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More than 11,000 empty homes in Norfolk, but some councils not using powers to get them filled

PUBLISHED: 08:38 29 August 2017 | UPDATED: 14:07 29 August 2017

An empty house in Northumberland Street, Norwich. Picture: Dan Grimmer

An empty house in Northumberland Street, Norwich. Picture: Dan Grimmer

Archant

More than 11,000 homes are standing empty in Norfolk and Waveney, but some councils are not making use of hard-hitting powers designed to get them back into use.

Of the 10,647 houses in Norfolk and 1,512 in Waveney which were standing empty as of October last year, almost 3,200 had been vacant for at least six months.

Despite there being nearly 18,000 people on waiting lists for council housing and council leaders saying 50,000 new homes need to be built in Norfolk by 2027, there are wide disparities in how often authorities use powers to get houses back into use.

Those powers include enforcement action, where councils can seize properties of owners who refuse to take action over long-term empty homes.

But a Freedom Of Information Act request has revealed how some councils have not used such action, including compulsory purchase orders and empty dwelling management orders, at all over the past three years.

But other councils have made considerable efforts to get empty homes fit for families again.

Government figures show that, in a snapshot from October last year, there were the following empty homes. The figure in brackets are homes empty for six months or more:

Norwich - 1,469 (295)

Breckland - 1,382 (461)

Broadland - 1,044 (322)

Great Yarmouth - 1,621 (503)

North Norfolk - 1,626 (504)

South Norfolk - 1,227 (279)

Waveney - 1,512 (488)

West Norfolk - 2,279 (824)

Housing charity Shelter has criticised councils for failing to make better use of powers to get homes used.

Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, said: “It’s frustrating that any homes are standing empty when we’re in the grip of an acute housing crisis.

“The fact is, though, that even if every single empty home was filled today it still wouldn’t solve our chronic housing shortage.

“The real reason that we’re in the midst of a housing crisis is decades of failure to build enough genuinely affordable homes.

“That’s why millions of young people and families are now trapped in expensive and unstable private renting.

“The only way to end the current crisis is for the government to reform our broken housebuilding system, so it finally delivers decent homes that people on lower incomes can actually afford.”

North Norfolk District Council has been among the most prolific users of new powers and last year won the Empty Homes Innovation Award for its efforts.

Up to December last year, 139 properties had been considered by that board over a three year period, with 133 properties subsequently occupied or getting new owners.

Officers have also been given the green light to pursue compulsory purchase orders for eight properties - including in Sterling Road in Sculthorpe and in Sheringham.

But Breckland Council, Waveney District Council, West Norfolk Council and South Norfolk Council are among authorities which have not used enforcement action at all over the past three years.

Norwich City Council last used a building act notice on a ruinous and dilapidated building in 2014.

But councils insist just because enforcement action is not being taken, that does not mean they are not getting homes back into use.

Norwich City Council says it writes to owners of homes, empty for more than six months, offering help and information about getting them used again. It has also worked with St Martin’s Housing Trust to get empty homes refurbished. In 2016/17, 31 homes were brought back into use.

A spokeswoman for Breckland Council said: “We have reduced the number of empty properties by a third over the last two years. One of the measures we take is to encourage owners of these properties to bring them back into use through our Restore grant, which provides a £5,000 grant to return their property to use as an affordable home.”

And a spokesman for Waveney District Council said: “Rather than taking enforcement action, we are keen to reduce the number of empty homes by working together with owners through more time effective solutions.”

A spokeswoman for West Norfolk Council said it had used compulsory purchase orders in the past and had a current project which could get 13 empty homes back into use.

• Have you been trying to get action on an empty house where you live? Call Dan Grimmer on 01603 772375 or email dan.grimmer@archant.co.uk

What powers do councils have over empty homes?

Once an empty property has been identified, councils must try to trace the owner.

If the owner is found, attempts are made to engage with them, to figure out actions to be taken to bring the property back into use.

But, where necessary, councils can consider enforcement action.

Powers available include:

• Empty Dwellings Management Order - where a council can take possession of a long-term empty home and rent it to a tenant

• Enforced sale - where a n owner expresses no interest in bringing a house back into use, the council can step in, do the work and reclaim the cost once the home is sold on the open market at auction.

• Compulsory Purchase Order - where a council purchases a property after a legal process and then sells it

• Ruinous and Dilapidated Buildings (Building Act 1984) - where a building is deemed dangerous,councils can apply to court to force owners to fix them or for the council to fix it and recover expenses.

Case study: From drugs den to family home

A bungalow which was being used as a cannabis factory was turned back into a family home, after it was seized by Broadland District Council.

The property, in Wroxham Road, Sprowston, had a chequered history for years before the council stepped in to compulsorily purchase it.

Problems came to a head when the empty property, which was fast becoming derelict, was broken into and became a regular target for vandals, who plagued neighbours with late-night noise.

After months of trying to negotiate with the owner, the council took the step of boarding up the bungalow to make it secure, and issued a prohibition order declaring it unsafe for human occupation.

When the owner still failed to carry out repairs, the final step was to compulsorily purchase it.

The council then sold it at auction to a buyer who restored it into a family home.

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