Is keeping your house empty a human right?

In previous posts we highlighted the bizarre examples used in the government’s advice on how to deal with squatters, especially what to do if your home is squatted whilst out walking the dog.  Bernard Crofton recalled that the dog example originated as an ironic comment made at a meeting many years ago.  From his Freedom of Information request, it seems no such examples actually exist and, even if they did, the government wouldn’t know because it keeps no data on such cases.  

It was with this in mind that I read the 7 January announcement by Secretary of State Eric Pickles that he planned to heavily restrict the use of Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMO), introduced by Labour to take action on properties that have been empty for 6 months or more.

Once again the justification for the policy is punctuated by colourful and extreme examples.  Pickles said it was wrong that a bereaved family could face having their loved one’s home seized under an EDMO, and quoted examples of councils attempting to use the powers against someone caring for an injured daughter abroad and a 96 year old who had passed away in a nursing home.

These examples would indeed be extraordinary if true, and CLG will shortly receive an FoI request seeking more information about them.  What is known is that only 44 EDMOs have been made since the law came into effect in 2006.  Councils would indeed have to be out to lunch to have focused on such cases given how many empty homes there are to choose from. 

Let me be clear: just as I disapprove of people squatting properties when homeowners are walking their dogs, I also disapprove of councils making EDMOs against ‘people in vulnerable situations’ as Mr Pickles calls them, or when a property is empty for good reason. 

Having compulsorily purchased quite a lot of empty homes in a previous life (indeed under the Thatcher government) I know that owners get into complex positions especially if a relative has died intestate.  Back then the owners would be given lots of opportunities to bring their properties back into use, and the same is true today with EDMOs.  But the very fact that the council intervened and was willing to take strong action meant that many properties were brought back into use without any formal action being taken.  The threat was taken seriously.  Owners will see Pickles’ soft soap policy and laugh when the council comes calling.   

The real reason for Pickles’ change is ideological: “The Coalition Government is standing up for the civil liberties of law-abiding citizens. Fundamental human rights include the right to property” he said.  More important, it seems than the human rights of the homeless.

Pickles clearly has little understanding of the damage empty properties can do to neighbourhoods in a very short space of time.  In future he will only allow EDMOs to be used where there has been vandalism or squatters and other forms of anti-social behaviour, and action can only be taken after the property has been empty for two years.  So an owner will be able to keep a property empty in a vandalised state, a blight on the neighbourhood, for 2 years before the council can take EDMO enforcement action.  

I hope councils will object strongly, both to the stupidity of the new policy and to the demeaning nature of the argument for introducing it.

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5 Responses to Is keeping your house empty a human right?

  1. inks2010 says:

    Good post stevehilditch. I saw the press release and thought the examples looked exaggerated. I’m glad someone’s calling them out on it.

  2. Dan Filson says:

    Re ‘CPOs on unimproved and empty property’, Hammersmith and Fulham acquired a lot of properties in the second half of the 1970s, through, as I understand, a mixture of CPO and open market purchase. This increased the housing stock from about 17,000 units to about 21,000 units. It took a while for the borough to do them up but the property inflation of the late 1970s and onwards meant the council had acquired a lot of highly valuable property at a low price and hugely increased the housing opportunities. Sadly along came right to buy, with discounts up to 60%, and the housing stock not only shrank but also lost it healthy mix of properties with gardens or patios, ground floor and upper floor. So if councils are going to exercise their current EMDO powers they should beat the drum of what they doing and why to keep the public onside and supporting the council, so the public realises what is lost by extending 6 months to 24.

  3. Monimbo says:

    I’d like to endorse Steve’s comment, as another former urban renewal practitioner responsible for countless CPOs on unimproved and empty property in Leicester under (again) the Thatcher government. Of all the CPO warnings made over those years, only a proportion ended up going through the formal process and even in those cases undertakings were normally accepted (often at the public inquiry) which meant that probably less than ten percent resulted in the CPO being enforced. The process did, of course, require the government of the day’s approval, which was rarely refused. The important element was that owners knew were were serious. The majority decided quickly either to improve and let the properties or to sell them to an HA, either of which we preferred to the enforcement of the CPO, anyway.

    This is a classic example of many councils having creatively used the powers available to them to achieve the double objective of removing a blight on poor neighbourhoods and creating a useable home, often in the private sector. I am not familiar with the details of how EDMOs have been used, but I imagine that much the same applies albeit within a context of reduced options for dealing with empty property (ie. housing associations are no longer in the market for them in most cases, and renovation grants have laregly disappeared). It is also a classic example of councils acting in the general wellbeing of their areas, which the government supposedly wants to promote as ‘localism’. The hypocrisy is blatant: on the one hand, the government says it wants to give councils proper powers to take responsibility for their areas, without being micro-managed by Whitehall. On the other, the Pickles/Shapps team seems to be engaged on a nit-picking task of reviewing any local authority power or set of decisions that annoys them or is contrary to some outdated view about the role of government, and trying to stop or curtail it, without any assessment of how it actually works on the ground, or of its worth, or of the effects of changing it.

  4. Bernard Crofton says:

    Your questions are best addressed to DCLG via http://www.communities.gov.uk/corporate/foi/requests-information/

    As there are only 44 cases however it might be easier for them to say who has, rather than who hasn’t.

  5. Dan Filson says:

    What is the data on the number of properties that are vacant and could potentially be seized (a) under the current 6 months or more, and (b) under Pickles’ suggested lengthier period of 24 months?

    Which larger local authorities, with powers to make EMDOs, have made no EMDOs whatever under the current legislation, ranked in size of estimated overall total housing stock?

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