Opinion: A manifesto for empty homes
Published by Max Salsbury for 24dash.com in Housing and also in Development
Opinion: A manifesto for empty homes
Difficulties in fully spending funding allocations to bring empty homes back into use, shouldn’t discourage associations or the government from improving the system, writes Alan Fraser, chief executive of Birmingham YMCA.
It seems incredible that, at a time when even conservative estimates suggest that there are over 600,000 empty homes in England alone, housing associations and other community groups have somehow failed to fully spend the government’s grant programmes set up to help tackle the problem.
We don’t know the full scale of the underspend yet, partly because many agencies are still refusing to admit publicly that they’ve not managed to deliver the schemes that they promised. But, anecdotally, I am talking to colleagues up and down the country who have found the programme a “nightmare” and recognise that it is unlikely they will spend their full allocation or deliver the all the units that they promised. How can this be?
Well, Birmingham YMCA received two awards totalling nearly 900,000. We’ve already delivered an additional 37 bed-spaces of accommodation and are currently on site with a further 33 – but we still have another 13 to find and deliver, so we have experienced both the joy and the frustrations that working on empty homes schemes can engender. On this basis I would make a couple of observations.
Firstly, the bidding process for money was pretty truncated and didn’t give associations time to identify actual schemes prior to submitting a bid. Bidding in round 1 particularly, was generally on a speculative basis with associations committing to deliver a number of units at a particular cost without having any really firm information on which to base those submissions. Inevitably, having bid within the suggested value for money frameworks, when associations actually went out to try and find schemes to deliver, all too often the sums simply didn’t add up. The fact is that bringing empty properties back into use is never the same from one scheme to the next so bidding ‘blind’ almost inevitably makes bids meaningless in ‘real world’ situations.
In that context it is encouraging to see that the HCA 2015-18 bidding round is now encouraging associations to come forward with concrete scheme proposals as part of their continuous market engagement exercise, rather than blind bidding.
But in addition, the fact is that the value for money guidance often made the assumption that properties could be refurbished very cheaply, at a fraction of the cost of a new housing unit. In ‘real world’ situations, whilst refurbishment will almost always be cheaper than new build, every empty property has its own unique challenges and the kind of cost envelope that associations were expected to operate within was frequently not very realistic.
To create single units at a capital cost of £25k per unit under the lease and repair model might still offer excellent value for money compared to trying to find an empty site and build some new units. It is also likely to be considerably quicker and have many residual benefits, such as regenerating inner city areas and preventing urban sprawl. We need to make sure that all of these benefits are captured in the value for money calculations going forward.
Both of these observations make the case for a more flexible approach being needed where associations are able to discuss ‘real world’ schemes with funding agencies more openly and at an earlier stage, than has been the case up to this point. The signs are that the HCA wants this to happen in future. But the emphasis also needs to be on trying to make feasible schemes happen, rather than discounting feasible schemes because they don’t fit within a cost envelope that bears no relationship to an actual physical building.
Both Birmingham YMCA and our young people have benefitted enormously from empty homes funding – and we hope to be able to benefit further in future. Our fear is that previous difficulties will lead to an assumption that empty properties ‘aren’t worth the effort’ when actually nothing could be further from the truth.