Why are 3,500 homes stood empty in Suffolk?
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There are fresh calls to address the rising number of long-term empty homes in Suffolk after data revealed there are more than 3,500 properties stood vacant despite growing homelessness rates.
Across all five Suffolk local council areas the number of homes empty for at least six months has been rising, with the county-wide figure at 3,590 in 2020 compared to 2,617 in 2019, according to latest government data.
East Suffolk has the largest number for 2020 with 1,401, and when combined with the number of second homes (4,111) one in every 22 homes is without a permanent resident.
Mid Suffolk saw the largest percentage rise of long-term empty homes, up 73% on 2019 to 435, followed by Ipswich (up 67% to 574).
The Action on Empty Homes campaign group is holding a day of action on Saturday, April 17, to raise public awareness about the issue of long-term empty homes. This is against a backdrop of a housing crisis, with huge demand for affordable homes.
Suffolk councils have said they are working to reduce the number of long-term empty homes, with Mid Suffolk revealing it is employing a dedicated empty homes officer by the end of this year.
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A spokesperson for West Suffolk Council said they had seen, as with many places, an increase in long-term empty homes during the pandemic with fewer tenancies, fewer sales and delayed repair works.
West Suffolk revealed 833 long-term empty homes in 2020, compared with 622 the previous year.
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Jools Ramsey, chief executive officer at Ipswich Housing Action Group, said the rise in the number of empty homes was "staggering", but was unclear over what is expected of local authorities to address this.
"Lack of safe and affordable long-term housing for people living with the experience of homelessness has been an issue for some years, and the answer is surely for a national commitment to build suitable accommodation which is ring-fenced for emergency accommodation, and longer-term supported accommodation for those that need it.
"There is also a place for guaranteed rent deposit schemes, to enable private landlords to feel able to make property available to local authorities for long term lets."
She added: "It is not place of government to intervene in how people choose to utilise their property. But it is the duty of the local authority to house those who are eligible for accommodation due to homelessness."
David Bonnett, of Bury Drop In, a charity working with homeless people and those with housing needs in Bury St Edmunds, said: "We are concerned about anything that has an effect on homeless people getting a house of their own.
"It's difficult for many people to come up with deposits and everything else required in the private sector. I look to the government and local authorities to help as much as possible."
Action on Empty Homes is calling on the government to introduce a new national empty homes programme to create additional housing supply for those in most housing need, utilising properties currently left vacant or in need of renovation.
Nationally, there are 268,385 long-term empty homes in England.
Will McMahon, director of Action on Empty Homes, said: "It can’t be right that in the last four years we have seen an escalating housing crisis while the number of long-term empty homes keeps rising.
"Today there are nearly 100,000 families languishing in overcrowded and temporary accommodation at a time when we know that overcrowded housing has been linked to the spread of the coronavirus and to higher mortality."
in Essex, the number of long-term empty homes has risen in Colchester and Tendring, which had 746 and 1,206 in 2020 respectively, but had fallen in Braintree (568 in 2020).
Tendring revealed one of the largest increases (85%) across more than 300 local authorities in England.
What have the councils said?
A spokesperson for Babergh and Mid Suffolk district councils said: “We are supportive of the Day of Action campaign and the need for empty homes to be returned to use and the pandemic has highlighted the importance of providing good accommodation for our communities.
“We are already taking action to deal with the empty homes situation and our ambition to bring more homes back into use is set out in our five-year Homes and Housing Strategy. To help fulfil this target, we will be employing a dedicated empty homes officer by the end of this year.
“These steps are in addition to existing support that the council provides to landlords to ensure that homes do not become empty, including the Rent Guarantee Scheme run by Central Suffolk Lettings which provides cash incentives to landlords who let their properties.
“We are also offering grants of up to £20,000 to landlords to help bring empty homes back into use. We are confident that these measures will help to reduce the number of empty homes and therefore provide local families with a place of their own.”
A West Suffolk Council spokesperson said: “The council’s main focus is on those [homes] that have been empty for two or more years of which there are approximately 200 across the district.
“We would remind owners that properties left unoccupied after two years are subject to a 200 per cent council tax charge. Our preference is always that owners work with us where needed, to bring their empty homes back into use and help meet some of the local housing need.
“The council’s West Suffolk Lettings Partnership also offers a guaranteed rent scheme – more details are available at www.westsuffolk.gov.uk/housing/privatehousing/wslp.cfm”
A spokesperson for East Suffolk Council said: "Empty properties can have an impact on local communities, attracting anti-social behaviour and raising concerns about neighbouring property values.
"Our Private Sector Housing Strategy sets out the importance of dealing with empty properties within the district and identifies several initiatives to help bring these properties back into use. This includes the offer of Discretionary Renovation Grants, support from our officers to put owners in touch with estate agents and auction houses, or, in the very worst scenarios, using legal powers to ensure properties are brought back into occupation.
"Whilst the total number of properties empty for more than six months has risen by 24%, this will include a large number of properties which are empty for a justifiable reason, such as renovation or family bereavement. Due to this, the council’s Private Sector Housing team more actively focuses on those properties which have been empty for more than two years and are generally more problematic.
"Anyone who is aware of an empty property, particularly one which affects their local neighbourhood, is asked to contact the council’s Private Sector Housing team."
A spokesperson for Ipswich Borough Council said: "The council works with the owners of long-term empty properties to help them return them to use through a range of measures from advice and assistance to enforcement. We have been successful in ensuring many properties have once again become homes, for example, Ipswich Lettings Experience Team (LET) are able to provide landlords with a package of free support to help them find and secure suitable tenants.
"If you want to report a long-term empty home, complete our online form at www.ipswich.gov.uk/report-empty-property"
A Tendring District Council spokesman said: “We have a robust Housing Strategy which seeks to ensure that we maximise the use of homes in the district, so there are adequate, high-quality homes for all.
“Due to the beautiful location and the Essex Sunshine Coast we have, as do most coastal districts, a significant proportion of second homes – the use of which contributes to our tourist economy.
“While the figures for empty homes have gone up, we have not seen an increase in complaints about empty homes – we also believe the Covid-19 pandemic has played a significant factor, as it has lengthened the time it takes to get such properties back into use.
“Likewise, new-build properties which have not yet been occupied could be categorised in this way and is another factor affected by coronavirus. We will continue to monitor the situation.”
For details on the day of action visit the website.