Tuesday, 6 August 2013

Croydon Action On Empty Housing

More homes in Croydon can be made available if owners leaving properties empty are pressured into bringing them back into use, selling them to housing associations or the Council, or joining the Council’s private sector leasing scheme.

There are nearly 3,500 empty homes in the Borough. Shelter’s data for Croydon suggests that there were 3,638 empty dwellings in 2011 and 3,606 in 2012. I therefore submitted a Freedom of Information request to try and find out whether these figures were correct. The Council Tax list shows 3,482 in April this year.

In answer to my question ‘How many dwellings were empty in the Census 2011’ the Council replied that the information requested ‘is already in the public domain and is therefore exempt under Section 21 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, ‘Information reasonably accessible to the applicant by other means’. I received the same answer to my question ‘  Can the number of empty dwellings in the Census be analysed by ward and category of ownership, and if so what is the breakdown?’ The officer added that the information is accessible via the Census 2011 information on the office for National Statistics website. However the National Statistic site is not a user friendly one, and I cannot find the Croydon 2011 vacant property details on it. They do not even give the figures for 2008 although there is a category in the datasets for this. In response to another FoI request there is some Census information on the Croydon Observatory website.

Empty Properties on the Council Tax List

I also asked how many properties are shown to be empty on the Council Tax list and can what the breakdown is by ward and category of ownership.

While the Council has provided the breakdown by ward as set out in the table below, it will not do an ownership breakdown. The explanation states: ‘For the empty property service to break this down by ownership category would take longer than 18 hours, this also the case with council tax records, each account would individually need to be checked.  The Freedom of Information (Fees and Appropriate Limit) Regulations 2004 specify an “appropriate limit” for the amount of time the council needs to spend undertaking that search.  If the council estimates that the time to taken to locate, retrieve and extract the information requested will exceed the appropriate limit, then under Section 12 of the Act, it is not obliged to comply with that request. The appropriate limit currently specified by the Regulations for local authorities is £450. This represents the estimated cost of one person spending two and a half working days in locating, retrieving and extracting the information from where it is stored.  We estimate that the cumulative time it would take officers to retrieve the complete records you are seeking would exceed the appropriate limit. Therefore, we are unable to disclose the information you are seeking.’ 
Ward name:
Bensham Manor
Broad Green
Coulsdon East
Coulsdon West
New Addington
Selsdon & Ballards
South Norwood
Thornton Heath
Upper Norwood
West Thornton

Street Count

I also asked whether the Council plans a physical count street by street of what appear to empty properties to help identify  more properties than appear on the Council Tax list. The reply states ‘The Council’s Empty Property Officers conducted a street survey to identify empty properties and to familiarise themselves with the Council Tax information in 2010. The Empty Property Officers regularly visit properties reported by members of the public and investigate properties that they identify themselves as potentially empty. For those reasons a borough wide street by street count is not felt to be necessary at this point. It is also worth remembering that the figures given by Shelter, the Census and above are all referring to properties that are empty on a given day – this is not the same as properties which are classified as “long term” empty which are ones that have sat empty for 6 months or more. Properties regularly change occupants but that does not mean that they need an intervention from the Council during this transaction to ensure they become reoccupied. The Empty Property Officers deal with properties that have been empty for a minimum of 6 months as this period of time usually suggests the owner has an issue that has prevented the quick turnaround in occupation and may benefit from advice or encouragement from the Council. At present there are approximately 600 properties in the 3,500 that are registered as empty by Council Tax which are long term and are being targeted by the Empty Property Officers.’

GLA Support Scheme

The Council has an agreement with the Greater London Authority under which the GLA provides funding to bring empty properties back into use. I asked how much this funding was for. The reply states: ‘The initial level of funding provided to Croydon Council under the agreement with the GLA has a target of 59 properties to be returned to use by March 2015.’

CPO Potential

I also asked how many landlords keeping properties empty for unreasonable periods may justify the Council compulsory purchasing them. The reply states: ‘We do not hold that information, however the Empty Property Officers are currently involved in:

         One Compulsory Purchase of a long-term empty residential property is currently awaiting a decision by the Secretary of State, although to our knowledge the owner of this property is not a residential landlord.
         Another long-term empty property has just been approved for Compulsory Purchase and the process will start shortly.
         A report recommending the compulsory purchase of a third long-term empty property is currently being prepared.
Keeping a property ‘empty for unreasonable period’ is not, in itself, a reason for the Local Authority to consider a Compulsory Purchase Order.  Under Section 17 of the Housing Act 1985 the Compulsory Purchase of a property can only be considered for the ‘provision or improvement of housing’. Guidance contained in Circular 06/2004, issued by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, states that the compulsory purchase must ‘achieve a quantitative or qualitative gain in housing’ and ‘there appears to be no other prospect of a suitable property being brought into residential use’.  The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 requires that there is a compelling case in the public interest.  These are the only considerations when a property is the subject of a Compulsory Purchase action.  A number of other options are explored before a property is considered for Compulsory Purchase.  In all instances the Local Authority will also seek to acquire the property by agreement first and CPO is considered as an option of last resort.’

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