Scotland brings a town’s worth of empty homes back into use

Housing Scotland 2019 hears of record year for Scottish Empty Homes Partnership.

Murdo MacLeod outside empty property

A town’s worth of empty homes has been brought back into use across Scotland since 2010 – with the past year being a record-breaker.

Stats put to a workshop session at Housing Scotland 2019 showed 1,128 properties became homes again over 2018-2019.

That’s the best year for the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SEHP), which confirms the figure in its latest annual report.

At the workshop, SEHP’s Andy Moseley spoke of Scotland’s empty homes as “the secret hiding in the cupboard”.

What’s no secret is that Scotland has 39,000 of them with a further 45,000 or more exempt from council tax because of unoccupied exemption.

Challenging the case against empty homes as “the wrong sort of property” for conversion, Moseley asked if the same argument applied to land.

Where “all shapes and sizes” have conversion potential, that 1,128 figure represented 26% of the overall total since SEHP started, Moseley said.

The workshop was told of a six-month average from purchase to completion with average cost ranging between £6k-£46k.

On current figures, 10 empty homes were being brought back into use at the same cost of a single new home.

Speaking outside the SFHA annual conference, Holyrood housing minister Kevin Stewart said he wanted to see SEHO expertise working across the whole of Scotland.

“We have doubled our funding for SEMP to more than £400,000 a year to help local authorities realise the benefits of this successful approach,” Stewart said.

Also outside the conference, Shaheena Din, SEHP National Manager, said more staff “than ever before” were now working on empty homes compared to 2010, when only seven councils dedicated time to such work.

“But we still have work to do, empty properties are a wasted asset at a time of a housing shortage, and our goal is to see staff with time to dedicate to this issue working in every council in Scotland over the next three years,” Din said.

SEHP supports a network of empty homes officers working in 20 local authorities across Scotland.

Some 4,340 homes have been brought back into since 2010 – roughly equivalent to a town the size of Peebles.

The SEHP annual report also includes the results of a survey of council officers and the key finding that 93% of the homes brought back were in areas where the council employs staff with time dedicated to tackling the issue of empty property – with 18% of homes brought back becoming affordable housing.

The survey also discovered that, while most empty homes are brought back into use in less than two years, the chances of a home being brought back into use drops off after it has sat unoccupied for five years.

And repairs were revealed as taking longer or costing more than expected – a big reason for delays in bringing property back into use.

As a result, the Partnership has recommended that, where they are not already doing so, councils use discretion when applying the additional council tax levy, which increases council tax bills to up to 200% on property left empty for more than a year.

While most empty homes are brought back into use in fewer than two years, the survey identified the chances drop off if a property has been unoccupied for five years.

SEHP supports the Scottish Government’s commitment to bring in Compulsory Sale Orders, which will force owners whose empty properties are causing issues to sell them on the open market.

It also backs the use of existing Compulsory Purchase Orders, but acknowledges this is a more time-consuming process with higher risks for local councils.

Run by Shelter Scotland with funding by the Scottish Government, SEHP is leading the drive to tackle those 39,000 homes still sitting empty.

The funding increase allows an expansion of SEHP support to empty homes officers and direct financial back-up for councils setting up new services, with the likes of Aberdeen city council and Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (see below) among them.

There’s also provision in the funding for further investment in research, training and marketing its services.

Spotlight – The Western Isles

With approximately 3.5% of privately owned homes on the Western Isles classed as long-term empty, the islands have the second highest rate of vacant housing stock in Scotland.

While some areas have suffered from depopulation resulting in empty homes, others lose people due to a shortage of affordable accommodation.

Reducing the empty homes problem is an important way of strengthening these fragile rural communities.

The new empty homes service on the Western Isles launched in October 2018 and has already brought 40 properties back into use, with more than 70 currently being renovated.

It’s run by Comhairle nan Eilean Siar with seed funding and ongoing support from SEHP.

With a background in construction, Murdo MacLeod (pictured), the area’s first empty homes officer, can put owners in touch with local suppliers where he’s negotiated discounts for bringing long-term empty property back into use.

He can also certify homes as very long-term empty which provides access to VAT discounts on major work.

“For a lot of people, it’s the cost of renovating that has been holding them back, so getting the discounts from local suppliers and additional VAT discounts has made a huge difference,” said MacLeod.

“For people doing a lot of work to a property it can save them thousands of pounds and can make a project viable when it wasn’t before.

“Some of them are eligible for government funding for energy efficiency measures like insultation and new heating systems too – with this help available people are waking up and realising that it’s cost-effective to do the work now.”

A considerable amount of the property has been inherited by people who live in mainland Scotland and even further afield.

To get in touch with them, the council produced a leaflet explaining the advice available from the empty homes service and distributed it with council tax bills.

“The leaflet really worked. People on the islands called up their friends and family who had moved away and let them know – it’s generated a lot of interest in the service,” said MacLeod.

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