This blog looks at the scale of empty homes in Scotland and policy measures to tackle the problem.
How many empty homes in Scotland are there?
Council tax data is commonly used to measure the number of empty homes in Scotland. There are around 43,000 homes liable for council tax that have been empty for six months or more. Of these about 28,000 have been empty for 12 months or more.
While the number of homes empty for 12 months or more only represents a small proportion of Scotland’s homes (about 1%) there are higher concentrations of such homes in island and rural council areas.
As Figure 1 shows, the proportion of homes that have been empty for 12 months or more as a % of total homes rises to 3.6% in Na h-Eleanan Siar, 3.5% in the Shetland Islands, and 2.6% in the Highland Council area.
Figure 1: Long-term empty homes that have been empty for 12 months plus as a proportion of total homes by local authority
Source: Scottish Government Empty properties and second homes, September 2022. Scottish Government Housing statistics: stock by tenure 2020.
A previous parliamentary committee’s inquiry in 2019 into empty homes identified that areas of economic decline within a council area may also have problems with empty homes.
Long-term empty homes can reduce available housing supply which, particularly in rural areas, can be crucial to maintaining the local economy. Empty homes in poor condition can also have a negative impact on local neighbourhoods risking complications such as maintenance issues and antisocial behaviour.
Why are some homes empty?
Homes can be empty for a range of reasons. Sometimes they can be empty on a transitional basis, for example, when an owner is in hospital or when the owner dies. Or the owner may have moved but is finding it difficult to sell the home they left.
A common reason for homes to remain empty on a longer-term basis is that they need to be refurbished to make them habitable. Depending on an owner’s finances, such work might not be possible or take longer than anticipated.
Sometimes it can be challenging to identify who owns an empty property. In some cases, an owner can be difficult to contact or unwilling to take any action to bring it back into use.
What have the Scottish Government and councils done to tackle empty homes
The Scottish Government has implemented a range of policies to help tackle empty homes. Councils have flexibility as to how some of these policies are implemented.
The Scottish Government provides funding to the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, hosted by Shelter Scotland. The partnership provides advice and information and supports councils’ empty homes officers. Empty homes officers are employed by many councils and can, for example, help trace owners of empty properties, and provide owners with advice on letting, selling or renovating their home to bring it back into use.
Councils have powers to charge up to double the normal council tax rate for homes that have been empty for 12 months or more (or 24 months where the property is being actively marketed for sale). Scottish Government guidance encourages local authorities to use flexibility and discretion in applying additional charges given its intended purpose is to act as an incentive for owners to bring homes back into use. For 2022-23, 29 of 32 councils make use of the ability to charge double council tax for long-term empty properties in some way. Three councils do not make use of the power, offering a 10% discount or charging standard council tax on such homes.
Through its Affordable Housing Supply Programme, the Scottish Government can provide funding to councils, housing associations and other organisations to help them purchase existing homes to bring them back into use as affordable housing, where that is line with local priorities and local housing strategies.
Councils have compulsory purchase order (CPO) powers to purchase homes without the owner’s agreement if there is a strong enough public interest for doing so. Evidence to the previous committee inquiry identified that CPOs were used infrequently as a last resort measure and more commonly used for significant buildings contributing to area regeneration. Barriers to their use cited included the staff resources required to prepare a case for a CPO and potential upfront legal costs. During the inquiry, the Scottish Government encouraged councils, “…to consider using their powers pro-actively, when necessary and appropriate..”.
What is the Scottish Government planning?
In April 2021, the Scottish Government published its long term housing strategy Housing to 2040 which set out the following actions the Scottish Government would take to tackle empty homes:
- Work with local authorities to audit empty homes and determine those that should be brought back into use.
- Support the work of the Empty Homes Partnership and continue to roll out the approach across Scotland.
- Give councils the powers they need to regulate and charge owners appropriately for homes lying empty and ensure they have the mechanisms to bring them back into productive use.
- Create a support package for homeowners in trouble to help them stay in their home if that is right for them and to prevent homes falling into disrepair or becoming empty in the first place.
- Establish a new fund for local authorities to apply to in order to bring empty homes and potential empty homes back into residential use and convert suitable empty commercial properties in town centres.
In terms of implementation of these plans the Scottish Government has continued funding the Empty Homes Partnership.
The other plans will be considered after the audit of empty homes which is expected to be complete by summer 2023.
The Scottish Government has also said that it intends to introduce legislation later this parliamentary term to reform compulsory purchase order legislation. It will also consider the introduction of compulsory sales orders and how to ensure that those would be compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. Such orders would enable councils to require that homes that had been empty for an undue period be sold by public auction to the highest bidder.
What is happening in the rest of the UK?
The problem of empty homes exists in the other UK nations and there are some similar policy approaches along with some differences.
For example, in England and Wales councils can also charge additional council tax for long-term empty homes. In England, council tax-payers may be required to pay double the standard bill after two years; three times the standard bill after five; and four times the standard bill after ten years. In Wales, councils can charge double the standard council tax rate for homes that have been empty for a year or more, this will rise to 300% from April 2023.
Councils in England and Wales also have powers to use Empty Dwelling Management Orders although it appears these powers are used infrequently.
The Welsh Government has also, amongst other actions, established a fund remove the financial risk of councils taking enforcement action and more recently announced a national empty homes grant scheme for homeowners or prospective homeowners to make them liveable.
Kate Berry, Senior Researcher, SPICe
Featured image: SPICe