What would Northumbrians prefer, and can we learn from the example of Kent?
Homes on the green belt or action by the County Council to bring empty homes back into use?
I believe it is clearly important, and potentially better value for money, to bring derelict properties back into use rather than building from scratch on green belt land as the NCC are proposing to do in some places. It is also of aesthetic benefit, as well as being popular locally. For the present argument I have put to one side all the brown field land that is available to be built upon, such as the police site in Ponteland.
Some progress nationally is being made, and a recent study of Kent could provide a good guide. According to the Empty Homes Agency there were 324,733 long term empty homes in the private sector in November 2009. By November 2012 it was 259,842.
One explanation is that the New Homes Bonus applies not only for new homes but long term empty properties brought back into use:
As the DCLG Minister Baroness Hanham said::
"Under the new homes bonus, local authorities also earn a financial reward for bringing a long-term empty home back into use. To date this has provided an income to local authorities of £59 million for almost 51,000 homes brought back into use. Our reforms on council tax flexibilities and the new empty homes premium will also allow councils to remove the tax subsidies being given to empty homes and instead use the funding to keep the overall rate of council tax down and support frontline services."
I am pushing NCC on progress they have been making in bringing the number of long term empty properties in the county back into use.
There has been great success in some Counties such as Kent, with its "No Use Empty" campaign.
The Kent example is worth noting:
- Sometimes enforcement is used, where there is a real eyesore but the carrot is preferred to the stick.
- Mostly it is just advice – putting the owner in touch with a local auctioneers.
- Or there might some modest help – paying the auction fees or dealing with the admin. This is often useful for those who live outside the area.
- The county council also offers interest free loans to restore properties. These are paid back when the property is sold.
- So far 455 empty properties have been restored and sold due to these loans.
- Another 3,000 properties have been brought back with just a bit of nudging and some more modest help.
There is some cost to the Council Taxpayers of Kent. A couple of staff are employed to run the scheme. Also, if at any given time Kent County Council is borrowing money, and then lending it interest free, that is also a cost. However, the New Homes Bonus offsets that. It’s worth six years Council Tax for each new home. In Kent, the districts get 80 per cent and Kent County Council 20 per cent. Even so that is a significant sum. Then there is the impact on Business Rates to consider. Dealing with derelict properties is an effective way to regenerate an area. Councils now have an incentive to encourage economic growth.
Tackling the problem of derelict empty homes is also about fighting crime and improving the environment as well as providing more jobs and housing. It is something as Conservatives we should proud of. This is something where the Government is making a difference.