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BLOG: Empty Homes can help achieve Scotland’s 20 minute neighbourhood ambition

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By Paul Stewart, Partnership Officer

The concept of 20 minute neighbourhoods – the idea that it should be easy for people to meet most of their everyday needs within a 20 minute return walk or cycle – has recently risen to prominence as a strategic priority in planning. The concept is a multi-disciplinary approach to creating more liveable communities, with input from sectors as diverse as public health and transport.

There are multiple benefits to 20 minute neighbourhoods, from not only a town planning and local economy perspective, but also the wellbeing of residents and the communities they live in. The concept originated in Portland, Oregon, US, before being adopted in Melbourne, Australia. In the latter, 20 minute neighbourhoods were further defined as having an 800 metre distance (10 min walk in one direction) from home to key daily services.

The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SEHP) is extremely encouraged by the broad alignment between sectors to improve societal and economic objectives for communities, and actively encourage such an approach in our own work with local authorities. We too support the idea that we should make the most of our existing resources, including housing,  to help to meet  wider public and social need. In this way we see bringing empty homes back to use as something that fits perfectly with the 20 minute neighbourhood principle,

The potential symbiosis between Empty Homes and the 20 minute neighbourhood also features in the Scottish Government’s Housing to 2040 framework. Action 3 of the framework document states the commitment to ‘Support the delivery of homes in town centres and at the heart of communities by developing vacant and derelict land, repurposing existing properties and locating homes closer to services and facilities within 20 minute neighbourhoods.’

This emphasises how  work focused on bringing empty privately owned properties back into use can provide a vital contribution to delivering the wider 20 minute neighbourhood strategy.

Many suburbs and small towns already meet many of the generally recognised criteria for being considered as a 20 minute neighbourhood. The focus in these areas is on delivering additional improvements to public realm or service provision. An example here is the Battlefield area of Glasgow, an already densely populated neighbourhood where a project to provide housing on an old hospital site is being combined with street layout alterations emphasising active travel and walking.

According to National Records of Scotland statistics, in 2019 there were 30 long term empty properties in Battlefield. Research shows that the longer properties remain empty, the more difficult it becomes to bring them back into use due to issues such as deterioration, or decreased motivation on the part of the owner. Even a single empty home on a street can have an impact, from anti-social behaviour to lowered house prices and pest-control issues, that can  undermine wider strategic initiatives such as implementing the 20 minute neighbourhood ideal. .

In Battlefield,  just over 1% of properties are long term empty. This may not appear a startling statistic and is quite typical of similar neighbourhoods both elsewhere in Glasgow and in urban areas across the country. However, from our experience working with Empty Homes Officers across Scotland, we know the impact that such properties can have if left unaddressed. We also know the potential benefits that can be delivered where action is taken. Glasgow City Council have implemented an empty homes strategy, and are investing in the creation of an additional Empty Homes post, to complement the work done by the two officers already in place. The city has been at the forefront of efforts to tackle the issue of properties remaining empty, and such an approach may help the Battlefield plan be successful.

An active strategy to ensure empty properties do not become ‘stuck’ will help to realise the aspirations of the 20 minute neighbourhood concept, ensuring that homes and vital services remain within close proximity of each other, and acting against the temptation to build out. We see many scenarios where housing estates are developed further and further from essential services, using up green belt land and requiring additional infrastructure, when utilising empty properties to contribute to meeting housing demand makes use of existing resources and does not have the same negative environmental impact.

The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, which is funded by the Scottish Government and hosted by Shelter Scotland, has been working with local authorities to strategically tackle the issue of empty homes since its formation in 2010.  We have provided support to a network of Empty Homes Officers (EHOs) across 22 local authorities, who have worked to bring 850 long-term empty homes brought back into use across Scotland in the past year alone.

We’ve been pleased to see some local authorities taking an integrated approach and involving empty homes work in their neighbourhood strategies in recent years. By encouraging collaboration between housing, planning, sustainability and neighbourhood teams, and recognising the need to tackle empty homes as part of addressing multi-faceted challenges, these councils have delivered significant improvements for local communities.

We see the same ambition present in the campaign to implement 20 minute neighbourhoods. Work on revitalising empty homes carries with it the opportunity to make a significant contribution to this effort. It is  another piece of the jigsaw, which when completed, can help to realise the ambition to change the way we approach place, community and how we live our lives through the creation of 20 minute neighbourhoods.

Each of Scotland’s 47,000 long-term empty homes is a lost opportunity. If they remain empty, their  collective impact on otherwise thriving local neighbourhoods across Scotland is significant. If they are brought back to use, they help neighbourhoods to become and remain places that people are proud to call home.