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George Hollingbery MP: The Government is taking the right steps to turn empty houses into much-needed homes

Hollingbery GeorgeGeorge Hollingbery is the Member of Parliament for Meon Valley. His article is the last in a seven part series of articles by Conservative MPs, each discussing the Coalition's policies to get more people into good homes.

We all know there’s a problem with housing in the UK.

Demand for housing outstrips supply.  Yet, despite good progress under the Coalition with housing starts in the last year increasing by 29% compared with 2008/9 and 17% compared with 2009/10, the Home Builders Federation report that numbers of housing starts still undershoot demand by a considerable margin.

The Government has been doing a great deal to help from the introduction of the New Homes Bonus to streamlining the planning system and offering help to first time buyers.  We have also heard of plans to introduce build now, pay later schemes on surplus public sector land, changes in tenure rules to allow Housing Associations and councils to build more housing and now the increased Right to Buy program that will recycle receipts into new homes.

But within all this there is a surprising fact: across the England there are some 700,000 dwellings standing empty of which 300,000 or so have been that way for over 6 months. How can it be that, when there are so many people wanting a home of their own, there are so many existing dwellings left unused?

Of course, quite large numbers of these are in areas where the housing market had simply failed.  Many, like Oldham & Rochdale which I recently visited as part of an inquiry by the DCLG Select Committee, were designated as Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder areas under the last Government. Whilst it was clear from our visit that these programs have delivered some real benefits to local people, it was at an enormous cost.  In my mind at least, there are also real doubts as to the sustainability of some of what has been achieved without continued Government input, much of which is simply no longer affordable.

Even so, across the rest of the country where the housing market still exists in a perfectly decent state, there are still plenty of empty homes.  In Southampton for example, there are 3,000, of which just under 800 have been empty for over 6 months.

We simply have to do something about this, and, it’s clear that the Government recognises the problem.

There have been a number of policy announcements designed to help: the New Homes Bonus is available for empty homes brought back into use; we have recently seen a £100m fund being made available from April 2012 (administered by the Homes & Communities Agency) to which anyone can make a bid for schemes to bring long-term empty homes back into the market; changes in council tax rules are currently being consulted on, which would allow councils to deny council tax discounts on empty homes or, in some circumstances, charge a premium rate if it was felt this was likely to help bring the property back into use.

The HCA also has a website called the Empty Homes Toolkit that provides all sorts of resources for anyone who is interested in getting something done.

No-one pretends that getting an empty home back into use is an easy thing to do. If it were, I have no doubt that most councils would already have got a firm grip on the problem. There are any number of complications that can arise, not least of which in some instances is working out who owns a property in the first place.

That said, I’m sure that we can, and must, do better.  With new funds and tools being made available by Government, I hope very much that local authorities, housing associations and community groups will take the opportunity to look afresh at their own areas and find a way of bringing some of these buildings back to a state where they can once again be a home for someone who needs one.

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