by Louis McIntosh
“Every council house sold, leaves a family without a home”. My dad said that to me after Right to Buy (the Housing Act 1980) was introduced. He was almost right. The reality is more frightening, because for every three council houses sold; only one was built to replace them. It doesn’t take a genius to work out how much of that housing stock ended up in the hands of private landlords.
The SNP’s policy of 25% of all new houses built in Scotland being for the social housing sector appears is under-equipped to house the eye-watering 173,500 people currently waiting on council housing lists.
There is an alternative that could help to alleviate those council waiting lists. There is an estimated 34,000 long term empty homes in the private sector across Scotland. A property is considered to be ‘long term’ empty when it has been left unoccupied for 6 months or more.
The Scottish Government, in partnership with Shelter Scotland, are addressing this matter with a scheme to encourage private landlords to lease empty properties back to local authorities. Grants are provided to the landlords to ensure that the properties are upgraded and/or refurbished to meet the standard for social housing. The leases are on a short term basis, often year to year, and the property owner has the right not to renew at the end of the lease and reclaim the property for their own private gain. (It is easier to re-let a property shortly after it has become vacant, particularly when it has been kept in good repair at someone else’s expense). The partnership’s casework revealed the average time a property is empty is two years and six months, with some homes empty as long as 17 years.
This is, a scheme that is noble in its concept, but it is disastrously flawed due to – like the Scottish Living Wage – it being voluntary. Anyone that has tried to get a landlord to fix a dripping tap will tell you how impossible a task it would be to get them to hand the property over to a local authority, off their own back. It’s little wonder that many, including those of us on the left, see building new properties as a better option.
With local authorities slashing budgets to death year on year, the finances available for building new social housing is being rapidly diminished, yet there are thousands of perfectly serviceable properties lying empty in our towns and cities.The average cost of a new build home in Scotland is £100,000. By comparison, the cost to refurbish an empty property ranges from £6,000–£25,000. This is why we need a compulsory order scheme to bring properties that have been empty for more than 6 months back under the control of local councils on fixed long term leases with capped rents.
Work on empty properties is an overwhelming net positive: aside from increasing housing supply, it sustains rural areas, creates jobs and becomes part of town centre renewal projects, and it regenerates and reinvigorates communities. There is the added bonus that local transport infrastructure and utilities are in place. Additionally, it reduces anti-social behaviour, such as vandalism and arson attacks on empty houses.
It’s time that these homes were taken back and pressed into service for the people for whom they were built.This cannot be achieved through a voluntary scheme, when slum landlords are happy to leave a property lying empty, especially when they have paid off the mortgage within a few short years of purchasing it. Those that have endured the horror of “Homes under the Hammer”, will be aware of the glint in the “developers” eyes at the mere mention of the “10-20% yield” that could be gained in the private rental market.
The majority of empty properties were originally built for the public sector, but they are now in the hands of a growing number of unscrupulous private landlords. It’s time that these homes were taken back and pressed into service for the people for whom they were built.
The 2016 annual conference agreed the following: “Conference recognises the need for a substantial increase in the construction of social housing. However, with the current number of empty properties, many of which are sure to have been ex-council stock. Conference instructs the EC to research and develop a policy that allows local councils to place compulsory orders on all houses that have lain vacant for 6 months or more.”
“Bringing these properties back into the control of local authorities for fixed terms with the rents capped, will alleviate waiting lists whilst a expansion program in social housing construction is carried out.”
Conference overwhelmingly backed this proposal.