The UK is currently in the midst of a housing crisis. One in three young people my children’s age will never own their own home. 79,000 households (including 123,000 children) are stranded in temporary accommodation. Worse still, at least 5,000 people a year have no roof over their head at all. This is at a time when more than 216,000 homes across the UK have been empty long-term.
It is easy for the human cost to be hidden by figures, but as I frequently point out: the housing crisis is a human crisis. A human crisis with explicit political solutions.
Politicians have a moral obligation to help solve this crisis, and one part of the process must be bringing empty properties back into use. Of course, we must build more homes - 300,000 per year to be precise - but bringing empty properties back into use is an excellent way in the short-term to help families in desperate need of a home, whilst saving valued green belt land from development. Equally, by bringing empty homes back into use, we can help regenerate struggling communities. After all, regions with the highest number of vacant dwellings are often also the areas that have been left behind in terms of economic growth.
Last year was the first year since the recession that the number of empty homes in England did not decrease. This is unsurprising. Tory Government cuts to local authorities hamper their enforcement capabilities. All dedicated empty homes investment programmes, programmes that my colleagues in Coalition fought tooth and nail for including my predecessor in Bath Don Foster, were severed in 2015. It was a 2010 Liberal Democrat manifesto promise to reduce the number of empty homes by 250,000, and that is something they delivered in Coalition and can be incredibly proud of.
It is clear something must be done. The Liberal Democrats strongly supported the calls to double the council tax on empty homes, but now we have gone one step further. Yesterday in the House of Lords, the Liberal Democrat amendment, which increases council tax the longer you leave it empty, has been adopted and passed by Parliament. There are of course exemptions, for example where a resident is in residential or nursing care or when a member of the armed forces serves overseas for long periods. These premiums on council tax are not statutory. Councils have the flexibility to apply them or not.
However, we must not stop there. It is vital this Government reinstates dedicated funding programmes to ensure local authorities can bring empty properties back into use, whilst giving them tougher powers to implement this. Government departments must also be held to account. Last week it was revealed the Ministry of Defence have been accused of stockpiling 10,000 empty homes. The Government must practice what it preaches and ensure its own house is in order if they are serious about getting people off the streets.
The housing crisis acutely affects the young and most vulnerable in our society. Empty homes must be brought back into use if we are to have a real positive impact on people’s lives.