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Housing

How many empty homes are there in the UK?

Campaigners are calling for government action on rising numbers of long-term empty properties across the country

The UK is trapped in a housing crisis and solving it is not just a case of building thousands of new affordable homes – bringing empty homes back into use must also be part of the strategy too.

It’s not just a case of finding homes for people trapped in temporary accommodation or homelessness either. Bringing homes back into use can have a big impact on the UK’s efforts to tackle the climate crisis.

According to Mike Berners-Lee’s book How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, building a new home has a carbon footprint of 80 tonnes of CO2 – equivalent to building five brand-new cars. But refurbishing an old house carried much less of a carbon footprint, equating to just eight tonnes in comparison.

Both the desperate need for new affordable housing is why campaigners Action on Empty Homes have lived up to their name with a National Day of Action on October 9.

It’s got the backing of The Big Issue – we launched our own Fill ‘Em ‘Up campaign years ago and have been calling for a renewed effort to bring homes back into use ever since.

Lord John Bird, founder of The Big Issue, said: “October 9 is the National Day of Action on Empty Homes. Make that a red-letter day. The Big Issue is proud to lend its wholehearted and unstinting support to this noble campaign. It would be a betrayal to do anything less.”

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And if the climate crisis and the housing crisis were not enough reason to push for more homes to be filled, the need to find housing for refugees displaced from their homes in Afghanistan is another pressing issue, according to Will McMahon, director of Action on Empty Homes.

“We live in a country with over 500,000 homes with no permanent resident – yet we have 100,000 families in temporary accommodation and need to play our part as a country in supporting Afghan refugees,” he said. “There are more than enough homes without permanent residents to meet both the housing crisis and the refugee emergency.”

How many empty homes are there in the UK? 

According to the most recent government figures released in November 2020, 268,385 homes in England had been empty for at least six months. These are what Action on Empty Homes refers to as “long term” empty properties. 

These figures represented a 19 per cent increase in abandoned properties, with an additional 42,600 added since 2019. 

While the rise could be down to Covid-19 lockdowns, the number has increased four years in a row. 

“There will be different types of empty homes in the 42,000 surge we saw this year,” explained Chris Bailey, campaigns manager at Action on Empty Homes. 

“Some of them will be Airbnbs where the market has been shattered by travel bans and Covid, some of them will be city flats people couldn’t really afford to live in but they had to for their work and have now abandoned them. There will be unsold new-builds as well.

“While some of the increase will be related to Covid, it’s not all about that. They’ve been going up since the year after the last national empty house programme funding was stopped by the government in 2015.” 

AEH’s most recent research – the Nobody Home report – found one in three homes in London’s financial centre are empty, many left to appreciate in value on the housing market.

While the City of London came out on top, Kensington and Chelsea – the borough where the Grenfell Tower disaster happened in 2017 – followed with one in eight homes left unoccupied.

Outside of the English capital, second homes that are left empty for large parts of the year are a problem particularly damaging in coastal and rural areas. For example, there are 3,071 long-term empty homes in Cornwall, as of November 2020, many of them acting as holiday homes in the beauty spot.

Homes left empty in these towns and villages often make it difficult for locals to get on the property ladder which can also impact on employment too. That’s why some residents have held second homes referendums in recent years. St Ives in Cornwall has held a vote while a second homes ban was approved in Beadnell, Northumberland, back in 2018.

Why do empty homes matter? 

Charities warn housing waiting lists are growing, with increasing numbers who have nowhere else to go being put up in council-provided temporary accommodation.

According to the Local Government Association, 127,240 children were living in temporary accommodation during England’s third national lockdown, including 1,440 households with children in bed and breakfasts around the country. 

Action on Empty Homes aims not only to raise awareness but also to urge the government to bring long-term empty properties back into use for those in need. 

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Bailey said government action could be “very important” for struggling households because the vast majority of empty properties were three or four bedroom family homes. 

“These are the sort of homes that could be affordable, whether rented or purchased, by the kind of people who are most in housing need,” he added. 

How can we bring empty properties back into use? 

It’s not quite as simple as repossessing empty homes and giving them to families in need, though. Many are old, in need of investment and aren’t currently ready to be lived in. 

Bailey said most long-term empty properties were Victorian and Edwardian terraced homes that are difficult to insulate. But, he added, this doesn’t necessarily mean knocking them down is the best course of action. 

He said retrofitting old-style housing would be more efficient and help the government’s environmental credentials as it hosts the COP26 climate conference of global climate leaders. 

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Action on Empty Homes estimate retrofitting 270,000 long-term empty homes and council estates can play a significant role on the UK’s path towards net-zero carbon emissions.

“We have the worst housing in Europe in terms of its loss of heat and loss of energy,” Bailey added. 

“If the government’s talking about COP26 going forward to combat climate change, they really need to think about our housing stock.

“The answer in many cases is to retrofit because that’s a much more efficient thing to do.”

What can the government do about unused homes?

Action on Empty Homes is calling on the government to launch a national empty homes strategy, saying £200 million is needed to support local authorities to bring long-term unused houses in England back into use.

A government scheme was set up in 2012 to provide £100 million for refurbishments but it ended in 2015. 

The LGA is also calling on the government to give councils more power to acquire homes, including making it easier to buy unused properties and move households on from temporary accommodation. 

“Not all empty homes are in need of refurbishment, though many would benefit from the type of government-backed investment programme we saw working well until it was scrapped in 2015,” added Action on Empty Homes director Will McMahon. 

“That’s why we call for a new programme of government investment and why we back local council’s calls for better and simpler powers to act where owners and landlords won’t or can’t.

“We also back calls from the Local Government Association for government to offer councils improved powers to acquire empty homes and put them to use to help them in dealing with the sharp end of our national housing crisis which sees 127,240 children and their families trapped in insecure, sub-standard and often over-crowded temporary accommodation during our current national lockdown.”

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