9 Dec 2011

Are empty homes really a scandal?

This week we've been treated to a new housing campaign, launched on Channel 4. The problem — no, let's get this in perspective — the scandal of empty homes. George Clarke has been bestriding our screens examining what has been going down. From the bits I've seen, he has mostly been laying into the now discredited Pathfinder Policy of the last government, which sought to rip up old terraced streets up North and replace them with state-of-the-art, zero-carbon flats, or Yvettes, as they never quite came to be known.

You can trawl up and down Liverpool, Stoke-on-Trent or Sunderland and find really depressing looking wastelands of derelict and boarded-up housing estates. As Clarke kept pointing out, these could all be done up for.....well, it wasn't entirely clear how much. The key fact that he kept reiterating was that it was cheaper to do them up than it was to build new.

But the research from the Technology Strategy Board's Retrofit for the Future programme suggests otherwise. That is that if you are to create good homes fit for 2050 and our low carbon future, rebuilding may well be a more sensible and cheaper option.

Bringing these homes back to life would be expensive, however you go about it. And the fact is there may well be very little demand for these renovated or rebuilt homes in the private market. Liverpool, Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland — none of them are exactly setting the jobs market alight at the moment. Set against the demand for affordable homes in these towns, things look very different, but that's not a market demand which would lead to people come in and spend money on these houses in return for sensible financial return.

So juxtaposing the number of empty homes with the affordable housing demand may look compelling, but it's voodoo economics. The fact is there isn't enough money for affordable homes whether it's building new ones or doing up empty ones.

Which isn't to say that there must be some spots where terraces of empty homes could be given over to enthusiastic community selfbuilders to make of them what they will. David Ireland makes this point in his open letter.

But the truth is that there will still be one hell of a lot of empty homes in places where no one is ever going to find a sensible use for them. It's very sad, but I'm not sure it really counts as a scandal.


  1. Great post, as usual you make excellent points.

    It does seem to me to be a scandal that people are sleeping rough when there are empty houses, however imperfect, nearby. At the very least why not let people use them as basic shelter.

    However, here we bump into major planks of modern housing poilcy. Houses, we now believe, have got to be of a certain standard and this standard keeps on rising. Now this might well be desirable but is it realistic? Is there really enough money around to make that happen? Can we really expect 'them' to provide the right number of desirable, energy efficient houses? Has this ever been achieved anywhere, never mind in the middle of the worst economic mess for a lifetime?

    We might have to accept that most of the empties will never be brought close to current Building Regs standards but they can still be perfectly habitable. Many are probably as good or better than the day they were built (or could be with little effort).

    On the other hand can we expect any politician to say, even if it is true "..sorry guys, our regulations have made modern houses just too expensive - this is all we can afford now" Probably not but even long empty houses have to be a great deal better than cardboard boxes.

  2. Mark,

    Could you post a link to this TSB research? I'm surprised that you understand building a house anew to a high standard to be cheaper than refurbishing it to that same standard.

    My sketchy understanding from some of the Retrofit for the Future trials, and research previously commissioned by the GLA on bringing empty homes into use, is that the refurb costs could sit somewhere between £3-40k depending on the state of the home and the standard you try to meet. The top end of that range is still a lot lower than starting from scratch.

    V.interested to see your figures...


  3. Tom,

    You are the second person in two days to ask me about TSB "research." Perhaps I am guilty of phrasing it badly - I don't think any "research" has been published. It's more that I have garnered anecdotal evidence form various Retrofit For the Future projects where the typical spend has been over £100k. Or rather more than the cost of rebuilding.

    It does rather depend on what standard the refurbs are being carried out to, but with a zero carbon agenda going on side by side with the call to refurb empty properties, it seems churlish to say that they should be renovated to a lower standard than new build. £3k is a paint job. £40k is probably a sensible amount to spend on a refurb, but just how far would it get you?

    That was the research the TSB should have embarked on, but didn't. And the Green Deal misses it completely.

  4. Interesting, thanks. I've heard feedback from friends who have worked on projects like this one:

    My wife actually set that project up along with a few other refurb projects including a TSB RFF trial before she left that company, working with people like Parity Projects. My impression is that you're looking at up to £40k to cut energy use down by 70-80% for hard to treat homes that are otherwise in a reasonable state of repair.

    I can't see why an empty would necessarily push the cost up by too much extra, since self-help groups tend to bring them back into use for between £4k-15k depending on the kind and state of the property.

    I agree that the Green Deal is far wide of the mark, but I'm amazed to hear empty home refurbs costing upwards of £100k!

  5. yes this is true that empty rooms are really scandal.
    We might have to accept that most of the empties will never be brought close to current Building Regs standards but they can still be perfectly habitable.

  6. Building from scratch does costs less. Renovating a house creates much hassle and the design would not be appealing to everyone. A 10 year old house would never be worthy after the next 10 years.

  7. It becomes even more scandalous when you've got entire communities of empty homes. These empty houses should be put to good use.