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It is ironic that despite a housing and homelessness crisis in the UK, there are more than 34,000 homes remaining ‘long-term vacant’, vandalised, and their garden overgrown that are supposed to be available in our market to provide permanent shelters in London. This is a severe problem that requires the government’s immediate and unremitting effort to handle it. 

Not only do unattended houses deprive the opportunities of people who are eager to secure a home, but they also affect local communities. Unattended houses attract anti-social behaviours including vandalism, arson, and squatting, creating a nuisance to neighbours.  

Admittedly, the government has made attempts to address this issue. An Empty Home Premium was launched in 2013, introducing an additional Council Tax of up to 50% for any property that has not been occupied and furnished for more than two years. The premium tax further doubled to 100% in 2019. Currently, premiums of 200% and 300% are charged on any properties that have been unoccupied and unfurnished for more than five and ten years respectively. 

In the meantime, different local councils have put forward campaigns, aiming at bringing empty homes back to full utilisation. In Camden, a Housing Renewal Assistance Policy provides empty property grants to any tenant for converting their property that has been empty for 12 months into furnished accommodation. Similar refurbishment and conversion grants are available in Brent, enabling owners to adjust and repair their empty properties that are family-sized accommodations favourably with two or three bedrooms. In return, owners must sign an agreement with the council by agreeing to let the property for a period of three to five years. 

The Council Tax Premium, however, contains a loophole that disrupts the functioning of the programme. The premium system only possesses extra charges on substantially unfurnished and unoccupied homes, while second homes are excluded from the criteria. At the same time, the total number of empty dwellings classed as second homes has increased by 5% from 2021 to 2022 in London, and one out of five properties in Central London are used as second homes, indicating a trend of purchasing non-primary homes. This means more homes that could support market demand have been left unoccupied. 

Also, by looking at the statistics of empty dwellings that are charged with a premium tax, there is no sign of a reduction in terms of the number of empty dwellings which are unfurnished and unoccupied. Rather, in recent years, the number of ‘long-term vacant’ dwellings in London has reached its highest level since 2010. This demonstrates that the current governmental measurement carries little, if any, deterring effect on those owners.

To tackle these issues, local councils may consider reducing or even cancelling the tax discounts on the second properties, which are left vacant and unused in order to motivate owners to rent out their properties to people who need a home. Authorities can also revise and reflect the premium tax regularly in order to combat empty dwellings. Lastly, more financial incentives and grants might be given to owners for improving their empty properties. For example, current granting is made available only to owners with two to three bedrooms properties, and hence the local councils could further seek any possibility of expanding the criteria to make owners of vacant single-bedroom properties eligible.

Today, we have found ourselves deeply immersed in tremendous debates about building new, decent, and affordable houses to fulfil market demand, however, it is time for us to take a mini pause, step back and draw public attention to the empty homes problem that has kept us entangled and perplexed for decades. There is no shortcut to the housing problem, but improving the policy on empty homes would be a step in the right direction.

Ka Hei Abby Ma is doing work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Aude-Andre Saturnio]