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Steve Barclay MP: The action on derelict buildings that would drive local growth

BARCLAY STEVE 2Stephen Barclay is the Member of Parliament for North East Cambridgeshire and a member of the Public Accounts Committee. Follow Stephen on Twitter.

Historic buildings and period architecture form the backbone of Britain’s thriving tourist industry. Quaint market towns and grand cityscapes have defined our built environment and shared national identity for centuries. Yet up and down the country, an estimated 730,000 homes and commercial buildings stand derelict and abandoned.

Neglected and dilapidated buildings blight the overall impression of a town centre, and have a damaging knock-on effect on local businesses and the value of neighbouring properties, as well as attracting vandalism, vermin, fly posting and problems of anti-social behaviour.

Walking around Wisbech in my North-East Cambridgeshire Constituency, it is clear that derelict properties left to decay without council intervention. and empty shop fronts where business rates have priced out entrepreneurs, pose a real threat to the safety and the survival of our town centres.

Bringing rundown buildings and commercial properties back to life should be right at the heart of plans to regenerate our towns and boost local economic development. Instead, residents and tourists are confronted with buildings which have been neglected for decades.

Councils already have powers to enforce fines via Magistrates’ Courts on the owners of derelict buildings. Authorities can also contract builders to undertake repairs and then charge the owners for the work.

In short, any derelict building where the landlord is known to have other assets should not stay derelict for long. The council simply applies for a section 215 Notice which requires the owner to act or face a fine for the work carried out in their absence with added penalties of up to £1,000 a day.

So why are these eyesores still  dragging down growth by hitting neighbouring property prices by as much as 10%? Some councils do make use of the powers available to them, and successfully exploit the link between updating rundown property and a wider programme for regeneration. Others fail to recognize this untapped potential and leave their town centres stagnant.

Those councils who fail to act are often concerned that building work will outweigh the final sale value.  They are right to worry about getting value for taxpayers’ money. Yet the council is able to recover its legal costs, and if it pursues a fine, the landlord faces a penalty before any additional building needs to begin.  Alternatively, where the landlord has other assets, these can be brought into play for funding the repairs.

Owners will often use similar arguments, claiming that there is no incentive to invest in upkeep and preferring to leave their properties deteriorating for years. Yet a court order would leave them with little choice in the matter.  The simple threat of prosecution is usually sufficient to encourage them to act, especially when they have a wider property portfolio to protect.

Small improvements to return these derelict buildings to a habitable state will not only benefit the council’s tax coffers, but the wider community too.  Businesses near to derelict buildings suffer when surrounding buildings are left to go to waste as shoppers and tourists inevitably drift elsewhere.

Many successful projects have demonstrated the importance of renovation as great investment opportunities instead of unsightly liabilities. Lancaster Council is a good example.  The Heritage Lottery Fund recently launched a scheme aimed at stimulating economic growth by unlocking the potential of historical buildings and sites.

Period buildings at the heart of town centres attract small and start-up businesses in the creative sectors, which generate above average returns and contribute to some of the most productive sectors of the economy. Of course a balance needs to be struck between efficient use of council resources and a pressing need to overhaul our town centres and encourage inward investment.  But the fact remains that enforcement is made possible by the Magistrates Court and costs to councils can be recovered.

Where a landlord does not have other assets and councils risk a shortfall, they should be open with the public as to how much this is likely to cost them as well as setting out the wider community benefit of the investment. Public consultation like this will go a long way towards engaging communities in regeneration decisions that directly affect them.

Councils need to take the lead on ensuring that enforcement powers are fully exercised and take further action to make owners aware of the financial burden of keeping properties vacant.

Grassroots campaigns like the petition I have set up in my own constituency are a first step towards raising awareness of the economic and social impact of derelict buildings. Cleaning up town centres and renovating clapped out properties is not just a cosmetic issue; if helping businesses to flourish is the key to our economic recovery, then rebuilding long-term growth starts closer to home than we think.

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