Why does England have nearly 100,000 homeless families in Temporary Accommodation and 238,000 long-term empty homes? Just part of a wider vacant total of over 650,000. This rises to nearer a million homes out of residential use if second homes or so-called 'furnished empties' are included...

Long-term empty homes show us how our housing policies fail us.

They show us how easy we make it for investors to suck up newbuild supply and move it into 'non-residential markets', such as short-lets, second homes and Airbnbs.

They also tell us about discarded homes needing investment - perhaps inherited by those without the money, time or energy to bring them back to use.

Currently, on top of our long-term empty total of 238,306 homes in England, another 110,000 council tax exempt empties lie unused as a result of the owners death - how many of these will add to that long-term empty number in future years? Pre-pandemic that figure stood around 89,000...

Councils need a better mix of incentives, enforcement powers and investment available to them to bring such wasted stock back into use

Empty homes data by council area also shows us under-invested areas with extremely high numbers of long-term empties, from across the North East and North West to coastal areas, from Barrow in Furness to Hartlepool and from Blackpool to Grimsby or Middlesborough.

But looked at in parallel with data on homes taken out of use by second home and Airbnb 'use', we see even higher levels of vacancy in central London boroughs like Southwark, Camden and Kensington and Chelsea and in desirable coastal and rural areas like North Norfolk, South Lakeland and Cornwall.

So, in short, we need new policies that address need before profit, we need new incentives that end the situation where owners can make money from simply allowing an empty home to rise in value while noone lives there and our housing crisis - caused by lack of housing availability and affordability - actually raises the prices of that empty buy to leave investment  further - if that isn't a false incentive what is?

We also need to stop building 'the wrong housing' to end our housing crisis.

Everywhere need is centred upon genuinely affordable rented and socially rented housing yet we build homes for sale often in luxury city centre or waterside towers or in car-dependent executive suburban and greenfield developments.

Those homes won't house the homeless. They can't afford them.

And many of them will never reach a local rental market anyway, instead preserved for Airbnb or as safe investments for those simply looking for 'asset growth'. We talk of a housing ladder but that ladder has been well and truly pulled out of reach of anyone on an average income in the vast majority of England.

Our housing sector's addiction to building little flats in cities and big houses in suburbs simply doesn't serve current needs well enough. We need more variety of tenure and price.

We need much more social housing as this stock currently falls by at least 20,000 units every single year through sell-offs and Right To Buy sales. While we currently build tiny numbers of replacement social homes and instead pump public investment into misguided price inflation schemes like Help to Buy or into expensive subsidised shared ownership schemes far beyond the means of anyone in the lower income brackets which were once housed in council homes and now often find themselves battling to stay solvent in the private rented sector.

So what specific policies do we need for empty homes?

First what does the data show us?

In this year’s data we see a continuation of the five-year trend of rising numbers of long-term empty homes. This began at the end of the last national Government Empty Homes Programme to fund bringing long-term empties back into use.

Numbers of long-term empty homes have surpassed their level at the end of that programme and are now nearly 20% higher (up from 200,145 in 2016 to 238,306 in 2021), meaning numbers of wasted long-term empties are now at their highest level since 2012, if the exceptional rise during the housing market shutdown caused by the pandemic (2020 data) is ignored.

At over 238,000 this year’s number shows another rise of over 10,000 wasted homes on the pre-pandemic total of 226,000 at a time when around 100,000 families languish in often overcrowded and unsuitable temporary accommodation at a cost to taxpayers of over £1.2bn per annum.

Temporary accommodation is ruining lives as kids share bedrooms and lack space to do homework, we are stunting the hopes of a generation.

So what is the impact of having hundreds of thousands of empty properties and second homes (which are often empty for long periods of time) across the country, especially in areas where housing is difficult to find and waiting lists long?

In areas from Cornwall to Central London numbers of empty homes and second homes combine to lock local people out of affordable housing options.

 - 1 in every 18 homes is out of primary residential use across the County of Cornwall.

In some areas of London such as Camden (where 1 in every 13 homes are out of use) and in so-called ‘Grenfell Borough’ Kensington and Chelsea (where 1 in every 9 homes is out of use long-term as either a long-term empty or second home), the true numbers of homes sucked out of residential supply as second homes, long-term empties and Airbnbs are even higher, as many Airbnbs are not recorded as homes out of primary residential use in Government data.

We believe residential property needs residents

Local authorities need better powers to bring empties into use as their representative body the Local Government Association has also argued.  SEE: https://www.local.gov.uk/about/news/around-450-primary-schools-worth-children-stuck-temporary-accommodation-during-lockdown

We also believe local authorities need better powers to control Airbnb and the growth of second homes.

The Affordable Housing Commission led by Lord Best has also argued for turning long-term empty homes into social homes, as part of the response to a housing crisis that worsened during the pandemic:

SEE: https://www.insidehousing.co.uk/comment/comment/government-should-fund-social-landlords-to-buy-up-private-lets-68130

And: https://www.insidehousing.co.uk/news/news/affordable-housing-commission-calls-for-13bn-fund-to-convert-private-homes-to-social-housing-67985

Is enough being done to tackle the issue of properties being left empty, some for years?  What would we like to see happen?

A new Government Empty Homes Programme is long overdue

Empty Homes are where our housing, health and climate emergencies meet. Deep retrofit of empty homes for a sustainable NetZero future is an opportunity waiting to be seized by Government. We already see local action by councils and action by the devolved nations. England and its Government lag behind. Numbers of long-term empty homes have risen since the last Government Empty Homes Programme ended in 2015 and they just keep on rising. It is time for change.

We also see the need for planning reform to allow local communities to set development priorities

The laissez faire approach of recent years allows developers to build high-rise luxury flats and car-dependent suburbs in areas where housing need is greatest amongst those who can neither afford nor access any of these homes. This is literally not sustainable development.

We see homes bought by investors to remain empty as Government policy drives prices higher, or to be rented on short let platforms like Airbnb, which suck homes out of residential supply. So promises of hundreds of thousands of new homes, turn into longer waiting lists for social housing; and larger numbers of kids growing up in wholly unsuitable temporary accommodation. At present we are literally spending good money on bad housing, while our development sector builds more of ‘the wrong housing’ to meet urgent current needs and locks ever-greater numbers out of access to decent and genuinely affordable housing.

Detailed Policy Recommendations drawn from our recent research and policy reports:

A new Government Empty Homes Programme could link together climate action and housing action, alongside action to address housing inequalities, which we have seen create covid hotspots linked to poor quality and overcrowded housing, in areas that also contain large numbers of empty homes. A conjunction of failed policy which needs to end.

A new national Empty Homes Strategy would:

  • Create a national fund to support councils in bringing tens of thousands of long-term empty homes back into use through a locally focused programme of grants and loans to support sustainable retrofit and bring homes into use at a good standard.
  • A minimum £200m national fund would support councils in bringing tens of thousands of long-term empty homes back into use through a locally focused programme of grants and loans.
  • Ensure owners taking advantage of this programme agree nomination rights and fair rents with councils, so that homes brought into use can help alleviate local housing need and reduce the £1.2bn billion national temporary accommodation bill.
  • Dedicate funding for local authorities to help local community-led housing projects which sustainably refurbish long-term empty homes and neglected buildings to create high quality, well-insulated, affordable homes, through an expansion of the Community Housing Fund.
  • Introduce new powers to allow local councils to bring empty homes back into use - principally an improved Empty Dwelling Management Order power and streamlining of Compulsory Purchase Order powers as has been recommended by local councils and the Local Government Association.

We also call for planning reform to allow local communities to prioritise meeting local housing need in developments under their planning control, rather than being undermined by national planning guidance and appeals. - Recent Government proposals threatened to reduce local control further but are now being re-drawn amidst widespread opposition. We await improved proposals.

Our recent Nobody’s Home report on vacancy and housing need in London highlighted the need for:

■ The introduction of a RetroFirst approach and the reintroduction of empty homes to the residential stock, as crucial initiatives in addressing the climate emergency

■ Tighter regulation of Airbnb and full data sharing with borough enforcement teams

■ A Vacancy tax based on the Vancouver model to deal particularly with homes that are never brought into residential use (so-called ‘buy to leave investments’)

■ The reform or abolition of the second homes category which allows over a quarter of a million (253,000) homes to remain empty and out of residential use without becoming liable for increased council tax Empty Homes Premiums (which only apply to a small percentage of long-term empties).

■ A transparent national register of residential property ownership and usage

- this would allow local people and their elected representative to better understand what happens to their local housing stock and how so much of it is kept out of residential use, in turn offering them better data to base solutions upon. At present a significant percentage of ‘homes’ delivered by new development can simply never reach residential supply, undermining public faith in development-led solutions. Meanwhile huge numbers of unaffordable homes are built at a time when each year we lose four times as many social homes to Right To Buy sales and demolitions as we build.

More on our work on London and its failed development model– which contributes 60% of homeless families to the national total, here: https://www.actiononemptyhomes.org/nobody-home

And here: https://www.actiononemptyhomes.org/pretty-vacant

Action on Empty Homes believe all of these proposals are critical to meeting our net zero targets as we look to a post-pandemic revival of towns and cities; but a new targeted Government Programme of funding to sustainably retrofit empties is our primary current recommendation, alongside the improved local powers and reforms of national housing policy.

For AEH data tables showing numbers of empty and second homes in each local authority area click here