A zero-tolerance approach to Southwark’s empty homes

19 October 2021

On October 19, the council’s Cabinet will meet to decide on an action plan to tackle empty homes in Southwark. With London and Southwark in the midst of a housing crisis it is important that the council does all that it can to maintain and increase the supply of genuinely affordable, high-quality homes.

The plan includes a detailed assessment of the current state of empty home numbers and how the council will tackle these challenges using all powers available, if agreed. It also describes how the council will campaign for further policy change in central government to allow local councils to take firmer action. It concentrates on five key areas:

  • Taking a zero tolerance approach to long term empty private sector homes
  • Working with residents and property owners to quickly bring empty homes back in to use
  • Improving our understanding of private sector empty homes to better target action and support
  • Campaigning for more resources and more effective powers to tackle empty homes in the private sector
  • Reducing the number of empty council homes

The action plan focuses on the private sector, which accounts for nearly three-quarters of all empty homes in the borough. In reviewing council tax records there are around 7,700 empty homes in the borough, nearly 5,800 of these are in the private sector.

In order to make a real impact on reducing these numbers, the council will create a Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) Fund to tackle the most persistent challenges. In addition, Southwark Council will develop the best possible offer to property owners to support them in bringing their empty homes back into use, including guaranteed income levels and taking on the burden of management through the council’s own Social Lettings Agency.

However, without further powers from central government it will continue to be difficult to bring empty homes back into use. Therefore:

  • The council is calling for greater flexibility over council tax premiums on empty homes:
  • No home should be empty for more than 6-months without a council tax increase. Government should enable local authorities to increase tax rates on homes empty for less than the current 2-years minimum.
  • The government should not limit council tax premiums on empty homes and should allow local government to set these rates as they see fit.
  • Government must allow councils to decide what constitutes an empty home. Councils are restricted by law to only apply these premiums to homes that are “unfurnished”. Therefore there are over 2,600 homes in Southwark which are unoccupied, but because they are furnished cannot receive a higher tax rate to discourage this behaviour.
  • Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) and Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs) should be reformed to take into account the impact of empty homes on the community and the local housing need. Currently, these processes can only be pursued if local authorities can provide evidence of environmental impacts such as anti-social behaviour and pest control around an empty property. EDMOs can also only be pursued after a property can be shown to have been empty for 2 years. The limited should be returned to its original six-month threshold. Similarly, both CPO and EDMO process take far too long to process and should be streamlined and simplified.

The report also details the current numbers of empty council-owned properties. Of the more than 37,000 council tenanted properties, 371 of these are currently empty while they are being made-ready to be re-let according to our high standards. This means that around 1 per cent of our available stock are empty awaiting tenants.

There are around 980 council-owned properties that are currently part of major redevelopments and refurbishments relating to large estate projects such as Aylesbury, Ledbury and Abbeyfield for example. Even if you include these unavailable properties in the total, more than 96 per cent of all council-tenanted properties are currently occupied.

The council has very clear targets, detailed in this action plan to bring all council-owned homes into use as quickly and efficiently as possible according to our own high standards. In the previous financial year we brought 231 homes back into use.

Cabinet member for a Cleaner, Safer Borough, Cllr Darren Merrill, said: “Empty homes aren’t just a blight on our communities, acting a point of anti-social behaviour; they are an act of injustice when we have over 16,000 households on our waiting list for a home and over 3,400 households living in temporary accommodation. This report is an open, honest and transparent appraisal of the challenge we face in Southwark. Empty homes are a challenge primarily driven by the private sector, with 75 per cent of all empty homes outside of the council’s direct control. Therefore we will work with property-owners to give them all the support they need to bring homes back into use, including taking over management of properties through our Social Lettings Agency.

“Where landlords are not willing to engage with us, we will use all the powers we have to take a zero-tolerance approach and bring these properties back into use. However, government must untie our hands. For example, we need to be able to increase taxes on empty homes and deploy Empty Dwelling Management Orders before the current two-year threshold. No home should be allowed to remain empty for more than six-months without consequence for the owners.

“When it comes to the council’s own empty properties, it is great news that only around 1 per cent of our available stock are vacant and being made ready to re-let. It is also worth noting that last year we brought 231 properties back in to use. However, we need to continue to ensure that when properties are vacated we make then available to new tenants as soon as possible.”

Page last updated: 19 October 2021

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