This impact report by the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SEHP) covers the period 2021-22. The SEHP is funded by the Scottish Government, and hosted by Shelter Scotland, with the remit to encourage private sector long-term empty homes back into use, as social and affordable homes, wherever possible. (Long-term empty homes are homes that are recorded as empty on council tax records for 6 months or more.) Long-term empty properties represent a lost opportunity in areas where demand for housing is high and housing supply is inadequate. By bringing suitable empty homes back into use, housing need will be reduced and will in turn help to address the housing emergency. Bringing homes back into use can also help to revive and revitalise town centres, villages and rural communities and contribute to reducing carbon emissions.
Figures published by Scottish Government reported that there are approximately 43,766 long-term empty homes.
Of these 15,912 have been empty for anywhere between 6 and 12 months, and 27,584 have been empty for over 12 months. The 6-month figure is a 7.5% fall from 2020 figures, but this is still 6.5% higher than the pre-pandemic 40,963 long-term empty homes in 2019.
The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on long-term empty properties being brought back into use; many empty homes officers (EHOs) report that owners advise that empty homes work has stalled due to a rise in the cost of materials, shortages in supplies and the lack of availability of local tradespeople. Against this backdrop of significant challenges, and with home working, restrictions on visits to properties and varying access to IT equipment still affecting all EHOs, the achievements of empty homes officers are all the more impressive for 2021/22.
Over the past year, Empty Homes Officers, supported by the Partnership, have reported that 1,152 empty properties have been brought back into use. This compares to 851 homes back into use for the previous year and to 1412 in 2019.
We now have 24 councils that report having an empty homes service. During the period of this report, we have had 2 new empty homes officers appointed and a further 2 councils restarting an empty homes service by appointing a new officer. However, several local authorities have advised us that since the pandemic, empty homes work has been deprioritised, or in one council, completely stopped. We remain committed to realising our ambition to see empty homes services in every local authority in Scotland and will continue to work with and support all Local Authorities to ensure that, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic, each Local Authority prioritises bringing suitable empty homes back into use.
We know that there is only so much that an empty homes service can achieve where owners are unwilling to return their home to use or where owners cannot be traced. Our Impact Report shows the significant problems these empty homes can cause for communities and why we believe that existing powers such as Compulsory Purchase Orders should be used more widely. Empty homes officers and local authorities across the country have also told us that they agree with the view expressed in our last annual report that further powers, including Compulsory Sale and Rental Orders, should also be introduced to prevent homes from being left to deteriorate indefinitely at a time when Scotland desperately needs more homes.
We want all councils to consider empty homes work in the round and encourage councils to have an integrated empty homes strategy that aligns with their strategic housing investment plan and local housing strategy. We recommend reviewing empty homes data and compiling a targeted action plan for all homes that have been stuck for over 24 months as well as reflecting on what homes may not be an immediate priority.
We are testing innovative approaches to encourage a wider range of stakeholders to be involved in empty homes work. The benefits of registered social landlords, community groups and other private bodies bringing empty homes back into use are being demonstrated on a small scale in Scotland and we would like to see more of this nationally. The impact of this work is evident from the case studies in this report.
Finally, consideration must be given to how to motivate more owners to bring their empty properties back into use. EHOs tell us that owners are difficult to engage and our initial user research on the advice service told us that owners did not know help was available; so we would encourage local marketing campaigns to highlight the benefits to an owner of bringing their empty property back into use. As well as this, we recognise that fiscal initiatives such as the vacant dwelling council tax levy can be used effectively with a carrot and stick approach, but additional resources at a local level, such as small grants can unlock empty properties that are stuck.