support and services offered, include, free housing inspections; energy efficiency; clearing rubbish from properties and alleyways; signposting anti-social behaviour; fire safety advice; health care advice and improving general community well-being.
Communicating the project across the neighbourhood included:

  • Launch event of Neighbourhood Hit Squad.
  • Promotional material.
  • Attendance at community groups.
  • Walkabouts and speaking directly with residents.
  • Contact with landlords and residents.
  • Monthly stakeholder partnership meetings.
  • Developed a referral network.
  • Enforcement procedures.

Publicity of the work was undertaken by the empty homes team through:

  • Articles in the local press
  • Meetings and presentations with landlords through the landlords’ forum
  • An Empty Homes Hotline.
  • Revamped empty homes section on the Council website.
  • Establishment of an Empty Property Grants Scheme.
  • Establishment of an Empty Property Loans scheme
  • Development and distribution of promotional material, including a series of ‘Fact Sheets’ detailing where and what support owners and landlords may receive.

Strong relationships with local landlords have been forged through the ‘Hit Squad’ partnership. One local letting agency based in Doncaster which lets 600 properties has worked proactively with the Hit Squad. Owning two blighted empty properties in Hexthorpe the Council worked with the lettings agency to bring both properties back into use by installing security cameras and an alarm link directly to the police in conjunction with the police crime reduction team to reduce anti-social behaviour and tackle crime whilst the properties were being refurbished. The managing agent, Stuart Highfield, said:

“Anti-social behaviour could have increased and it would have been increasingly difficult to rent the properties. They (Hit Squad) have provided me with peace of mind so that I can undertake the works without interference. I’ve been very impressed with the work of the Hit Squad in Hexthorpe and the support that I’ve received".  

This approach has guaranteed that the Hit Squad will continue to operate for three years. The programme has been mainstreamed and will be rolled out across the Borough to other ‘hot spot’ areas. This best practice has been shared with other local authorities who are interested in the model.

The next steps are to develop a process to help select future intervention areas looking at links between housing conditions and sustainability indices, also taking into account the number of empty properties, anti-social behaviour and crime. To operate the Council Hit Squad team cost Doncaster £91,000 per annum.

Three residents from Hexthorpe summed up their experiences with the ‘Hit Squad’.

“The house next door was an absolute shambles, in the yard it was disgusting, furniture thrown in. They’d had a fire and left it all. We saw the ‘Hit Squad’ (Dave) and within less than a week it was moved”

“Well empty houses wouldn’t have been sorted out. Houses owned by private landlords were made to do the repairs which again made the area a lot better”

“You just have that feeling inside that thank god something has started to be done about it instead of complaining and nothing getting done, you’re talking to the team and something is getting done”

CIDA
Over the last year the empty homes team received support from a number of different organisations, including the Empty Homes charity providing technical, team and one to one support. The team also made use of empty homes training from the Chartered Institute of Housing, and joint working with Creative Industries Development Agency (CIDA) to develop their own thinking on finding new and innovative ways of bringing empty properties back into use through private sector funding initiatives.

Sheffield City Region
The future for empty homes in Doncaster looks promising with further activities planned to build on the strong foundations established by the Council. As one of the key local authority partners in the Sheffield City Region Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), Doncaster Council has taken responsibility for leading the empty properties sub theme group. This will entail producing a work programme and working collectively as a region to bring more empty homes back into use and increase access to affordable housing.

Working with St Leger Homes
The empty homes team is currently testing an initiative with their Arms Length Management Organisation (ALMO) St. Leger Homes and the Council’s Housing Options team. Privately owned empty properties brought back into use and up to standard will be managed by St. Leger Homes, on behalf of the landlord. It is envisaged that this will contribute to increasing access to housing at an affordable rent across the Borough and maximise the utilisation of St. Leger Homes’ resources.

The initiative with Housing Options

From April 2011, working alongside the Council’s Housing Options ( Homelessness) team, Private Sector Housing Officers have been inspecting empty privately owned properties referred to the Council by owners who wish to house tenants from the Council’s Housing Waiting List. These properties are generally empty and would otherwise be unknown to Council.

The purpose of the inspection is to identify, and alert the owner to any health and safety hazards or disrepair so that they can be rectified prior to occupation by a Council nominated tenant. This approach has multiple benefits – the tenant and family are housed safely; the Council is exercising a “ duty of care” to ensure any housing referred to tenants is safe and in good decorative repair; empty properties, previously unknown to the Council, are identified and brought back into use.

If the owner, on being presented with a list of works decides not to pursue a tenant from the Council’s Housing Waiting List, the Council is aware of the defects on the property and enforcement action can be instigated and the building subsequently tenanted.

Enforcement work
Enforcement powers and understanding of these have been strengthened across the authority, with the team increasing the use of these on long term problematic properties. The Council is implementing Environmental Protection Act powers in respect of Statutory Nuisance, and have obtained several Warrants to enter empty properties which are causing a nuisance to adjoining premises. The team are considering the use of Suspended Improvement Notices served under the 2004 Housing Act which can be utilised in the Enforced Sale Procedure.

The ‘Enforced Sale’ of an empty property can be initiated if the owner fails to repay to the Council a Land Chargeable debt applied to the property as the result of the Council incurring a debt after carrying out works in default when an Enforcement Notice ( e.g, to abate a Statutory Nuisance) has not been complied with by the owner.

In 2010 /11 two properties have been sent to auction utilising the Enforced Sale Procedure. Ultimately in the case of long standing problematic empty properties where the owner is either unknown or unwilling to cooperate in bringing the house back into use, the Council can acquire the building utilising Compulsory Purchase powers. In 2010 /2011 one property was subject to a Compulsory Purchase Order and will be sold by auction.

Other initiatives – Empty Homes Grants and Loans Scheme
The team realised that to be effective in addressing the problem of empty properties in the Borough tools other than utilising enforcement powers and informal advice should be available. Two other initiatives at present being implemented are the use of grants and loans to bring empty properties back into use.

To this effect the Council through Section 106 funding have developed the Empty Homes Grant scheme.

Properties which have been empty for over 6 months prior to the launch of the scheme in September 2010, which must have been owned by the owner for over 12 months can be the subject of an application for an Empty Homes Grant of a maximum of £12,000. This grant will fund works to remove all Category 1 hazards and leave the property in a good state of decorative repair. A condition of grant aid is that the property will provide accommodation for a tenant off the Council’s waiting list, for a period of 5 years and be managed by the Council’s ALMO, St. Leger Homes. To date 18 schemes have been processed and works completed on three houses which are currently awaiting occupation.

The Council is also working with ‘Sheffield Homes and Loans’ to develop a loans scheme to support owners and landlords to renovate their empty homes based upon the equity contained within the value of the building. There will be three products within the loans scheme:
Product one – loan is registered as a legal charge on the property and becomes payable at the end of the loan period or when the property is sold. The loan period can be from 5 – 20 years, negotiable with the owner.

Product two – loan given to bring the empty property back into use and up to standard. When the property is sold the loan is repayable and recycled back into the scheme.

Product three – replicates a homesteading model which identifies an empty property that an individual wishes to bring back into use. A loan is provided to bring the home back into use which is repayable when the property is sold.

Loans will be for a maximum of £30,000 and it is anticipated that this service will be used to address the more problematic empty properties where the grant scheme would be less effective.
 

Impact

With a dedicated empty homes team in place, working across authority and agency, the Council has brought back in to use, over the last 12 months, 68 empty homes. This means more properties at affordable rent to deal with Doncaster’s housing needs.
The work of the Council team and partners has resulted in a number of positive outcomes:

  • A strong, committed and talented empty homes team delivering a proactive and reactive service on the ground for landlords, owners and the community. The service is recognised by both internal and external partners and is gaining a reputation as a quality and responsive provision.
  • A Neighbourhood Hit Squad which engages with partners to utilise each others resources to target support at the request of communities and local residents. The Hit Squad has worked in three areas and brought back into use 25 empty properties which have caused blight to local neighbourhoods over a number of years.
  • Strengthened relationship with the Council Tax team resulting in a system to alert the team to track new empty properties on a monthly basis so that support can be targeted as soon as a home becomes empty rather than waiting between 6-12 months for the intelligence to filter through.
  • A successful innovative empty property Grants scheme
  • A three product loans scheme developed in collaboration with ‘Sheffield Homes and Loans’ to proactively support owners and landlords in bringing empty properties back into use.
  • Lead local authority for the Sheffield City Region LEP empty homes sub theme group, collaboratively strengthening the strategic and operational response to empty homes across the region.

Residents from Hexthorpe, Hyde Park and Wheatley who benefited from the Neighbourhood Hit Squad appraised the project and one resident said:

“When you go up to the shops those two derelict houses that were on the left hand side opposite the shops (Hexthorpe), they’ve done them up. They made a brilliant job of them, they have repaired properties that were derelict and there are now people living in them. They’ve brought properties back into the 21st Century”
 

Lessons Learned

Strong evidence base is needed. Doncaster’s Empty Homes Survey provided the intelligence on why homes were empty, where the hot spots were in the borough, where to target support and how to engage with landlords and owners of empty homes.

Dedicated, multidisciplinary team makes the difference. The Empty Homes team in Doncaster have a mix of diverse skills which is regarded as a key strength in the programme, enabling a range of approaches to be employed.

Getting the message across to residents, owners and partners. The team used a range of promotional and communication techniques to engage residents, owners and landlords. For example a ‘Hit Squad’ launch event, empty homes hotline and Fact Sheets on how to bring an empty home back into use have been implemented.

Partnership working is king. Engaging with a wide range of groups from the community, residents, private landlords and statutory bodies, such as the police, NHS, fire service has made a difference across Doncaster. For example, the Neighbourhood Hit Squad has reduced neighbourhood nuisance and blight in the most deprived and problematic areas and brought a substantial number of empty properties back into use.

Utilise all tools available. Use a range of options to bringing empty homes back into use from proactive to reactive tools, including informal advice, grants, loans and a variety enforcement powers.

Make a nuisance about long term problematic empty homes. Things will happen, which will either result in the property being renovated and occupied by the owner, or sold, renovated and occupied.

Shout about what works well. Doncaster has begun the process of exchanging knowledge and seeking recognition for the lessons learned and emerging practice. For example, they are now leading the Sheffield City Region LEP empty homes sub theme.
 

Reference

Martin Wilcock, Private Sector Housing Manager
Private Sector Housing, Doncaster Metropolitan Borough Council, Housing, Inclusion and Access, Kings Mews, 64 –66 East Laith Gate, Doncaster, DN1 1JD

Tel: 01302 862040

martin.wilcock@doncaster.gov.uk

www.doncaster.gov.uk

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