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Thursday, December 5, 2019

Empty homes problem should be tackled, says AM

North Wales Assembly Member Mark Isherwood (pictured) has called on the Welsh Government to help bring the around 27,000 private sector homes in Wales that have been empty for more than six months back into use.

Speaking in a debate on the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee Report: ‘Empty Properties’, Mr Isherwood, who is a member of the Committee, said that many owners do not wish to see their properties lying idle and should be supported to bring them back into use.

He stressed that when attempts to tackle the problem informally fail, local authorities have powers to deal with empty properties, but said “this isn’t straightforward”.

He said: “Having a national action plan in place, adopting genuinely community based approaches, accountability measures and establishing a source of legal expertise for empty property teams to access will be critical.

“As we stated, this should include work to understand the impact that having a specific officer with responsibility for empty properties can make – and training for Local Authority Officers and Members on the enforcement options available will be essential, as will the provision of flexible funding solutions that are sensitive to local needs and assist property owners.

“As a former Housing Association voluntary Board Member, I welcome the Welsh Government’s recognition that Housing Associations play a key part in bringing empty properties into use, but will need to see evidence that they have been genuinely involved by both Welsh Government and Local Authorities.

“Although the Welsh Government rejects ring-fencing for housing purposes of revenue collected by Local Authorities through the Council Tax premium on empty homes, we must see evidence that Local Authorities have been encouraged to use this funding to address local housing supply needs.

“It is deeply regrettable that the Welsh Government have only agreed in principal to our recommendation that they undertake a review with the Welsh Local Government Association (WLGA) of the current statutory enforcement powers available to Local Authorities to tackle empty properties in order to simplify them and make them more effective.

“It is also concerning that they have only agreed in principle to our recommendation that they and the WLGA undertake an exercise to assess whether second-home owners are avoiding payment of the Council Tax premium by falsely registering their property as a self-catering business or claiming that a family member has moved in. Serious allegations about this were made to us and we need the facts – especially where this could involve fraudulent activity.

“However, as I stated when we were debating Stage 3 of the Housing (Wales) Act “there is the danger that second-home owners who have put their life-savings into realising their dreams will be hit hardest” by the Council Tax premium – and therefore rent out their second homes rather than lose them – when “the people that can afford it will shrug this off”.

“Speaking here in 2011, I noted that Denbighshire’s Empty Homes Officer at that time, funded by Housing Associations, had told me that “every empty home has a different story.  The key is to understand why it is empty and to work closely with the owner to bring it back into use”.

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