The fabric of Britain as we know it is being ripped apart. So much is changing, almost behind our backs, we haven't got time to notice what is happening to us. And it is happening fast.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Empty Homes and McMansions

How many empty homes are there near where you live? There must be a couple, since it is estimated that there are around 350,000 long term empty houses in England.

There are two million British families currently on waiting lists for a council or housing association home.

According to last night's Channel4 documentary, many of these homes were emptied by the councils to make way for new, larger housing in the previous Labour's government's Pathfinder scheme.

According to this report, "The schemes refurbished 40,000 properties and demolished 10,000, building 1,000 new homes" and cost £2bn.

The project was halted last year by the Conservative/Lib Dem government half way through it's 15 year running time, as Channel 4 reported at the time. It seems slightly disingenuous to put all of the blame on the last government, when this one was the one to pull the plug.

At any rate, Pathfinder was responsible for some of the empty homes shown last night, but not all of them. And we can jiggle the figures and shift the blame as much as we want, at the end of the day it does not help those living in sub-standard housing.

The single mum living in a squalid house shows just how bad things are. She had to take a lamp into the kitchen as the ceiling light did not work The tangle of electrical wires, the damp and mouldy walls - the whole house was a massive fire hazard. For this dump, she paid £450 monthly rent.

I wrote recently about the government's new Housing Strategy, but the post got lost in my blog breakdown last month, so I am going to summarise it here.

Grant Shapps's Housing Strategy shows just how far from real life those in power are.

The basics:

• £400m investment in new development, supporting housebuilders in need of development finance including small and medium sized builders

• Mortgage indemnity scheme designed with the Home Builders Federation and Council of Mortgage Lenders to offer 95% loan to value mortgages for new build properties in England, to support 100,000 households

• Free up public sector land with "build now, pay later" deals for developers, releasing enough land to build 100,000 new homes and create up to 200,000 new jobs in the construction industry

• £400m earmarked for FirstBuy, to help 10,500 first time buyers with the help of an equity loan up to 20%

• A Custom Homes programme worth £30m to help individuals build their own homes, offering short-term project finance for independent projects

• Right-to-buy owners will be offered a discount of as much as half the value of their homes. Homes sold through right-to-buy will be matched by new homes developed for social rent

• £100m in funding to bring empty homes back into use, and a further £50m to tackle the worst concentrations of empty homes

• Consultation on an 'empty homes premium' added to council tax, payable if a home is left unattended for more than two years. Receipts from this additional tax used to bring homes back into use

Why on earth is £400m being invested in more houses, when that money could be used to renovate the ones that are sitting empty? Do we need more new builds that cost 2 - 3 times the price of an ex local authority house? Has Cameron been out to see the housing estates that are sitting unsold all over the country? Maybe it is just in the area where I am from but if you check out Rightmove at present, you will find pages of these "McMansions". Clachan View Gamekeepers View Iolaire - they are all shiny and new, often with twee "country" names, outside villages and town so that you need to drive everywhere. I would much rather spend my (imaginary) £300 on something like this.

Encouraging those who do not have a deposit saved to take out a 95% mortgage - isn't that what got us into this mess in the first place? Does Cameron know that even saving 5% deposit for a house is almost impossible for many? Take a normal 3 bed house in Dundee, where my parents live. Cost: around £100k. Deposit: £5k.

Saving a deposit of £5 might not sound like a lot, when you spend that on a weekend away, Mr Cameron but when you only earn £20k - where is that money coming from? Considering the family is likely paying about £500 a month on shabby rented accommodation.

Which brings me neatly to my next point. Private rentals. There must be much more done to stop people being ripped off by unscrupulous landlords. It is incredible that in Health and Safety concious Britain, where an office worker is not allowed to change a light bulb, private tenants are living in such dangerous conditions. There must be stronger legislation for renters, and more encouragement for landlords to offer long-term rental periods. Perhaps a tax cut if the landlord agrees to a longer lease?

The only way out of the miserable private rental sector is to buy a house (out of the question for many, particularly in London area) or local authority housing schemes. Oh, but we are going to sell those off, aren't we? We need more LA houses, not less. If we sell them all off, then that leaves more families on the private rental market.

Part of the new strategy was that the sales of the RTB houses would fund building of new houses, although I cannot see how that would work. If you sell a house worth £200k at half market price, what kind of house are you going to build with that £100k?

The main problem, in my opinion, of housing in UK is the massive gulf between earnings and house prices. If the average salary is £25k, but the average house price £241k then there is a massive problem.

According to this calculator, the monthly payment for a £241k house, at 6% over 20 years would be £1700 - over £20k a year. Even saving up the 20% deposit of £40k would be beyond many people.

A single earner on average pay can borrow £100k - fine for a house in Scotland, but not in SE England.

Unless the government do more to tackle the issues, and realise that helping people to buy their own home is not the be and end all of the matter, things are not likely to change in the near future. Not everyone has to have their own home, but the terrible situation in the private rental sector is what drives most to attempt this.

Affordable, clean and safe housing should be the priority. Not building new homes, but encouraging the owners of the empty homes to renovate and rent those homes.

Want to do more?

The charity Empty Homes is campaigning on this issue.

Read more about the Empty Homes Scandal campaign on Channel 4.

Information on how to rescue a Empty Home

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  1. I'd have a roomy, flexible Victorian terrace over a tiny, shoddily built, appallingly designed Barratt box any day of the week. And it will be Barratt's shareholders who benefit from the £400m going into development finance.

    This money won't be making up the difference between a developer making a loss and a profit, it will be the difference between some profit and what is deemed to be sufficient profit i.e raising the level to between 15 and 20%. So directly into the pockets of the already well off, whilst the poor still won't be able to access quality housing and the not poor but not rich will be stuck in crappy little boxes.

    Howard, Parker and Unwin are no doubt turning in their graves.

  2. Great. I just lost a whole bloody post, because it wouldn't let me use my gmail account.

    Anyway, shortened version (tries again)

    Osborne, as per his Autumn statement, tried to mollify us by announcing billions to be spent on the UK's infrastructure.

    I believe the money would be better spent on kicstarting the building sector. This industry is the first to feel the effects of a recession, and the last to come out of one.

    Currently, the building industry ia dead as a dodo (bitter experience here)

    I don't need more airport runways. I don't need more motorways and access roads (that will be subject to tolls ie. taxing). I don't need to be able to get from A to B more quickly in my Merc (hollow laugh).

    I need investment in the building sector, not to build NEW units as the esteemed MMeLindor said, but to renovate existing ones. Ones standing empty while good people suffer in squalor. That is a disgrace.

    I need new jobs to be created, and I need my green spaces to stay green.


  3. I agree, AF, extra spend on renovation & rebuild would be a far more useful investment than motorways. I suspect this infrastructure binge is all to do with making Britain look efficient (haha) - at least, that's a more generous angle on it than "Because Costain gave me a nice holiday home."

    Our unglamorous infrastructure, meanwhile - the sewer systems, country roads, railway maintenance - remain stretched to breaking point. If anybody comes to the Olympics, I dread to think what the overload on 150-year-old waste disposal network will do to the river.

    Like the infrastructure, superstructure is in far greater need of repair than shiny (tinny) new build. At this rate, we'll be like one of those emergent countries, with one gleaming city rising above a sea of miserable crap.

    God knows why these twerps think we're going to re-elect them. We didn't even elect them this time round!

  4. Pickles, you said it all there: "directly into the pockets of the already well off" ... That's the entire them of TooManyCuts, isn't it?

    We know we've all got to 'tighten our belts' - but aren't willing to do it when the rich are getting fatter on our deprivation!

  5. Yes, all good points. Pickles, that is it. The wealthy getting richer.

    I do like the investition in infrastructure, if it is done in a way to actually benefit the population - it should be prioritised by accident hotspots, eg the A9 north of Perth.

    I suspect that the investing in the infrastructure is more about prettying things up for the Olypmics than actually boosting the economy.

    Why don't they use some of that £400m to spend on grants for landlords to use to improve their properties, with the provision that they then offer a long term rental to their current tenant, at the current price.

  6. One thing I've really failed to understand is why we can't redevelop all these old terraces - okay, yes, 2 up 2 down terraces are small (I know I live in one!) but what's wrong with just knocking two together if you need more 4 bed houses? It's not like the combined garden can possibly be any smaller than the postage stamp gardens you get with new builds!


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