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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. Renovating and retrofitting homes 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.

That’s why campaigners Action on Empty Homes (AEH) hold an awareness week every year to draw attention to the issue. In 2022, the spotlight will be on empty homes between February 28 and March 6.

How many empty homes are there in the UK? 

According to the most recent government council taxbase figures released in November 2021, there are 238,306 homes in England that are classed as long-term empty homes. This means that they have been left vacant for more than six months. 

That number has increased in the last few years. Empty homes were at the lowest point in the last decade back in 2016 when there were just over 200,000 properties left vacant. Since then that figure has risen by 20 per cent.

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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.

AEH’s Will McMahon said: “With at least 100,000 homes with no permanent residents it’s time for action. That means getting to grips with the 30,000 long-term empty homes in the capital, controls on Airbnb, and support for local communities that want the low-cost homes Londoners need, not more of the ones they can’t afford or never even get a chance to rent.”

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 around 7,000 empty homes in Cornwall many of them acting as holiday homes in the beauty spot.

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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.

As for Scotland, there are around 43,000 long-term empty properties in the country, according to the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership. Wales has fewer properties left vacant for more than six months, with around 27,000 empty homes. The Welsh Government has previously targeted bringing that figure down to around 5,000 homes.

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.

At the most recent count, there were 96,060 households living in temporary accommodation in England as of September 30 2021.  In Scotland there are 13,192 households put up in B&Bs and other makeshift properties while Wales has 3,729 households in temporary accommodation.   

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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. 

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 Westminster government’s environmental credentials as it looks to reach net-zero carbon by 2050.

According to a report from the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, as many as one million new homes could need retrofitting to hit new climate targets and it could cost owners more than £10,000.

Action on Empty Homes estimate retrofitting England’s 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,” he added. 

“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 Westminster leaders 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 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.”

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