Empty property strategy

Foreword

Councillor Clare Cummins

The national housing shortage is at breaking point as demand continues to outstrip supply and the reduction and re-use of empty properties has never been more important.

Empty properties are a prominent issue both nationally and locally - not just because of the visual impact they have on communities but, the fact that they are a wasted resource and often associated with a number of negative factors including crime and anti-social behaviour.

Thousands of properties, the majority of which are privately owned, are lying empty as the number of families living in temporary accommodation continues to rise, housing waiting lists are overwhelmed and the demand for affordable housing is greater than ever.

Bringing empty properties back into use will not solve the housing crisis but it will help to relieve some of the pressure for affordable housing. However, we cannot do this in isolation and collaborative working with empty property owners, residents and partner agencies is integral to the successful delivery of this Strategy. 

Councillor Clare Cummins,
Cabinet Member for Housing Services.


1.0 Introduction

Empty terrace housing

Bury is facing an increasing shortage of housing including affordable housing for its residents whilst the number of long-term empty properties continues to rise. Many families are finding it difficult to access a suitable home they can afford and are forced to live in temporary accommodation. In 2019/20 alone, local authorities across the country spent an estimated £1.2 billion on temporary accommodation for homeless households. According to the most recent Government figures published in October 2020, approximately 268,000 homes across England, had been empty for at least six months, an increase of 20% from 2019 and the biggest rise since records began in 2004.

Empty properties are a national scandal and a wasted resource. They deteriorate faster than occupied homes, blight neighbourhoods, incite crime and anti-social behaviour and have a negative impact on communities, the local environment and the local property market, leading to reduced house prices. Whilst some empty properties do not visibly reduce the appearance of an area, they are often a source of concern to neighbours who may fear the potential for anti-social behaviour.

It's not just communities and residents that can be affected by empty properties, they can cause issues for owners too. Empty properties can be a financial drain due to ongoing maintenance costs, increasing council tax and, in some cases, mortgage payments. The more a property deteriorates, the higher the cost to the owner to bring it back into effective use. 

Like many other local authorities, Bury Council has faced significant reductions in funding in recent years which has affected staffing resources and the way that the Council is able to deliver services and carry out its statutory functions.

The Council is committed to reducing the number of empty properties by adopting a proactive approach in supporting owners to help return their empty properties to use, in conjunction with the Bury 2030 vision and boroughwide Housing Strategy. Tackling empty properties will help return much needed homes in the Borough back into use, improve standards in the private sector and benefit the wider community.

This Strategy has been developed following extensive consultation on the Housing Strategy with residents and stakeholders earlier this year. It reinforces the Council's stance on empty properties and builds on the work that has already been undertaken to reduce them. It identifies the scale of the empty property problem in the Borough, together with the options and resources available to maximise re-use of existing housing stock and address the negative impact on local communities and economic regeneration. 

Despite many successes, reoccupation of empty properties remains a considerable challenge for the Council, and strong partnership working with communities and other agencies is essential to drive progress and help deliver the Strategy.

2.0 Strategic priorities

The overall aim of the Strategy is to reduce the number of empty properties across the Borough and increase the supply of available housing to help meet housing need [Note: It is important to note that Government policy does not allow the reduction of empty properties to be counted as a contributor to meeting the borough's housing targets (i.e. if all the borough's empty properties were occupied, there would still be a need to build around 9,456 new homes to meet the Government's full Local Housing Need from 2021-2037, or 7,228 homes to meet the proposed Places for Everyone target)].

The Strategy has three key priorities:

1. Preventing properties from becoming empty for prolonged periods

Projected outcomes:

  • Empty homes recorded and monitored to demonstrate the progress being made towards bringing empty properties back into use
  • Increased knowledge and information - accurate records of number, type and location of all long-term empty properties and commercial buildings in the borough
  • Bespoke action plans developed for wards/townships
  • Improved communication and early engagement with empty property owners - promotion of services and financial incentives and disincentives (including council tax premiums and means of enforcement) to deter owners from leaving properties empty for prolonged periods
  • Enhanced advice and guidance - empty property owners are aware of the options available to them
  • Correct council tax premiums applied to all empty properties and commercial premises to maximise revenue

2. Reducing the number of long-term empty properties in the borough

Projected outcomes:

  • An increased supply of available housing including affordable homes for people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness
  • Increased council tax revenue
  • All empty properties that have been empty for 2 years or more risk assessed and prioritised for action
  • Making best use of existing housing stock to help meet housing need
  • Properties improved to low carbon standards
  • Limited resources allocated effectively
  • A healthy private rented sector

3. Minimising the negative effects of empty properties on local communities

Projected outcomes:

  • Long-term empty properties prioritised for enforcement where appropriate
  • Effective action on problematic empty properties
  • Appropriate use of enforcement powers
  • Safer communities - reduction in crime and anti-social behaviour
  • Improved amenity and visual impact of neighbourhoods creating pride in communities
  • Reduction in the number of complaints the Council receives regarding empty properties
  • All costs associated with direct works and legal action on empty properties reclaimed where possible

3.0 Definition of an empty property

A property (residential or commercial) is classed as long-term empty if it is inactive in the market and has been recorded as empty for more than six months. If a property is empty for less than six months it may be due to a delayed sale or letting. These are classed as transactional empty properties. Although transactional empty properties are less of a priority for the Council, they can still cause concern. 

In some cases, a property may appear empty but it is not classed as empty. Properties do not have to be used all the time to be classed as occupied. This applies to properties that might be awaiting refurbishment or are second homes and holiday homes.

The vast majority of empty properties are privately owned, and there are many reasons why they become empty in the first place and remain empty. Some of the most common reasons are:

  • The property has been abandoned
  • Problems achieving a sale or letting and/or unrealistic asking prices/rent
  • The owner may be in residential care and wishes to return (but is often unable to do so) or lives abroad
  • The ownership of the property may be unclear/property owner deceased and there are no traceable descendants
  • Inheritance issues/business disputes/delays with probate
  • The owner may lack the financial means or skills to carry out essential repairs, refurbishment and/or complete redevelopment
  • Land-banking - owners waiting for values to increase before they offer their properties for sale
  • General reluctance - owners refuse to let or sell their property

While short term empty properties are unavoidable, there are those which remain empty, with no likelihood of returning to occupation. The Council discourages homes being left empty for long periods and charges an 'Empty Property Premium' of 200% council tax on properties that have been empty for two years or more, increasing to 300% for those that have been empty for over 5 years (unless exempt).

3.1 Problems caused by empty properties

Empty properties can have a detrimental impact on communities and the local environment. Whilst it is not illegal to keep a property empty it can be an expensive option. The longer a property lies empty, the more it will deteriorate. Some of the most common problems associated with empty properties include:

  • Wasted asset that costs the owner money to maintain/leave empty
  • Vandalism/arson/anti-social behaviour
  • Blight on local communities and general loss of value affecting neighbouring property values
  • Urban deprivation of inner areas accelerating population loss
  • Loss of community as permanent homeowners move out and are replaced by passing tenants
  • Deterioration leading to dangerous and dilapidated structures which can be a danger to the public and/or cause damage to neighbouring properties
  • Fly tipping/dumping/overgrown land and gardens
  • Problems due to vermin infiltration
  • Illegal squatting
  • Time and money costs to both the Council and the emergency services

3.2 Benefits of bringing empty properties back into use and enabling housing growth

There are many financial, environmental, social and economic benefits of bringing disused residential and commercial properties back into use. These include:

  • Attractive neighbourhoods and economic vitality which can increase spend and boost the local economy
  • An increased supply of available housing to help meet housing need and reduce homelessness and the need for temporary accommodation
  • Making best use of existing housing stock
  • Increased council tax revenue and new homes bonus income
  • Increased income for owners who rent or sell their empty properties
  • Reduced crime and anti-social behaviour and the fear of crime through improvements to homes and buildings to create safer communities and attractive neighbourhoods
  • Improving homes and buildings to modern standards using the latest low carbon technology
  • Enhancing the vitality of town centres and promoting economic growth by bringing town centre homes and buildings back into use
  • Improving the visual impact of neighbourhoods to boost wellbeing, create pride in the community and reduce demand on public services
  • Supporting the Council's commitment to tackling threats to public health which are sometimes linked to empty properties such as fly-tipping, vandalism and anti-social behaviour.

4.0 National and regional context

The problems posed by empty properties are a national issue. In 2020, there were approximately 665,600 empty dwellings across England, an increase of around 17,500 (2.7%) from the previous year. Of those, approximately 268,000 had been empty for more than six months. These figures include empty properties in the public sector (those owned by local authorities and registered providers) as well as empty properties in the private sector.

The table below shows the number of long-term empty properties by region in 2020. As can be seen, the North-West region had the highest number of long-term empty properties with approximately 44,500, almost a sixth of all long-term empty properties across England. Many of these properties were found to be in coastal areas like Blackpool and Fylde which can suffer from seasonal downturns causing higher levels of unemployment. In contrast, the North-East of England had the fewest with just under 21,000.

Long-Term Empties (6 months +) in England 2020 (MHCLG Live Tables Oct 2020)
RegionLong term empties
North West44,560
North East20,780
Yorkshire and Humberside32,327
East Midlands24,807
West Midlands28,740
South West24,530
East of England26,275
South East35,818
London30,548

The table below shows the total number of empty properties across Greater Manchester in 2020. Whilst numbers are high across GM as a whole, Wigan had the highest number of empty dwellings and Tameside the lowest followed by Bury.

All Empty Properties in Greater Manchester (MHCLG Live Tables 2020)
RegionLong term empties
Bolton3,670
Bury2,433
Manchester4,046
Oldham2,691
Rochdale3,033
Salford3,355
Stockport3,852
Tameside2,347
Trafford2,658
Wigan4,526

The table below shows the total number of long-term empty properties across Greater Manchester in 2020. Whilst numbers are high in all ten boroughs', Stockport had the highest number of empty dwellings and Trafford the lowest followed by Bury.

Long-Term Empty Properties (6 months +) In Greater Manchester (MHCLG Live Tables 2020)
RegionLong term empties
Bolton1,689
Bury974
Manchester1,455
Oldham1,227
Rochdale1,409
Salford1,052
Stockport1,879
Tameside982
Trafford829
Wigan1,111

Government Incentives/Opportunities

Over the last two decades, the Government has placed considerable emphasis on the importance of bringing long-term empty properties back into use and has introduced a number of incentives to encourage local authorities to support this work.

The New Homes Bonus scheme introduced in 2011 offers local authorities financial incentives for increasing housing supply, including the return to use of empty properties. Under this scheme, local authorities currently receive the same financial reward for bringing an empty property back into use as they would for building a new one. An additional premium is applied to properties that become affordable homes.

The Council Tax Premium introduced in 2013 gives local authorities the right to charge higher council tax rates on properties that have been empty for more than two years. The table below shows the amount of council tax that local authorities can charge for long-term empty properties:

Amount of council tax that local authorities can charge for long-term empty properties
Length of Time EmptyCouncil Tax
Less than 2 years100%
Over 2 years200%
Over 5 years300%
Over 10 years (from 2021)400%

 The Affordable Homes Programme 2021-2026 administered by Homes England aims to increase the supply of affordable housing in England and, supports bids to bring empty properties back into use as affordable homes. The Council has investor status and can apply for funding directly or, with partners including registered providers.

The Rough Sleeper Accommodation Programme (RSAP) provides funding for interim and long-term accommodation to support rough sleepers. The funding covers a range of interventions including the purchase and repair of properties either as freehold or on a long lease, subject to approval. The Council has investor status and can bid for funding directly or, with partners, including registered providers.

In addition, commuted sums/financial contributions made by private developers on residential housing sites under Section 106 planning applications, can be used to acquire and refurbish empty properties and bring them back into use as affordable homes, in accordance with the Council's Affordable Housing Policy.

5.0 Local context

Townships in the Borough of Bury (click to open large version)

The Borough of Bury has a population of 190,700 with 81,651 households (ONS 2020). It comprises of six townships - Bury, Whitefield, Prestwich, Ramsbottom, Tottington and Radcliffe and 17 wards shown on the map.

A Local Housing Need and Demand Assessment undertaken in 2020 estimates that there is a net shortfall of affordable housing to rent and buy in the Borough for 448 households each year. In addition, approximately 1,552 people were registered for accommodation on the Council's Housing Waiting List in May 2021 and 197 of those had an urgent housing need.

On 31 March 2021, there were 1,319 long-term empty properties known to the Council across the Borough (representing approximately 1.79% of all dwellings) of which, 395 had been empty for two years or more. Around 98.7% of these properties are privately owned. The table below shows where these properties are located by ward and the length of time that they have been empty.

Number of long-term empties over time for each Council ward
WardOver 6 monthsOver 6 months
to 1 year
Over 1 year
to 2 years
Over 2 years
Besses56221915
Church57172317
East78333114
Elton100272845
Holyrood83273323
Moorside72183024
North Manor74212726
Pilkington Park102333732
Radcliffe East78351726
Radcliffe North72242622
Radcliffe West72222328
Ramsbottom80242927
Redvales100393823
Sedgley83342524
St Mary's98373526
Tottington4013225
Unsworth73312418
Total1,319457467395

As can be seen, Pilkington Park has the highest number of long-term empty properties in total (102) followed by Elton Ward and Redvales (100 each). Elton Ward has the highest number of properties that have been empty for over two years (45), followed by Pilkington Park (32) and Radcliffe West (28). If a proportion of these properties could be brought back into use, it would help increase the supply of homes for occupation across the borough

The table below shows the number of long-term empty properties in the Borough since records began. As can be seen, numbers peaked in 2008 then fell sharply, but have risen steadily since then.

Long-Term Empty Properties in Bury 2004 - 2020 (MHCLG Live Tables 2020)
YearNumber
20041062
20051144
20061285
20071460
20081557
20091362
20101327
20111443
20121235
2013991
20142015
20161050
2017957
2018972
2019966
2020974

The Council receives a wide range of complaints regarding empty properties every year. The decision to take action depends on the individual circumstances of each case and, factors such as the length of time it has been unoccupied and the risk it poses to the community and general environment

5.1 Progress to date

Historically, Urban Renewal and Planning were responsible for undertaking action on empty properties. However, much of this has been reactive work with no option to carry out more proactive engagement due to lack of funding, staff capacity and increasing service pressures.

In recent years, the Council and Six Town Housing (STH) between them have acquired and refurbished 48 empty homes, using a combination of grant funding, section 106 monies and cash reserves. In addition, the Council recently acquired and refurbished a derelict building in Radcliffe. All of these properties have been brought back into use as affordable homes.

In 2016 the Council purchased a row of abandoned properties in private ownership on the Outwood Estate in Radcliffe. These properties had blighted the neighbourhood for many years and were subject to numerous incidents of anti-social behaviour including arson. All of these properties were refurbished as affordable homes and allocated to applicants on the Council's Housing Waiting List. The images below show the properties before and after extensive refurbishment.

Terrace housing prior to refurbishment (click to open large version) Terrace housing after refurbishment (click to open large version)

In 2019/20, the Council in partnership with a private developer refurbished the iconic, former Radcliffe Times building which had been a derelict eyesore on the high street for many years, using grant subsidy from Homes England. The 121-year-old building has now been transformed into 6 stylish one-bedroom apartments for people on the Council's Housing Waiting List. The images below show the building before and after extensive refurbishment.

Radcliffe Times building prior to refurbishment (click to open large version) Radcliffe Times building after refurbishment (click to open large version)

6.0 The Council's approach to empty properties

The Council in collaboration with partners and empty property owners, aspires to return twenty long-term empty properties back into use each year as a minimum, to help increase the supply of homes for occupation across the Borough and support economic growth. This may involve the Council purchasing, refurbishing and bringing empty properties back into use as affordable homes as it has done in the past, with grant subsidy from Homes England.

£1m has been allocated from Section 106 financial contributions to help support this work. Where the Council identifies a suitable property to purchase, it will undertake a comprehensive assessment and financial appraisal to establish viability and ensure commercial potential.

Whilst appropriate action will be taken where necessary on empty properties that are causing a nuisance or detriment to the amenity of a neighbourhood, the Council intends to focus its resources on long-term, problematic empty properties that have been unoccupied for two years or more in the first instance. In order to ensure that resources are allocated appropriately, each property will be risk assessed using a scoring matrix (Appendix 2). The assessment considers various aspects including overall condition, appearance, impact on neighbouring properties community/social impact, environmental issues and health and safety concerns. Results will be recorded and properties and those properties with the highest scores will be prioritised for action (see Appendix 2). The Empty Property Working Group will oversee this process.

6.1 Informal intervention/support for owners of empty properties

The Council seeks to prevent properties from becoming empty for prolonged periods by offering an enhanced advice and guidance service to empty property owners, responding to enquires and concerns from member of the public, undertaking targeted media campaigns, organising landlord events and forums and publicising a range of incentives and disincentives and an on-line reporting form on its website, to encourage members of the public to report problematic empty properties in their neighbourhoods. An Empty Homes Officer has recently been appointed in the Private Rented Sector Team to oversee this work.

Empty property owners are not always aware of the support the Council can offer them or, the environmental and financial consequences of leaving their properties empty. The Council has a duty to provide information, guidance and general support to owners of empty properties. Through this support, many empty properties can be returned to use. Options include, for example:

  • Refurbishing and re-occupying the property
  • Letting the property themselves as landlord or through a letting/management agent
  • Selling the property through an estate agent or via auction
  • Selling the property to an investor
  • Leasing the property to a private individual, property developer or registered provider

Supporting owners to sell or let their empty properties is a key component in the reduction of empty properties across the borough. 

Below are some of the incentives and services the Council can offer to empty property owners:

  • Council tax exemptions in some cases e.g. where an owner of an empty property is in hospital or receiving residential care
  • Council tax discounts in some cases e.g. where empty properties are uninhabitable due to renovation
  • Reduced rate VAT or zero VAT on refurbishment works if a property has been empty for 3 years or more
  • Enhanced advice and guidance service to empty property owners on a case-by-case basis to determine options
  • A list of investors looking to purchase properties in the Borough that are in need of refurbishment
  • Referrals to partners including registered providers and/or other agencies where owners want to sell or rent their properties
  • Free annual events for landlords and owners to enable them to keep up to date with legislation and share good practice

The Council does not have the means to offer empty property grants and/or loans to residents to encourage restoration.

6.2 Partners and stakeholders

The Council recognises that third party organisations have an important role in the delivery on this Strategy and, is working specifically with the Greater Manchester Ethical Letting's Agency (GMELA) and private registered providers including Six Town Housing to help bring empty properties back into use as affordable homes to support those in priority need. Like the Council, these organisations can access Homes England funding to help finance acquisition, renovation and refurbishment costs.

Greater Manchester Ethical Letting's Agency

The Greater Manchester Ethical Lettings Agency (GMELA) is a group of housing providers working together to increase access to affordable homes in the private rented sector. It can take properties under long-term lease agreements and provide a full management service with a guaranteed monthly income. The GMELA will undertake refurbishment on empty properties, cover maintenance, repairs and health and safety expenses at nil cost to the owner. The GMELA is active in Bury and there may be scope for them to acquire empty properties in the Borough to support the objectives of this Strategy. The Council will refer empty property owners to the GMELA where appropriate.

Registered Providers (Housing Associations)

The Council works with a number of registered providers operating in the Borough who can help empty property owners by purchasing and refurbishing their properties and/or leasing them and renting them to people in housing need, which would give owners an income throughout the term of the lease. The Council will refer empty property owners to registered providers where appropriate.

The Council seeks to identify opportunities for joint working with these organisations, to maximise resources and help bring empty properties back into use. 

Ward Councillors

Ward councillors provide a vital link to communities. They are well placed to raise awareness of the issues surrounding empty properties and the support available to owners. Their assistance will be crucial to the successful delivery of this Strategy.

7.0 Enforcement powers and formal intervention

Legal

7.1 Formal intervention

The Council is keen to avoid enforcement action where possible. However, if an owner is unwilling to co-operate and their empty property is causing concerns in the neighbourhood, the Council may consider enforcement action, which could result in them losing ownership of the property. Enforcement action can include but is not limited to:

  • Improvement Notices to ensure any necessary remedial works are undertaken as and when required
  • Securing empty residential or commercial premises to protect the public and prevent unauthorised access and acts of crime (Local Government Miscellaneous Provisions Act 1982)
  • Abatement Notices to ensure owners improve properties that are causing a statutory nuisance, for example a defective roof that is causing damp to a neighbouring property (Environmental Protection Act 1990)
  • Action to improve the appearance of a property if it is considered to be detrimental to the amenity of an area under section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990
  • Community Protection Warnings and Notices to prevent unreasonable behaviours that have a negative impact on local communities (Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014).

7.2 Acquisition of land and property

In some circumstances, it may be necessary for the Council to consider long-term enforcement solutions for problematic empty properties including:

  • Enforced sale (Law of Property Act 1925) - the Council may enforce the sale of a private property to recover outstanding debts secured against the property (excludes council tax debt).
  • Empty Dwelling Management Orders(Housing Act 2004) enable local authorities or nominated parties, usually registered providers, to take over the management of an empty property for up to 7 years and rent it out to people in housing need. Renovation costs to improve the property can be reimbursed through rental income. 
  • Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs)can be used by local authorities as a last resort where all other options have failed. CPOs give local authorities the power, where justified, to acquire land or property including empty properties that are causing a statutory nuisance with or without the owner's consent, to prevent further decline

8.0 Delivering the Strategy

An action plan has been developed to support the delivery of the Strategy over the next two years (see Appendix 1). This document outlines the approach the Council will take to achieve its objectives and focus resources in collaboration with partners.

8.1 Monitoring

Performance against the actions within the action plan will be monitored by the Empty Property Working Group.

The number of empty properties in the Borough will be assessed annually to determine progress, based on the following performance indicators:

  • All long-term empty properties (empty for 6 months or more)
  • Number of empty properties (empty for 6 months to 1 year)
  • Number of empty properties (empty for 1 to 2 years)
  • Number of empty properties (empty over 2 years)
  • Number of empty properties brought back into use due to Council intervention (excludes demolitions without gain).

In addition, annual government statistical returns will be analysed to monitor and review the prevalence of empty properties in each local authority area in England. This will give an indication of regional and national trends and enable benchmarking against statistical neighbours and other local authorities in Greater Manchester.

A report detailing progress made towards reducing the number of long-term empty properties and the outcomes achieved will be produced annually, and the Strategy and action plan will be refreshed each year to take account of changes in legislation and operational requirements.