It’s early days in our weekly poll but, as I write, 61% of you have said that you believe housing is unfairly represented on television. It’s a topical question because this week, to mark Empty Homes Week, Channel 4 has launched a major campaign to tackle the scourge of empty properties across the UK.
The short series has proved a ratings hit, and has provoked a healthy debate on Twitter under the hashtag #propertyscandal. But it has also divided opinion among housing experts: lines have been drawn in the sand between those who believe any exposure is by definition a good thing and the more cautious camp, who worry about the conflation and simplification of a minefield of legal and bureaucratic problems in the name of public entertainment.
One commentator on our poll, Ben Reeve-Lewis, felt frustrated about how councils and housing officers are portrayed in popular housing documentaries: “Dealing with empty homes, property conditions and landlords from hell is a daily, ongoing business for thousands of people in my line of work. It is prosaic, mind-numbingly procedural and thankless work,” he explained.
“The cliche offered up by so many property scandal problems repeatedly suggests that councils are either lazy or incompetent and certainly indifferent to the situation.” No doubt many of you would agree.
Let’s look at the real statistics. Figures obtained from council tax data and held by the lobby group Empty Homes show that 737,491 homes are empty in England – but this does not include uninhabitable properties, those due for demolition and flats above shops.
Empty Homes estimates that there are in fact 930,000 properties standing empty, and a further study by Halifax shows that more than 300,000 of these had been empty for more than six months. Broken down by region, West Yorkshire is struggling the most, with 4.57% of its homes unoccupied.
The difficulty is that when statistics are based on estimates they can be manipulated, with this week’s television commentators claiming a million empty homes in England from the same figures. Meanwhile, even government commitments on the issue seem contradictory.
Last month’s housing strategy saw the government award more than £150m to tackle the problem of empty homes, alongside changes to empty-dwelling orders and a consultation on an “empty-homes premium” to be added to council tax to create a disincentive for errant homeowners.
Yet plans put out to consultation in August, some three months ahead of the housing strategy, could also make it easier for councils to hive off their empty homes rather than bring them back into use, using the income from the sale to help fund further regeneration projects.
The problem of empty homes is difficult to fix because it is so complicated. That same complexity is responsible for the less than perfect media messages doled out on the issue. Which family wants to sit down with their after-dinner cuppa to watch a programme about town hall red tape, legal smallprint and tax incentives? Nevertheless, now it is in the limelight, the issue of empty homes has gathered public support, with more than 83,000 people signing a petition to tackle the problem.
With mobilised support, housing can demand the local support it needs by calling again for the measures it has told us it needs: political support, red tape slashed, lenders to fund refurbishment projects and a consistent, national approach.
Let us also call for better data. While figures are based on estimates it is hard, not only to quantify the problem but to put together a realistic strategy to tackle it. If councils gather more detailed data, a more detailed solution can be devised.
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