Empty dwellings - should UK councils be given additional powers?

Local Government analysis: In light of Barcelona City Council acting on its promise to fine banks for empty homes, Nathan Holden, partner and head of local government at Freeths LLP, talks about the laws in place, and why it would be very difficult to implement such measures in the UK

Original news

Could councils (especially with a view to increased devolution) implement similar measures in the UK?

Would this require a change in law? What laws are currently in place to disincentivise owners from keeping properties empty?

To what extent are local authorities able to pursue novel methods to unlock housing in their areas?

Empty dwelling management orders (EDMOs) - These provide local authorities with the power to take over an empty dwelling so that it can be rented out for up to seven years. It is effectively a form of state sponsored squatting, as the ownership of the dwelling is not otherwise affected

Although specifically aimed at dealing with the empty dwelling problem, these powers are not widely used. This may be because the procedures are not particularly user-friendly, and their time-limited nature is not a permanent solution to the problem.

Enforced sale procedure (ESP) - This option is more popular and involves forcing the sale of an empty property when the owner is in breach of an obligation to pay a financial debt owed to the council-this is not unusual with empty dwellings. However its critics would argue that it is a draconian remedy in light of the fact that the powers arise simply from a situation where money is owed.

Compulsory purchase (CP) - This is typically the most popular mechanism for dealing with empty properties. It involves compulsorily purchasing the empty dwelling usually because it is in a dilapidated state, and it can be justified that there is a compelling case in the public interest that it be brought back into beneficial use.

Are these measures effective in unlocking housing?

Would a fining system similar to that used by Barcelona city council be effective in the UK?

This article was first published on Lexis(r)PSL Environment on 21 September 2015.

The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the date of publication and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.