Meeting our strategic objectives – 5 – Run the Scottish Empty Homes Advice Service
What is the aim of the service
The Advice Service is there for anyone to call about or report a home that is lying empty. Our aim for 2021/22 was not just to focus on the volume of enquiries to the Advice Service but to concentrate our efforts on encouraging more owners to get in touch. This is because we can have maximum impact on our efforts when we can directly support owners to bring a home back into use.
This year we saw 426 total contacts to the Advice Service with 13% of the contacts from owners of an empty home.
We know that the key to bringing properties back into use is engagement and cooperation from owners and so they remain our key target.
2021/22 saw staff changes meaning from May to August (quarter of the reporting period) there was only one member of staff to respond to enquiries and less resource for service promotion. This explains the slight decrease in total contacts this year (426-480).
The 3 year comparison shows a more positive trajectory.
Total contacts to the Advice Service
Using Service Design Principles to improve the Advice Service
We used the Service Design process to improve the experience of contacts to the Advice Service and we had 3 key objectives:
• To establish where there are opportunities for the service to have maximum impact
• Understand what motivates contact and whether the service meets the users’ expectations.
• To identify themes and trends that may influence longer term policy asks
We started our research with ideation sessions which very quickly highlighted that to have maximum impact we should try to engage more with owners of empty properties.
Following on from our user research last year we identified 2 clear themes as below:
• owners are unclear what to expect when they contact us and
• if they did find our webpages, the information is limited.
However, feedback was not all negative, because once through to our advisers, we asked the question “Is there anything we could have done better?” and 75% responded there was nothing the service could have done better.
This work culminated in working with search engine optimisation specialists to identify top key words to include in our content and adding more information
on topics of particular concern to owners.
Raising the profile of the Advice Service using social media
We are using test and learn approaches to improve reach to owners of empty homes. After consideration of the data we currently hold, Facebook has been deemed the most relevant social media platform. Using the information from our previous service design research, we have updated our messaging to focus on key concerns for an owner of an empty property. Some examples of posts below.
Social media remains the third most common route for people to get in touch the Advice Service.
Cost of empty calculator
One of the key messages to attract owners has been around empty homes being a financial drain and this has helped promote use of the ‘cost of empty calculator’9. From June 2021 to March 2023 the calculator has been filled in by 13 owners.
Key issues for owners who contact us
Funding remains the issue most commonly cited as a reason for contacting the advice service, followed by difficulty selling/ letting.
Major damage and owner passing away were the 2 top reasons for homes becoming empty when we are contacted for advice. With financial issues and ongoing repairs listed most often as barriers to bringing properties back into use.
Outcomes for owners who contacted us
For those cases where the outcome is known, a positive outcome (ranging from advice and information provided, Council Tax discretion discount achieved, referred on for further support from EHO, property back into use or let out or sold) was achieved in 70% of cases.
Whilst owners may feel stuck in a difficult situation with limited options this goes to show that owners benefit from the contact they have with us.
Whilst our focus is on encouraging these owners to explore options to bring properties back into use, this work is as much about supporting people as it is about dealing with property. The value in the support we provide is shown by testimonials of owners who have used our service.
“I really do want to forward my absolute appreciation to you for every single last bit of support you have given and you are a true credit to people like me who needed an advocate….”
“Thank you so much for continuing to seek advice for us…I will now seek to move forward with renewed vigour and look forward to hearing any more information you can give us…”
In areas where there is no empty homes officer we are limited to the support on offer. However, we are considering what we can do to mobilise these frustrated contacts and support the case for an EHO.
Here are the myriad of issues that neighbours have mentioned to us within the last year about the empties they live next to:-
• Advice Service contacts – Increase total number of contacts (aim 480) and increase proportion of owners (aim for 25%).
• Enforcement – Gather more information on enforcement options and why these aren’t being used/ might not be appropriate for many of the neighbour cases we see
• Develop a ‘neighbour toolkit’ – to assist owners as to how they can highlight empty homes issues in their local area
• Matchmaker review – Work with the network of EHOs to understand how the schemes are operating and how they could be made more effective