Empty homes will be brought back into use through wide-reaching council scheme

Housing officials are preparing legal action to force private landlords to bring disused properties back into use for the first time in a council's history as part of a purge on unused housing which has already seen numbers topple.

Friday, 4th May 2018, 8:18 am
Updated Friday, 4th May 2018, 8:21 am
Transformed: Barnsley Community Build's Sue Shaw and Barnsley Council housing officer David Malsom outside a restored house in Grange Crescent, Thurnscoe, Barnsley.

Housing officials are preparing legal action to force private landlords to bring disused properties back into use for the first time in a council’s history as part of a purge on unused housing which has already seen numbers topple.

Barnsley Council will employ an empty housing officer later this month to help push forwards a range of projects which should bring multiple benefits to areas blighted by houses which have fallen out of use.

Numbers of long-term empty homes have already fallen from four per cent to around 2.8 per cent but the council is now determined to go further, in an attempt to both improve neighbourhoods and provide more homes to meet demand.

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Some projects have already been successful and have seen landlords ‘cajoled’ into selling vacant properties, which have then been restored using apprentices who have used the experience to go on to find permanent jobs.

Homes involved will be sold in some instances, with others used to help meet the need for affordable housing.

In future, it is expected that type of work will continue but a raft of alternatives will also be available, with funding from Homes England, the body which oversees social housing nationally, helping to make the work possible.

In addition to helping landlords who are willing to sell properties, others will be given help with grants, cheap loans and professional guidance on how to manage their properties, in what housing officer David Malsom described as a “suite” of options.

However, where assistance is rejected, the council will be able to fall back on statutory powers to force property owners to take action. “We can do that, it is extremely rare as the softer support is bringing them into use naturally.”

There are now cases where the council is preparing to pursue that route and, if it happens it will be the first time in Barnsley Council’s history that such action has been taken.

“Over the next three years the council will put in significant sums of its own money and money from Homes England, the overseer for housing stock in the country,” he said.

“We have a programme which we hope will deliver significant numbers of empty properties back into use.

“The main way to do it is through encouragement with property owners; some people buy properties at auction and then regret it.

“We will give people support to become a landlord, about their legal responsibilities. We have guidance about selling properties at auction, if that is what they want to do.

“People often get stuck on probate. We aim to unclog whatever is causing a problem. It is generally when properties have been empty for six months that they come onto our radar,” he said.

Homes which have had attention via the council can also have benefits for the tenants who will eventually live there.

“We make sure a property is brought up to certain minimum standards to ensure there are no hazards and that it is as fuel efficient as we can make it, that has a big influence on fuel poverty,” he said.

Some of the council’s overall budget for its rented housing work has been ring-fenced for work with a charity called Barnsley Community Build, which not only transforms neglected houses into ‘as new’ homes but also trains apprentices who work on the properties, with many selected from the surrounding communities.

The council’s role will be to act as a bridge between the charity and house owners, opening up a dialogue aimed at creating an agreement for disused homes to be sold.

One project currently under discussion could also see a bank of 30 properties brought back into occupation.

Bringing homes back into use also helps improve neighbourhoods, because empty homes are known to become a focus for anti-social behaviour and crime.

As councils take on more responsibilities for caring for the homeless, it is also expected that once-empty houses will find a new use in providing accommodation for those who are unable to find anywhere to live.

“We have tried to find a suite of solutions, to meet all the scenarios we come across,” said Mr Malsom.

“I think it is a good example of the council, rather than delivering a single project, looking at how competing needs can be linked together,” he said.

Case study:

Homes in Grange Crescent, Thurnscoe, Barnsley, have had a chequered history after starting life as ‘pit houses’ for those in the coal industry.

Decades of change have seen some end up in private ownership and a pair of semi-detached homes which had been empty for 15 years had become a blight on the area.

Owned by a landlord in the south of England, they were regularly attacked by vandals and thieves before an agreement was struck to sell to a charitable organisation called Big Local Thurnscoe, funded through the National Lottery.

Work to restore them has been carried out by Barnsley Community Build and they are now to be sold, with the expectation of providing good value and good quality homes for those struggling to get onto the housing ladder.

But the experience of upgrading them has illustrated the problems empty homes bring, with criminals breaking in to strip out valuables on two occasions and even removing the security fencing put up to protect them.

Similar work has been done a short distance away in Goldthorpe, where criminals tried to remove a beam which could have seen a house collapse around them, if successful.

Those homes have now been completed and will not be sold, used instead to provide rented accommodation.