The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership’s 2019 annual conference was held at Riddle’s Court in Edinburgh on 20 November. The theme of this year’s conference was Opening Doors, Unlocking Potential as we focused on how empty homes can be used to help to meet housing challenges today as well as helping to deliver the long-term vision for housing in Scotland.
The conference was also an opportunity to celebrate the achievements of Empty Homes Officers across the country after a record number of 1,128 homes were brought back into use during the last financial year, taking the total number of homes brought back into use since SEHP began to above 5,000.
As a result, there were a lot of difficult choices that had to be made when it came to deciding the winners of the Howdens Scottish Empty Homes Champion of the Year Awards. The awards are always a highlight of the conference, and this year was no exception as the winners of Outstanding Individual, Outstanding Service, Best Collaborative Project, Best Before and After, and a new award Oldest Long-Term Empty brought back into use, were announced.
The winner of Oldest Long-Term Empty category was a property in Glasgow that had been empty for over twenty years when a member of the public reported an open back window to Glasgow City Council Land & Environmental Services and they passed it over to their Empty Homes Officers. In spite of their initial visits to the property, conversations with neighbours and calls to Police Scotland all drawing a blank, the EHO carried on investigating and eventually found contact details for the owner. The end result was that one year after it came to the EHOs attention and twenty-four years after it became empty, the property was sold on the open market enabling the owner to pay over £30,000 in council tax arrears and providing a new home for the people moving into it.
From old to new, the Outstanding Individual award went to Murdo MacLeod, the Empty Homes Officer in the Western Isles. Although he has only been in post for a year, making him one of the newest empty homes officers in the network, Murdo had already helped bring over 60 empty properties back into use by the time the award nominations closed, covering the 130 miles of the Outer Hebrides archipelago from Lewis in the north, to Vatersay in the south, several times over as he helps and support owners to bring their empty homes back into use.
The awards were once again presented by Kevin Stewart, Minister of Local Government, Housing and Planning, who also posed for photos with the winners after they collected their awards. This year, he was joined by TVs Matt Allwright, as The Empty Housing Scandal presenter was our guest speaker. He spent the morning at the conference before delivering a hugely entertaining speech after lunch, where he talked about his early career as a journalist and how his mother’s faulty washing machine led to him moving into investigative reporting, before moving on to talking about the importance of bringing empty homes back into use to provide much needed housing and to preserve communities across the UK.
Anyone taking a quick look at the names of other speakers at the conference, would have been forgiven for thinking that Matt was neither the only TV presenter at the conference, or the only TV presenter there called Matt. However, on closer inspection, the Matt Baker who delivered one of the morning’s workshops was the director of the Midsteeple Quarter project in Dumfries and not The One Show presenter.
The project is enabling a local community to take control of a group of neglected high street buildings and refurbish them as a contemporary living, working, socialising, and learning hub. It’s a fantastic example of the wider community benefits that can be delivered through innovative empty homes projects and fitted in superbly with the theme of this year’s conference.
With all of this happening, there’s barely room to mention the National Empty Homes Survey that the partnership has worked on this year. The survey aimed to develop a deeper understanding of the distribution of empty homes across Scotland, looking at why homes become empty and why they remain empty, and what more can be done to continue to increase the numbers of empty homes being brought back into use.
Findings of the survey were presented by members of the team and the conference ended with interactive workshops where groups were asked to look at issues including how to involve communities in empty homes work, how to create a full package of measures that can help to encourage people to bring their homes back into use, and what else may be needed to tackle high volumes of empty homes in some areas. We’re now working through the survey findings and discussions on the day and will be publishing more information on this in the New Year.