Agenda item



Councillor Austin asked Councillor Whitehead the following question:



‘With rising rents and mortgage costs and a shortage of affordable homes, we all know many residents are struggling to keep a roof over their heads.

Meanwhile, we’re also aware we have empty homes in the District – and that the simplest, cheapest, most sustainable way to increase the housing supply is to make sure these are filled.

This council has had success in filling empty homes previously through the No Use Empty scheme. Could Cllr Whitehead please:

Update us on current estimates of how many empty homes in the District might be available for occupation (ie not including second homes, AirBNBs etc)?

Let us know what’s happening to get as many of these occupied as possible?

Tell us whether her administration plans to set targets for getting empty homes occupied?’


Councillor Whitehead responded with the following points:


·  Questions were frequently received and answered on empty homes, and it’s a topic which was explored at length on many occasions; and it is a very important issue, without doubt, but it was disagreed with regarding the assertion that bringing empty homes back into usage is the simplest and cheapest way to increase the housing supply; if that were true, Councils across the country would not be facing significant numbers of empty properties.

·  The key issue was the difference between private and public ownership, and the relative powers Councils have in relation to both. Empty properties within the councils portfolio can, and will be brought back into usage; the council had legal ownership, and could take action to make that happen.

·  In terms of ownership, the council currently had 11 properties that would be classified as empty properties. Seven of these are fire damaged; three are welfare units, and one is currently under consideration for future housing plans.

·  These properties can be brought back into use or already have future use, and the council would be acting to ensure that they fulfil a very necessary social use.

·  Properties owned by private individuals are not within the councils jurisdiction in the same way, and the councils powers are exceedingly limited in terms of direct actions that we can take to bring them back into usage; and the reason for the existence of empty properties is often not simple, frequently involving complex probate, issues of capacity, and illness. Lengthy multi agency approaches, often spanning years, are often necessary to bring even severely dilapidated homes into use; and a property in private ownership simply being empty, without linked dilapidation or significant social disruption, is not grounds to bring it into public hands, as they are considered private assets, with legal protections relating to that.

·  The key indicator for measurement here is the number of homes registered as unoccupied and unfurnished for more than six months on the Council Tax register. This overall figure is broken down into: under two years (953), two to five years (112), five to 10 years (40) and over 10 years (19). The combined number as of 03 July 2023 is 1,124. Empty homes undergoing structural alterations and major repairs are eligible for a 12-month discount, due to the importance of providing housing stock in good condition. There are 112 homes subject to such a discount. A further 315 properties have been left empty for more than six months for varying reasons, but primarily as they are awaiting probate, as referenced earlier. In total, the council believes that there are 1,551 long term empty homes that are of concern, and that we continue to monitor.

·  So, to recap, in total it was estimated that there are 1,551 properties that are currently long term empty, of differing duration; 1,540 of these properties are privately owned.

·  We do currently have a dedicated full time empty homes officer. Their role is to engage with the owners of empty homes to help them bring their properties back into use, with support via the No Use empty scheme. When the informal approach is unsuccessful, the council considers whether there are any appropriate legal powers that could be used to help bring about reoccupation. It should be noted, however, that it is not unlawful to own an empty home. We offer loans and support via No Use Empty to bring properties requiring work back into usage; this has been very successful. We have also previously increased Council tax on long term empty properties to up to three times standard rate, dependent on how long the property is empty; these all act as incentives to bring property back into use.

·  The councils target for the 2023/24 year is to help bring 120 long term empty homes back into use; our empty properties Officer works incredibly hard, and we will continue to support those efforts.

·  Although the overall number of empty properties is often quoted, it is also very worth noting that over the past 15 years our council has been the most successful local authority in the whole of Kent in terms of empty property interventions and in the number of homes brought back into use; this is a statistic that is often forgotten in these discussions.


Councillor Austin followed up her question by asking whether the council had any plans to explore whether it owned any properties which could be suitable for conversion?


Councillor Whitehead responded that there was an issue of sustainability of buildings that had been used for business. The council was looking at energy efficiency and sustainability. It was considered difficult to make these buildings energy efficient.