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Are empty homes the answer to the housing crisis?

One of the most common arguments against building so many new homes is the apparent existence of a huge number of empty homes that could be re-occupied instead.

But is bringing them back into use realistic? And will it even help the housing crisis? This blog explores the evidence.

According to The Empty Homes Agency, a charity which campaigns for empty homes to be brought back into use, there are 610,000 houses in England which are currently vacant. This compares to the 250,000 homes the planning system is attempting to deliver each year. On the face of it, these empty properties could help address the shortage of new homes and reduce the need for new housing developments.

Most of these homes, however, are only empty for a short period of time – less than six months. There are a variety of reasons why this is the case. The owner might be desperate to sell, but can’t find a buyer (it takes 2 months to sell the average home, according to Rightmove). The property might be in the process of being renovated or refurbished. The owner could be caught up in a legal dispute (perhaps following a death or divorce). Others are empty because their occupants have moved into care homes. Typically, these homes come back into use relatively quickly.

That’s why only 206,000 homes are long-term empty – for more than six months. These equate to just 0.88% of the total housing stock, or about 10 months of the required supply of new homes.

Can we re-use them anyway?

But how realistic is it to bring all of these homes back into use? To understand that, it is helpful to consider how the UK compares to other, similar countries. Eurostat provide figures for unoccupied homes across the whole of the European Union. It uses a slightly different definition to The Empty Homes Agency to ensure consistency across the EU as a whole, but it does allow us to draw some comparisons.

Across the EU, 15.6% of dwellings are classed as vacant. For the UK, this figure is just 4.3%. Only Poland has a lower vacancy rate (2.4%) while the next closest country – the Netherlands – has 7.1% of housing stock empty. By European standards, we are a star performer at keeping the number of empty homes to a minimum.

This isn’t a new pattern either. The Institute of Economic Affairs found a similar trend in their paper ‘An Abundance of Land a Shortage of Housing‘ published in 2012. This study partly attributed the higher rates of vacancy in most of Europe to a more heavily regulated rental market.

So are empty homes the answer?

The number of empty homes in England is small in both absolute terms and as a percentage of the overall housing stock. Even if we were to bring them all back into use, it would have little impact on the housing supply. The number of unoccupied homes is also extremely low compared to the European average, which suggests that efforts to reduce vacancy rates still further are likely to be very challenging.

At best, focusing on empty homes is  tinkering around the edges of the housing crisis. At worst, it can be an unhelpful distraction from the real solution – increasing the supply of new homes.

Which is where The Strategic Land Group comes in – working with land owners to deliver planning permission on their sites, at our cost and risk. If you think we could help, please let us know.

Find out how we can help