Empty Arun properties including one piled with food waste and bath full of faeces are turned back into habitable homes
Empty homes are a ‘wasted resource’ says one of Arun District Council’s specialist officers, but help is available to bring them back into use.
Helen Stevens is the council’s senior empty property officer.
“It’s basically what it says on the tin,” says Helen, “It’s my job to bring long term empty properties back into use.”
A property is classed as long term empty when it has been unfurnished and unoccupied for six months or more.
Second homes and homes where the owner may be in care or a nursing home are not included.
Arun had 388 empty homes as of November 1, down by 45 since April, according to council tax records,
But, when Helen started her role in 2014, the total stood at 605.
“When I first started, there were 35 homes that had been empty between five and 20 years,” she said.
“Now we have under ten and they’re already engaging with me.”
Some properties in shocking conditions are brought back into use
There are major challenges to bringing properties back into use, including the dilapidated, damaged or infested state they can be found in.
One particular property in Bognor Regis was in a shocking condition with food waste over three feet high, vermin, a bath full of faeces, and a four foot high pile of used toilet paper.
“Within my team, I’m sort of known as the human magnet for poo because every property I come across either has baths full of it, or gardens full of it, houses full of it,” said Helen.
But the Bognor property has since been made habitable again as a family home and Helen won an award for her efforts.
“There’s a lot of joint working with West Sussex Fire and Rescue, adult services, the anti-social behaviour team and police,” she said.
“There’s lots of different legislation we can tap into.”
Engagement first, enforcement later
Despite the wide range of enforcement powers available to councils, including under the Housing Act (1985) – from demolition orders, to council tax premiums and compulsory purchases – Helen says that engagement is always the preferred option.
“I try to engage first,” she says, “But if that doesn’t work, we then go to enforcement.”
Enforcement and taking cases to court can take up a lot of time, years in some cases, so the housing team seeks to cooperate first.
Helen says she is ‘very transparent’ about the process, especially in sensitive cases.
“A lot of empty home owners do take it personally,” she said, “It is really trying to get across to them that it’s not personal.
“We get in contact with these owners because, if they made a complaint to the local authority, they would expect it to be investigated too.”
Demolition and compulsory purchase is rare
It is very rare for enforcement to be used in Arun – with only four demolition orders served since 2018.
Since then, five appeals were made but all found in favour of the council.
During the 2021/22 financial year, one enforced sale was completed.
Although engagement is the preferred route, it can be met with reluctance.
Helen says: “I understand where people are coming from – their first issue is ‘what’s it got to do with you it’s privately owned’.
“But it’s trying to get across to them the bigger picture; we’re building all these new builds but, when we’ve got these empty properties sitting there, it’s a wasted resource.”
Financial help available
The council is also able to offer financial help to empty home owners such as interest free loans of up to £10,000 and £5,000 grants to refurbish and repair properties.
But this support relies on the owners allowing their property to be rented through the council.
This has led to low uptake but a review has been proposed to make the scheme more attractive.
Councillors support council tax increases
Changes to council tax are also proposed which could make holding on to an empty home more difficult.
Bills could double for properties empty for between two and five years.
Properties that have been empty for five to ten years could be charged three times the normal council tax bill and those empty for ten years will see bills quadruple.
“I think we’re probably one of the last councils to introduce this scale of council tax increase,” Helen said.
“Absolutely if you hit people in the pocket, they don’t like it.
“I also think as well that it gives people an end date.
“I think people struggle where some of the properties are of a sensitive nature; it’s almost like they’re hanging on to it because that was their memory or their dream.”
Councillors widely supported the tax increases at a meeting in September and Matt Stanley (LDem, Marine) has been vocal on the issue.
Mr Stanley said: “For me, there is no more sustainable way of providing a home than utilising the homes we already have available.
“I would like to make clear from the start that Arun performs extremely well on empty homes.
“However, it has been reported that Arun is on the fastest growing list for empty homes.”
His motion calling for a review of council tax for holiday homes and empty homes was also supported.
According to charity Action on Empty Homes, Arun is one of the ‘fastest risers’ in the South East when it comes to empty properties.
The charity includes both second homes and homes empty for six months or more in its figures.
Emily Seex (Arun Ind, River) said the ‘local community should be compensated’ by those ‘fortunate enough to be able to afford a house for occasional holiday use’.
“A house is meant to be a home for somebody; it’s not meant to be a storage facility, something that’s kept there causing problems to neighbouring properties, or an eyesore on the district,” Helen added.
ADC environment committee chair David Edwards (Con, Felpham) said: “The work that Arun’s Empty Homes Officer, Helen, does is so vital.
“Empty homes, often in poor repair are a wasted resource and through a finely balanced combination of engagement and if necessary, enforcement, these properties can be returned to their rightful use – providing homes.
“I would like to thank Helen and all officers involved in supporting this work for their dedication and professionalism.”
More information about empty properties in Arun and the support available to empty home owners can be found at the ADC website: https://www.arun.gov.uk/empty-properties/