Don Foster MP

Don Foster MP - 7/267 - Bath's #1 Supporter

Don Foster announces £300m empty homes fund

In his role as Communities Minister, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath, Don Foster has announced the opening of bidding for a share of £300 million that will bring thousands of additional empty homes back into use across England.

Don pledged to “stop the rot” that empty homes can bring to blighted neighbourhoods and said that he “wants to go much further” in tackling the problem.

Under the scheme 5,000 empty, and in many cases derelict, properties will be refurbished and put back onto the market over the next 3 years.

Latest figures show the number of empty homes dropped from 300,000 in 2009 to 259,000 in 2012, and today’s new funding is in addition to the £160 million ministers have already committed to bringing empty homes back into use.

In Bath, using an Empty Property Policy introduced by Housing Services, B&NES Council has already reduced the number of “long term vacant” properties within the local authority area to from 634 in 2008 to 427 in 2011. However, the Council will now be able to apply for Government funding that could bring even more empty homes in the area back into use.

The government has also given councils greater powers to tackle empty homes locally including:

  • allowing councils to charge up to 150% of the normal Council Tax rate on owners of the most problematic neglected homes from April 2013
  • applying the ‘New Homes Bonus’ to empty homes, with government matching Council Tax proceeds from newly inhabited properties pound for pound, doubling councils’ revenue from these
  • in the most severe cases, enabling councils to take over the most problematic neglected homes through the use of Empty Dwelling Management Orders

Speaking at the beginning of Empty Homes Week, Don said:

“Empty homes blight communities, attract crime and rats and deprive people of available housing. What’s worse this is a vicious circle - one derelict home brings an area down and can lead to more and in places whole communities have been destroyed. I am determined quite literally to stop the rot.

“This extra money will help communities refurbish empty and abandoned homes, bring in new residents, provide desperately needed extra affordable housing for families and regenerate communities.”

This significant cash injection will help thousands of families in housing need, but will also support local economic growth by providing work for local building firms.

A range of organisations including councils, housing associations, community and voluntary groups as well as high street regeneration groups - prioritising the 27 ‘Portas pilot’ towns and 326 town team partners - will be able to bid for a share of the funding.

Ministers are also considering future measures to bring not just homes but empty buildings generally back into use including making it easier to convert commercial into residential property and making more use of space above shops as homes.

TV presenter, architect, and Independent Empty Homes Adviser George Clarke said: “Empty homes are a very serious problem for communities - they cause a loss of housing, produce an increase in crime and bring entire areas down. The government has shown it is equally serious about tackling this problem and I welcome this massive injection of extra cash that will help towns across the country tackle the blight of empty homes and regenerate communities.”

David Ireland, Chief Executive at the Empty Homes Agency, said: “The huge effort people have made this year to get empty homes back into use has been truly inspiring and created a major contribution to housing supply. This week we are celebrating what they have achieved and pushing for changes to make it possible for even more to be achieved next year.”

Homes and Communities Agency Chief Executive Pat Ritchie said: “Tackling empty homes remains a key priority for the Agency. I welcome this additional funding, which has an emphasis on helping to bring empty commercial and non-residential back into use as affordable housing, and will build on the work we are already doing to bring long-term empty homes back into use through our Affordable Homes Programme.

“We will be working with our local partners to help meet local need and in doing so, support their efforts to tackle homelessness and regenerate neighbourhoods that are suffering from the blight of empty homes and help to prevent neighbourhood decline.”

DCLG Ministerial Speech: National Empty Homes Conference 2012

November 27, 2023 by Don Foster MP in Don in Parliament, Speeches

Speech by Don Foster to the annual National Empty Homes conference. Originally given at The Building Centre, London. This is the text of the speech as drafted, which may differ slightly from the delivered version.

In 1990, Rachel Whiteread won international recognition for her cast of an empty room.

It was a striking piece. Conveying the sadness, the sheer tragedy of an unoccupied place - a place with no one to call it home.

Significantly, the artist’s name for that work was ‘Ghost’ and that really is the point. Homes are not pieces of sculpture. They are made to be occupied. An empty home is a phantom. A hole in the heart of a community.

Now we know homes fall empty for all sorts of reasons. Some are renovated, some in probate, some are even second homes. But, wherever you find these haunted houses you’ll find blighted communities and lost neighbourhoods. Ambition abandoned.

We’ve all seen how it happens. The empty edifice becomes an eyesore. The eyesore becomes a magnet for rats, vandals, drug dealing, squatters and prostitution. Neighbours are inconvenienced. Communities are damaged. Council and local emergency services stretched to breaking point.

The statistics prove the point. Research by The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors suggests properties adjoining poorly maintained empty properties can drop by almost 20% in price.

Now, in part we were reaping the whirlwind of the failed policies of the past. The destructive Pathfinder programme undermined once vibrant communities. Marooning people in appalling homes surrounded by a sea of derelict streets.

That is the legacy we’ve inherited.

A legacy of almost three quarters of a million empty homes abandoned to the winds.

And we’re determined to say never again.

It’s time to inhabit the absences.

Plug the gaps.

Bring ghost homes back from the brink to the land of the living.

How can we afford not to do it? It’s a moral and financial imperative.

There are 1.7 million families on housing waiting lists. Of those some are homeless forced to live in overcrowded B&Bs. And the country’s population is growing.

Of course, house building is really important, vital, as the Deputy Prime Minister’s recent housing announcement made clear. But, as George Clarke would say, it would be “a crying shame” if we couldn’t occupy these wastes of space. Make use of what we’ve already got.

So the government’s approach has been threefold. First, we’re making more funds available for bringing homes back into use. And we’ve committed £160 million to bring over 11,000 empty houses back into use.

This isn’t about throwing money at a problem but making sure the money goes to the right places. Everyone who understands this area, knows there is no one-size fits all solution. Behind every empty home lies a myriad of social, historic and economic issues.

So our approach must be to create local answers to local issues. Giving local communities the right incentives to take the lead. So they will no longer turn a blind eye.

Rather than talk you through which fund comes from which pot, let me focus on the difference the money can make.

  • Habitat for Humanity in Dagenham, received financial aid to bring 35 houses back into use
  • Redcar & Cleveland Borough Council used its cash to renovate 20 homes and help unemployed residents to learn new skills for employment
  • Developing Health Independence, out in my constituency in Bath, is bringing 18 properties back from the brink
  • Kingston upon Hull City Council has written to 500 owners of empty homes offering to resuscitate their property - more than three quarters have already said yes

These organisations deserve all the praise they get. What can be better than giving someone a home?

But our approach is not all about money. It’s about keeping empty homes on the agenda. That’s the second point I’d like to make today.

It used to be a case of out of sight out of mind. Often there are people who care passionately about the areas they live in but they haven’t a clue about what to do next.

But thanks to George - the fastidious work of the Charity Empty Homes, the grass roots activities of local authorities and registered providers, the passion of community groups - ghost homes now have nowhere to hide. We’re stopping the rot.

Thirdly, we’re taking the carrot and stick approach. There are now powerful incentives for all local authorities to tackle empty homes such as the New Homes Bonus.

This means local authorities can earn the same financial reward for bringing an empty home back into use as building a new one. And it has provided an income of £26 million to local authorities for bringing empty homes back into use over the past year.

But what happens when advice and support isn’t enough?

In those circumstances we’ll get tough.

We have to take action against individuals who just can’t be bothered, who refuse to see the problem, who feel it’s ok to abandon their homes to the elements.

So we’ve given local authorities the power to reduce or remove Council Tax relief for empty and unfurnished homes.

And we’ve allowed them local discretion to introduce a Council Tax premium on homes empty and unfurnished for more than 2 years.

From next April, billing authorities will be able to charge up to 150% of Council Tax on such property.

Then there are the Empty Dwelling Management Orders. These force owners to bring their properties back into use. And, last but not least, as a last resort, there is the compulsory purchase order.

The point about these things is not how many times they are used but the fact they are there at all. They are a deterrent against those who refuse to take responsibility.

Under our efforts these silent shells are vanishing before our eyes.

Since we came to power the number of long term empty homes has fallen by 50,000.

This downward trend is continuing. The latest figures show a further decrease 20,000 in long term empty homes to 259,000 in 2012. And every house back in circulation, means a roof over the head of a working family.

I know there is still a very long way to go. Yet what we’ve demonstrated emphatically is the power of collaborations. That it’s coalitions of organisations - registered social landlords and community groups, house builders and local authorities - that together will make the difference.

These collaborations ensured the house in Oldham that stood empty for 14 years will soon be occupied. Oldham Borough Council and Aksa Homes brushed aside the cobwebs, hovered up the tumbleweed, rebuilt the pathways and put in new gates and fitted a new kitchen. A new home awakened.

It’s absolutely vital we harness the wealth of skill, experience, knowledge and application that these partnerships bring. So today I am inviting councils, housing associations, community and voluntary groups, and high street regeneration groups, prioritising our 27 Portas pilots to step forward.

In exchange for a share of £300 million I want them to tell me their plans to scatter the shadow of empty homes and bring thousands more back into the light. You’re the experts and it’s your innovative ideas I’m after.

One final thing. I’m keen to take our empty homes policy in a new direction. This shouldn’t just be about turning disused residential properties, those ageing apparitions, into inviting homes.

Why not turn empty offices into homes? Why not use the spaces above shops for housing? People who need a place to live don’t mind where it comes from. We’re making this easier to do. We’ve already introduced a whole host of policies to get rid of the red tape that gets in the way.

Now I know this type of project can be more challenging than a residential refurbishment. Typically, there are obstacles such as access and security to overcome. But they mustn’t stand in our way.

The minute you occupy an empty home, you start of an amazing chain reaction of events. You don’t just bring homes back to life, but neighbourhoods and communities. And businesses and jobs follow in their wake.

So we’re determined to exorcise ghost homes from the collective psyche. We’re straining every sinew to make them a myth not the reality.

Up and down the country, there are people who dream of one day seeing neighbourhoods revive and redundant homes come back to life.

I have little doubt, that working together, we will grant them their wish.

Households in Bath retain weekly bin collections thanks to Government scheme

Don Foster, Liberal Democrat MP for Bath has welcomed the news that 73,993 homes in Bath and North East Somerset will have their weekly waste and recycling services safeguarded thanks to a new scheme from the Coalition Government.

One of 85 Councils to benefit from the Weekly Collection Support Scheme, Bath and North East Somerset Council will receive £2,185, 082 to support weekly waste and recycling collections, reward environmental improvements in the community and increase recycling levels.

The £250 million fund was set up by the Department for Communities and Local Government to support comprehensive and cost effective weekly collections that harness innovation, use new technology and spread reward schemes to increase recycling.

Commenting, Don Foster who is also a Minister in the Department for Communities and Local Government said:

“Research shows that people value weekly rubbish collections and this funding will allow B&NES Council to maintain its excellent waste collection and recycling service.”

“That the full amount bid for has been granted is great news for Bath residents and a testimony to the quality of the bid that B&NES Council submitted.”

“Regular refuse and recycling collections play a vital role in keeping our city clean and this scheme will help ensure that Bath continues to be a great place to live and visit.”

Commenting, Dave Dixon, Liberal Democrat Councillor and B&NES Council Cabinet Member for Neighbourhoods welcomed the news:

“Bath and North East Somerset Council genuinely had a choice as to whether or not to move to fortnightly waste collections.

“As a result of this funding we have been able to stick by our commitment to not alter waste and recycling collections over the next four years. This ties in very well with the contract end dates with our current operators.”