Today, South Cambridgeshire District Council announced what it calls plans to "reduce empty homes in South Cambridgeshire".
The Press Release given out earlier today, states:
Plans to tackle 600 long-term empty homes and encourage owners to bring them back into use in an area of high housing demand have been given a helping hand.
To help achieve this, long-term empty properties in South Cambridgeshire will no longer be subject to a 50% reduction in council tax, following the initial six month exemption period.
Definition of "long term empty"
To be clear, the Council now defines a long-term empty property as "one that has been both unoccupied and unfurnished for more than six months". Until now, such properties have been exempt from council tax for the first six month period of being empty, and after that, was subject to 50% of the tax due.
The Council goes on to justify this by saying that:
In 2003 the Council Tax legislation was amended to allow Local Authorities the power to reduce or remove the 50% discount. South Cambridgeshire District Council (SCDC) has now followed many other Local Authorities in taking the decision to remove the discount.
What the Council has failed to do before making this decision is to confirm any evidence it obtained that such steps taken by other local authorities did indeed achieve the object of bringing those homes back into use, or what financial impact it had on those property owners or even what help was put in place to assist such owners.
At a Finance Portfolio Holders meeting where this idea was discussed, I asked the portfolio holder for such evidence, and raised my concern that such an action may likely result in some property owners getting into more financial difficulty as a result. I reminded the meeting that properties are left empty for various reasons, but usually, it is because the owners cannot at the time, afford to do the works that are required to bring them back into use.
I know this from my own experience as a landlord, and in my dealings with other homeowners who find themselves becoming accidental landlords or even those who consider themselves professional landlords. Therefore, forcing owners to shell out more money at a time when they are cash strapped, might help the council, but would inevitably result in more financial problems for the owners, which ends up translating to personal difficulties and health issues brought on by the additional stress.
I also enquired as to what, if any strategies were already in place to assist such home owners, and it transpired that there was none. No grants, no strategies, nothing. The response was that an empty homes strategy will be prepared at a later date, and should be in place before the removal of the rebate is implemented.
There was also a cynical move behind the decision to remove the 50% council tax rebate for empty homes. The Coalition government had indicated that it would be giving grants for every new home built, called the New Homes Bonus, and was considering extending this to include empty homes brought back into use. The Council obviously saw this as an opportunity not to be missed, even though it would cause further hardship to some of its constituents.
The Council has now decided that
From 1st April 2011, after the initial six month exemption period council tax will be due at the full rate. This also affects properties undergoing major repair work or structural alteration for a period of up to 12 months which currently also receive the 50% discount after the 12-month exemption period if they remain unoccupied and unfurnished when the exemption ends.
Cllr Mark Howell, portfolio holder for housing said
"Long term empty homes can be a magnet for crime and graffiti, which can bring neighbourhoods and residents down, as well as contributing to a shortage of housing in the district.
"Over the coming months, SCDC will also be developing an Empty Homes Strategy to assess the extent of empty homes in the district and the options available to assist homeowners to bring their property back into use."
One would have thought that the obvious and correct way to go about this is first to determine the extent of empty homes, find out the reasons for those properties being empty by liasing with the owners (if they could be found), and then using the results of that consultation, put in place strategies and plans to assist them in bringing the properties back into use.
Then owners should be given sufficient time to take advantage of the assistance, before announcing the removal of the rebate.
But instead, the Council wields the stick by removing the rebate, with hardly any notice, and then plans to give out some carrots afterwards, carrots that it still has to grow!!, an empty homes strategy that is still to be developed. This type of planning is also colloquially known as putting the cart before the horse. Not the best plan, is it??
Where is the localism agenda in all of this??
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