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SOLUTIONS FOR EMPTY COUNCIL HOUSES

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After the Conservative years, when councils hid the number of empty homes they had to protect their budgets from Wh...
After the Conservative years, when councils hid the number of empty homes they had to protect their budgets from Whitehall cuts, the true extent of the large number of empty houses is only now coming to light, according to The Guardian (Society, p8).

Around 767,000 houses are thought to be empty - more than 81,000 of them council houses, while 27,000 of them are owned by housing associations. But the problem is that the number of empty private homes is steadily falling while vacant council housing is rising.

Meanwhile, the Chartered Institute of Housing has published its own discussion paper, Low Demand for Housing, in an attempt to start addressing the problem.

It begins by stating the obvious - that (largely) northern areas have a surplus of public housing, whereas in the south demand often outstrips supply, although there are sitll difficult-to-let pockets.

The CIH points out that several authorities have recently discovered that a 'significant number' of tenants are now terminating their tenancies to move to the private rented sector further increasing the strain on the housing benefit budget.

Bob Lawrence, chief executive of the empty homes agency, thinks he knows one of the reasons why. With council housing often served by schools with a poor academic record, he says parents often move to another catchement area so that children can qualify for entry to better schools. 'Private landlords provide a choice,' he says. 'Councils usually don't.'

The other difficulty is that councils and housing associations are geared to long-term tenancies rather than serving a mobile population - which might become more pronounced, with a looming recession in the north an labour shortages in the south and east.

The discussion paper points to the dilemma facing the public housing sector. While it is difficult to justify spending more money on maintaining empty houses, a lack of investment invariably makes surrounding occupied properties difficult to let.

The paper argues that councils have to become more innovative. Newcastle upon Tyne, for instance - a city with two universities and a big student population - is now letting 4,000 furnished council houses.

Secondly, the CIH says the burgeoning private rented sector has to be brought under some control, with a licensing system to ensure basic standards. It makes no sense, they say, to have modern council homes lying empty while, alongside, tenants in the private sector are receiving housing benefit.

Third, councils and associations have to recognise that consumers on low incomes now have infinitely more choice. The council house, in short, is a turn-off for many. It will take some imaginative thinking to make it popular again.

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