Empty Threats: Unlocking London’s ‘long-term vacant’ homes

The reasons that these properties are empty seem to fall within two distinct categories:-

  • “Buy to Leave” properties which are generally top end, newly built properties which are often bought off plan by overseas investors who want them to remain “pristine” and are just interested in the spiralling increase in capital value. These owners do not want, or indeed need, the hassle of tenants who, whilst creating an income stream, will “use” the property leaving it with a second hand, lived in feel to it and give rise to increased administrative pressure, in particular in the light of the increased regulation of assured shorthold tenancies and imposition of the “Right to Rent” regime.
  • Older properties where the owner has died or cannot be traced or where there are family disputes and/or the owners are unable fund the cost of repair to put the property back into a habitable state.

the threat of criminal prosecution may well have more effect

London local authorities in particular are becoming increasingly aware of the buy to leave phenomena and are beginning to enforce sanctions aimed at penalising this practice such as an increase in council tax for empty homes and the imposition of planning restrictions whereby properties cannot remain unoccupied for more than three months without penalties being imposed. Whilst such financial penalties may be of little consequence to wealthy property investors, the threat of criminal prosecution may well have more effect.

Sadly financial penalties and/or the threat of criminal prosecution may not assist in situations were older housing stock has been neglected and fallen into disrepair and/or may have been abandoned and left unoccupied for many years.

In the worst of these cases the local authority does have compulsory purchase powers and where they have taken steps but have failed to encourage the owner to bring the property back into acceptable use, can seek to compulsorily purchase the property.

The local authority can also issue and enforce charges against a property where someone has failed to comply with a statutory notice or owes council tax or other debts.

Whilst these remedies address situations where owners have died or cannot be traced, human rights issues cannot be ignored for existing owners who simply cannot afford to, or agree, the scope of works required to bring the property back into a habitable state and this needs to be carefully balanced against the rights and needs of others.

Local authorities also have powers in certain circumstances to take out Empty Dwelling Management Orders to step into the shoes of the owner and make sure that empty property is used for housing. This brings the property back into use without affecting its ownership.

Belinda Walkinshaw, Partner in the Property Litigation Department at SA Law

Image by Jan Bommes

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