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Luton: Prioritising Empty Homes

Establishing processes; building internal capacity to deliver

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Due to unavoidable staffing issues, Luton Council lacked a dedicated member of staff working on empty homes for more than a year and this impacted on the ability of the team to keep accurate records on empty homes in the borough.   An associate from the  Empty Homes charity joined the Enabling and Housing team on a temporary basis to build capacity, develop accurate databases and provide a dedicated resource on empty homes.   

Background

Luton is a small urban unitary authority in the East of England region and part of the Milton Keynes/South Midlands growth area.  It is part of the Bedfordshire sub-region for housing investment, together with the two new unitary authorities of Central Bedfordshire and Bedford Borough Council.

Lutonis suffering from an acute shortage of housing and in particular, affordable rented housing.  In March 2009, Luton had approximately 730 families in temporary accommodation, accepted a further 290 as homeless and had 6,369 families on the housing needs register.  The small geographical nature of the borough creates constraints on development with almost all new development on brownfield land.  

For these reasons, empty properties present a unique opportunity to meet housing need without the need for new development.  Local figures identify that an average of 793 long term empty homes exist in the Borough; if these could be brought back into use it would have a very positive impact on outstanding need.

Due to unavoidable staffing issues, the Council lacked a dedicated member of staff working on empty homes for more than a year and this impacted on the ability of the team to keep accurate records on empty homes in the borough.  The allocation of CLG funding through the empty homes programme has made the temporary appointment of a qualified member of staff possible.  Paul Palmer, an associate of Empty Homes  joined the Enabling and Housing team on a temporary basis to build capacity, develop accurate databases and provide a dedicated resource on empty homes.  It is the intention of the Council to make this position more permanent with the appointment of a full time member of staff in 2011, although the council is affected by severe budget pressures 

Project

Following the allocation of CLG funding and the appointment of a dedicated empty property officer, the priority for the team was to establish clear and accurate records of empty homes.  Through analysis of the Council tax register and GIS mapping, the team identified that there were approximately 700 long-term empty properties in the borough.   After around 250 completed inspections, properties that have been empty for over 2 years have been categorised with the highest priority and there are around 110 ‘live cases’ of this type. 

The team are currently working with the owners of these properties and focusing the majority of their efforts on providing informal advice and assistance to owners without having to deploy enforcement powers (via. letters, visits and grants[1]).  If the owner is not willing to negotiate the Council are moving to enforcement action, through Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) or enforced sale.  The Executive Committee has provided the resources to cover three CPOs this year.  If any of these planned CPOs becomes unnecessary, then the funding will be recycled and used for a different property. 

A robust database has been developed and implemented to manage all empty homes activity more effectively.  The system is fully accessible to all staff and is compatible with other systems used across the council (FLARE/CIVICA). 

Clear practice guidance notes are being created covering all aspects of the process and the latest progress to ensure there is continuity and a smooth handover of work when the empty homes associate returns to his consultancy.

The team have forged strong links with planning enforcement and building control to formalise methods of enforcement.  Further links have also been made with the property division, legal and environmental health teams in the council. Relationships have been strengthened further through an internal training programme that was delivered to raise awareness of the empty homes programme across council teams.  The workshop was a useful vehicle to increase knowledge, secure buy-in and to improve working practices.

The Council have an Empty Homes Strategy in place for which sets out the following priorities:

  • Better understand the scale of the empty homes problem in Luton
  • Minimise the number of properties becoming long term empty homes through early intervention, offering advice and assistance to owners
  • Bring empty properties back into use via negotiation with owners and the application of discretionary grant schemes
  • Responsibly employ our enforcement powers to bring long term empty homes into use where negotiation with the owner has failed

The strategy is underpinned by an action plan setting out clear targets for the Council’s approach to empty homes.  The action plan is currently being reviewed and refreshed.



[1]A scheme that offers grants to owners of empty homes which need investment prior to being made available for use 

Impact

Luton has brought 13 properties back into use since April 2010 mainly through skilful and sustained negotiation.  It is estimated that the final figure will be 23 properties by the end of March 2011.  There are 8 cases of potential enforced sale, with 3 of these now at an advanced stage.  Two potential CPO cases have also been identified and investigations are underway although financing for these is now under threat.  The grants scheme is gaining momentum with 8 property owners declaring interest so far.  Schedule of works have been drawn up with 3 owners and estimates are being obtained.

One case where intervention has produced a positive outcome without resource to enforcement is a large property located near to the town centre which has been vacant for several years and was in extremely poor condition attracting vandalism and local criticism. It is in an area of high housing demand and working with the owner, the property has now been divided into two smaller units which have been let on the private market producing two new homes, a reduction in empty homes in Luton which will assist with the New Homes Bonus.

There is a greater understanding of the empty homes programme across the council, which has strengthened relationships and initiated more joined up approaches:

  • The enabling team now have ‘live access’ to council tax data, which provides the latest information on empty properties within the borough.  Any issues or anomalies can be raised and dealt with more swiftly.
  • Teams are beginning to work together to pool resources where possible e.g. delegated powers to serve notices.
  • The empty homes management information database is fully accessible to all teams and is compatible with other systems used (FLARE/CIVICA).  The database provides accurate details of all the empty property activity taking place.
  • The enabling team now have a clearer understanding of the entire empty homes picture within Luton and the requirements of their role and the role of others to bring empty properties back into use.  Team members have enhanced their knowledge and skill sets through the support provided by the empty homes associate.
  • Council members are more engaged in the programme and the empty homes profile has been raised.

 The team are continuing to tackle the significant homelessness issues in Luton through bringing empty properties back into use as affordable housing and offering grants where possible.  

Luton have a strong representation on the Beds, Herts and Bucks Empty Homes Group which provides a useful forum to discuss issues, broker solutions and share information and best practice. 

Lessons Learned

  • Seizing opportunities to raise awareness of the empty homes programme enhances knowledge, strengthens partnership working and can help to facilitate shared methods and resources across teams. 
  • Employing transparent structures and processes to manage empty homes activity is an essential mechanism to monitor progress, improving overall team efficiency and maximising service delivery. 
  • Creating clear practice guidance notes on the latest empty homes activity and providing details of supporting processes can facilitate a smooth induction and hand over of the workload between staff.
  • Sharing knowledge and expertise can increase capacity within the team and improve overall personal effectiveness. 

Reference

Alan Thompson, Housing Strategy & Development Manager

Luton Town Hall, George Street, Luton, Bedfordshire LU1 2BQ

Tel: 01582 546232

www.luton.gov.uk

Alan.Thompson@luton.gov.uk

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