Interview: David Ireland, Empty Homes Agency

Bringing back the empties

Putting the nation’s empty properties back to use won’t solve the housing crisis, but it can certainly help, as David Ireland, chief executive of the Empty Homes Agency, explains to Mark Cantrell  

 First published in the June 2011 edition of Northern Housing

David Ireland
BRINGING empty homes back into use is hardly going to solve the country’s housing crisis, now, is it? That question is a source of frustration for David Ireland, chief executive of the Empty Homes Agency, because the clear answer is no; no it won’t – but it can play an important role in providing homes for people who need them.

“The issue of housing need is very multi-facetted and if there was one single thing that could solve it, well, no doubt it would already have been done,” said Ireland. “The truth is there’s a lot of different things that need to be done. I don’t see it as problematic at all that [empty homes are] not going to solve the whole problem – it’s not – but if it’s done, well it is going to make a significant impact and that is enough for me.”

There are no easy fixes to the housing problems, whether that’s from a newbuild perspective, or a refurbishment position, but with around 738,000 empty homes in England, that’s surely a potential source of homes that is worth looking into. Ireland certainly thinks so, but for many, perhaps the primary focus of thought when it comes to empty homes is the potential blight they can inflict on neighbourhoods. Of course, getting them occupied is a solution to that too.

“Empty properties are of course a problem to people next door to them, and there are a lot of poor effects that an empty property can have on the feel of a street. That’s an issue in itself, but housing need is of greater importance,” said Ireland.

“We have a growing issue of housing need. House building is maybe showing some small signs of recovery, but it’s still at very low levels and it is certainly not producing enough to meet all the need. So it has got to be important to look at all the possible sources of creating homes in this country – and what better place to start than homes that already exist and are just not occupied?”

Ireland has held the post of chief executive for just over four years, and worked as an employee for some five years, but before that he was a trustee of the organisation. When a job came up at the Agency, he resigned his trusteeship to apply for the role; an indication of his strength of feeling over the issue of empty homes.

Before joining the organisation, he worked in local government, managing Hammersmith & Fulham Council’s private sector housing team, as well as working on its housing strategy, during which time he was struck by the tragedy of homes going to waste through being left empty.

Indeed, Ireland has written a book on the subject of bringing an empty property back into use, suitably entitled ‘How to rescue a house’, published by Penguin Paperbacks back in 2005. After that, it seems almost inevitable that he should join a campaigning organisation dedicated to making the theme of his book a countrywide phenomenon.

“[Empty homes] is an issue that I dealt with in both of my [local government] roles and it struck me that it was an area that I could make the most impact for people,” Ireland said. “There is nothing more important than making sure someone has got a home and seeing a home being wasted is particularly galling for people who don’t have one, or who don’t have an adequate home. I felt that anything I could do to address that issue had to be a good thing.”

The agency itself, an independent charity and a member of the National Housing Federation, was established in 1992 to – in its own words – “help people create homes from empty property and campaign for more empty homes to be brought into use for the benefit of those in housing need”. Though a small organisation, over the years it has built up a wealth of expertise borne out of its research and practical activities.

Part of the agency’s ‘intelligence gathering’ is the unenviable task of crunching through Government statistical information to glean out the national picture on empty homes. It’s not exactly glamorous work, of course, but information is always half the battle, not just for the agency but for the people it works with.

“We try and put the information out there to make it as accessible as possible. Although the information on the numbers of empty homes is published by the Government, it’s not always very clear and it’s tucked away in spreadsheets that are hard to find. So we try to make it more accessible and better known,” said Ireland.

The organisation also augments this centrally collated information with its own research, filling in the blanks as it were, and these efforts have revealed some tragic gaps in the data. They are tragic for two reasons: the first is the tragedy of additional empty homes that might otherwise be lived in. The
second facet of this tragedy is that the abandonment is a legacy of dead, or at least stalled, regeneration programmes.

It makes for a sad legacy to the Housing Market Renewal (HMR) programmes, for example, as the agency discovered that 12,000 properties were now empty as a result of the programmes’ end. The impact of the recession has also impacted on regeneration schemes further afield. Across London, for example, the agency’s investigation found some 5,000 additional empty homes and it believes there may be as many as 10,000 across the capital – not just empty, but often forgotten.

These are properties that have effectively fallen off the reporting system’s radar; scheduled for demolition, or major re-working, they became ‘non-houses’ once the regeneration programmes ground to a halt. Because they are ‘off the books’, and off the beaten track where pedestrians seldom visit, these boarded-up ‘ghost-sites’ can all-too-easily slip out of mind.

“Now, maybe these homes are not viable for re-use, but I suspect an awful lot of them are,” said Ireland. The average figure for refurbishing empty homes is put in the region of £10,000. Even given the variance in prices that averages by their nature mask, it still represents a lower cost, and generally lower hassle, route to making available more homes.

Over the years, the Empty Homes Agency has notched up some key successes, such as tax breaks for people who want to bring an empty home back into use, or the introduction of Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs), and the agency’s message has found its argument more widely accepted.

Indeed, Ireland is pleased at some of the incentives that have emerged of late, such as the New Homes Bonus that will reward local authorities for the numbers of empty homes brought into use, as well as the numbers of newly-built homes. The Government’s announcement of a £100 million pot from the HCA , specifically targeted at bringing empty homes back into use, is a significant boon for the cause, Ireland believes.

“Although £100 million might not seem a vast sum of money in the great scheme of things, it is going to be very positive,” Ireland said.

This article first appeared in the June 2011 edition of the combined Northern, Midlands and Southern Housing magazine. It was subsequently republished on the Housing Excellence website, 24 June 2011.

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