Housing and empty property rates reform will aim to regenerate Scotland’s communities, Local Government Derek Mackay said ahead of a stage one debate on the Unoccupied Properties Bill yesterday.
The Bill will allow councils to remove existing discounts and increase council tax on certain long-term empty homes, which often fall into disrepair and can become a focus for antisocial behaviour such as vandalism or fly tipping. There are 25,000 long-term empty homes across Scotland and these new powers could assist councils to work with home owners to provide homes for people who need them.
The reforms also include measures to incentivise owners of vacant business premises to bring up to 5,500 properties back into commercial use.
Under the current system of Empty Property Relief the Scottish Government would have provided approximately £757m of business rates subsidies, over the period 2010-15, to owners of business premises who have failed to find occupants. The new reforms will reduce this subsidy by £36m and aims to encourage maximum occupancy of Scotland’s town centres, linking to the Regeneration and Town Centre Strategies.
Speaking ahead of the debate, Mr Mackay said: “The Unoccupied Properties Bill is an important step in regenerating and revitalising communities across Scotland. At a time where there are over 140,000 families and individuals on social housing waiting lists and 25,000 long-term empty properties across Scotland, these reforms could play a significant role in providing homes for people who need them.
“The Bill will assist councils to remove discounts and increase council tax on certain empty homes and should be a strong incentive to owners to sell or let the property to someone who needs it. The Scottish Government is focused on retaining Scotland’s reputation as the most supportive environment for business in the UK and the review of business rates reflects the current economic challenges and opportunities. The total relief package offered by Scottish Government now exceeds £0.5 billion per year.
“The current system of empty property relief is not working for our communities and we recognise there is a need to incentivise owners of business premises to find occupants. We are working with stakeholders across the business community and we plan to introduce new incentives which will potentially bring up to 5,500 vacant business properties back into use.
“This Government is focused on supporting Scotland’s business community. We have retained the small business bonus scheme, which has either eliminated or substantially reduced business rates for two out of every five commercial properties in Scotland, and even after proposed reform, empty property relief will remain significantly more generous than that offered in England and Wales.
“As part of the Town Centre Strategy, this Government wants to see Scotland’s high streets thriving. I have listened to, and will continue to listen to, a wide range of stakeholders on these reforms and I have emphasised that there is flexibility on our approach.
“We are open to ideas on how we can maximise opportunities to regenerate our town centres and the planned town centre review will build on this and look to tackle some of the long-standing issues facing communities, through working with local authorities and others to deliver innovative solutions.”
RICS Scotland Director, Sarah Speirs: “RICS Scotland wishes to see all land and property to have a purpose and be used efficiently. Empty property does not make valid contributions to the Scottish economy, environment or, generally, the sociability of places. Therefore, RICS Scotland agrees with the Scottish Government that the issue of unused and vacant properties needs be addressed, and would welcome positive measures that revitalise Scotland’s high streets and town centres. “From a commercial point of view, we would hope that a balanced, collaborative approach – where public and private sectors can come together to find sensible solutions that provide access to property for those wishing to produce and trade – can be struck to ensure the consequential impact of any policy does not generate negative perceptions and reduce confidence.”
The Bill has been welcomed in Edinburgh, where a drive is already underway to get empty houses occupied. A task force to bring privately-owned empty homes back into use in the capital is being set up by the City of Edinburgh Council.
The membership of the group will include representatives from the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, private landlords and housing associations.
Some of the key actions for the task force will be to:
- put together a bid for funding from the Scottish Government’s new Empty Homes Loan Fund
- consider the need for advice to owners of empty homes and
- look at implementing new legislation which allows local authorities to charge higher council tax for empty homes.
Latest figures from the Council show that at December 2011 there were 1,486 private sector properties empty for more than six months which is 0.8% of all private sector homes. Of these 967 had been vacant for more than a year.
The Empty Homes Task Force is one the commitments made by the Capital Coalition which was formed back in May.
Councillor Cammy Day, Housing Leader for the City of Edinburgh Council, said: “Even though Edinburgh has a relatively low level of empty homes in both the social and private sectors this Council has a duty to look at all the avenues open to us to deliver more homes.
“The Capital Coalition made a commitment in May to set up this task force and I’m delighted that we have taken what is undoubtedly a major step forward in tackling this pressing issue.
“Everyone knows there is a desperate need for more housing in the capital and we hope the task force will be able to find ways of bringing more empty homes back into use.”
Kristen Hubert of Shelter Scotland, who run the Scottish Government funded Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, said: “The Council should be praised for setting up this task force and their commitment to bringing empty homes back into use.
“There are many reasons why a home might be left empty. Owners can have sentimental attachment to it or they don’t have the finances, the time or the skills to complete their plans for the property.
“Whatever the reason, bringing empty homes back into use has many benefits – it adds to the housing supply, contributes to local regeneration and supports community safety.
“We look forward to working with the taskforce in tackling the problem of empty homes across Edinburgh.”
A report on the Empty Homes Task Force is set to be discussed at a meeting of the Health, Social Care and Housing Committee on Tuesday 11 September.
The percentage of empty homes in Edinburgh has been steadily decreasing since 2008 from 2.4% to 2% in 2011 – less than the Scottish average of 2.8%.
The Council has already taken steps to reduce the potential for a greater number of empty homes during the recession by working with builders and housing associations to buy unsold new properties and convert them to affordable homes. This has resulted in a total of 76 newly built unsold properties being purchased since 2010/11.
Earlier this year the Council used Council Tax data to contact over 1,000 owners of homes that had been empty for more than six months. They were sent a leaflet outlining the benefits of bringing their homes back into use.