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‘It’s ridiculous - there are not enough homes being built yet thousands sit empty’ - fresh calls to tackle long-term empty homes in region

PUBLISHED: 07:30 26 December 2018 | UPDATED: 08:21 27 December 2018

North Norfolk District Council issued a compulsory purchase on two properties on the former RAF Sculthorpe site, so they can be brought back into use. Picture: Ian Burt

North Norfolk District Council issued a compulsory purchase on two properties on the former RAF Sculthorpe site, so they can be brought back into use. Picture: Ian Burt

Councils have been urged to do more to tackle the problem of long-term empty homes after latest figures showed that nearly 5,000 properties sat vacant for six months or more across Norfolk, Waveney and Fenland.

Norwich South MP Clive Lewis has spoken on the issue of long-term empty homes. Picture: PANorwich South MP Clive Lewis has spoken on the issue of long-term empty homes. Picture: PA

The figures, taken in September, show that the number of long-term empty homes, those left “unoccupied and substantially unfurnished” for at least six months was 4,718 and has risen in many areas.

Paul Palmer, director of Empty Homes UK, an organisation which works with local authorities on the issue, said the homes could be used to help alleviate homelessness and the shortage of social housing.

Government statistics do not include derelict properties that could be refurbished, or second homes that are rarely occupied.

The largest increase in long-term empty homes took place in Norwich, where the number rose 33pc year-on-year from 365 to 485.

Great Yarmouth borough councillor Andy Grant has spoken on the issue of long-term empty homes. Picture: David HannantGreat Yarmouth borough councillor Andy Grant has spoken on the issue of long-term empty homes. Picture: David Hannant

Norwich City Council said it contacts owners to encourage them to bring the properties back into use and lets them know about the ‘Let Norwich City Council’ scheme, where the council rents the property for four years and provides it to people on the housing register or threatened with homelessness.

However, it also said there is no longer government funding for tackling empty homes, meaning there is no dedicated resource in place.

Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South, also blamed government cuts for the increase in the city and said: “The government previously gave a cash pot to Norwich to reduce the number of empty homes.

“They’ve now taken that money away from people in our city desperately needing somewhere to live at the same time as slashing central government funding to councils by well over 50pc.”

How a former empty property in St Austin's Grove in Sheringham now looks after being brought back into use. Pictures: NNDCHow a former empty property in St Austin's Grove in Sheringham now looks after being brought back into use. Pictures: NNDC

Other areas where the number of long-term empty homes increased include Great Yarmouth, South Norfolk, Fenland and Waveney, while there were around 1,000 long-term empty homes in King’s Lynn and West Norfolk.

South Norfolk saw a 16pc rise from 374 to 434, though South Norfolk Council said the number was actually 356 if the number of homes being worked on is included and added that it will “take appropriate action when an empty property begins to negatively impact on the community.”

Waveney also saw an increase of 15pc from 501 to 576, with a spokesperson from Waveney District Council stating that “the number of properties empty of 18 months or more in Waveney has decreased from 167 in 2017 to 150 in 2018.”

Mr Palmer believes that action can be taken to ensure properties are not left empty long-term and that bringing them back into use would help to tackle other problems in society.

ThinkstockPhotos-908334194ThinkstockPhotos-908334194

He said: “It just seems ridiculous that there are not enough homes being built yet there are thousands sitting empty.

“Each empty home has its own story. Unless local authorities take time and find out what will help them they won’t get anywhere.

“Local authorities should be able to match them up with the problems of social housing shortages and homelessness quite easily. Loads of homeless people are looking for accommodation.”

In Waveney, there are just over 2,000 applications on the social housing waiting list, with approximately 50pc still waiting to be adequately housed and in King’s Lynn and West Norfolk there are 1,100 live applications.

Great Yarmouth saw an increase in long-term empty homes from 550 to 586 but councillor Andy Grant, chairman of Great Yarmouth Borough Council’s housing and neighbourhoods committee, said it isn’t as simple as using the empty homes for social housing, given many are privately owned.

He said: “It is really important to recognise that people are not on the housing register for social housing because empty homes exist in the private sector but rather because they have an individually-assessed need for social housing and are waiting for a suitable property to become available that meets their specific needs and, often, their personal preferences.”

However, Mr Palmer believes long-term empty homes can provide a relief to these problems and said councils have the power to take action.

“Local authorities should be able to make up the number quite easily. The ultimate sanction is that councils can take Compulsory Purchase Orders” he added.

“Councils argue that they don’t have the money to fund it. They can sell it on to someone who does have the money to do it up.

“Local authorities can still borrow money quite easily. They can buy it cheaply and do it up and straight away they can make money by bringing in rent.”

Several councils have put enforcement action to use. North Norfolk District Council, an area which saw a 14pc decrease, has used an ‘enforcement board’ approach involving Compulsory Purchase Orders.

Additionally, in Broadland, an area which saw a 17pc decrease, the district council offers loans of up to £4,000 per converted unit and a £1,000 ‘makeover’ loan for those properties already on the market that are proving difficult, as well as using enforcement powers when necessary.

To report an empty home, visit https://emptyhomesuk.co.uk/report-an-empty-property/ or contact your local council.

What can councils do?

Councils have a number of tools at their disposal to tackle the issue of long-term empty homes.

One of the main powers is the ability to charge premiums on homes left empty for two years or more, which is currently capped at 50pc, though next year local authorities will have the power to double council tax on those properties.

Councils can also make Compulsory Purchase Orders, whereby they can acquire the home if the owner fails to make positive changes to bring it back into use, as well as other enforcement powers such as enforced works, enforced sale and potential demolition.

Broadland saw a significant decrease in the number of long-term empty homes of 17pc, with the district council able to provide financial assistance for eligible properties including loans of up to £4,000.

North Norfolk also saw a decrease of 14pc, with North Norfolk District Council successfully using Compulsory Purchase Orders on a number of occasions.

The full list of figures

The full list of government figures taken in September 2018:

• Norwich- 485 long-term empty homes, 365 last year (33% increase)

• Breckland- 455 long-term empty homes, 494 last year (8% decrease)

• North Norfolk- 555 long-term empty homes, 642 last year (14% decrease)

• Great Yarmouth- 586 long-term empty homes, 550 last year (7% increase)

• Broadland- 224 long-term empty homes, 270 last year (17% decrease)

• South Norfolk- 434 long-term empty homes, 374 last year (16% increase)

• King’s Lynn and West Norfolk- 1013 long-term empty homes, last year figures unknown

• Fenland- 390 long-term empty homes, 357 last year (9% increase)

• Waveney- 576 long-term empty homes, 501 last year (15% increase)

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