JUST outside the small market town of Crieff is a beautiful valley that stretches westwards following the course of the River Earn. Glen Artney is the sort of place many people dream of living in.
In fact, it’s exactly the type of out-of-the-way spot that John Macdonald has his heart set on settling down in, so when he was out mountain biking with his wife one Sunday and saw a derelict Victorian farmhouse in the glen, it was love at first sight. It was exactly the sort of project he’d been looking for.
“I contacted Drummond Estates because this ruin was on their land, and asked whether they would be interested in selling me the house,” says Macdonald. “But they said they weren’t interested, that they had a programme of renovation in place for all the empty houses on the estate and would eventually get around to this one.
“But the interesting thing was that after that day I began to notice all the other empty farmhouses in the area. There are so many, it seems there’s one in every other field and there are some estates that have loads but where there’s little or no evidence of any being done up. These are often beautiful old houses that fit in with the landscape and should be preserved.
“It’s particularly galling because family houses are at a premium around here and rural houses like these are particularly difficult to find.”
Mike Aldridge, the factor for the 60,000-acre Drummond Estates, which stretches from Crieff to Callander, says the estate is busy renovating as many houses as it can afford each year. “Our policy for the past 20 years has been to restore houses using traditional techniques to protect the local vernacular,” he says. “When I came here there were about half a dozen houses rented out, now that number is nearer 60. We’re doing up another two this year and have half a dozen more to go after that, although I suppose it does rather depend on how you define houses that are worth renovating.”
When I asked Aldridge about his neighbouring estates, he was understandably less forthcoming. Little wonder, because for some other Perthshire estates the definition of houses which are ripe for renovation and rental is easy: it’s “none”. The reasons vary from a lack of money for capital expenditure or an unwillingness to break up the territorial integrity of the estate to a belief that development might lessen the chances of getting planning permission for a wind farm. Not that it’s just big, rural estates which fight shy of renovating or renting their properties: there are also many individuals owning just one long-term empty house for reasons that vary from an inability to sell, the property being left empty as an investment until prices rise, working abroad, or a sentimental attachment to a childhood home.
The problem of empty homes has been vexing policy-makers and slowly working its way up the political agenda. According to Scottish Government figures, there were more than 71,000 long-term empty or unoccupied homes in Scotland as of last September (there are 662,105 in England and 25,000 in Wales). Despite this, Kristen Hubert of the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership estimates there are now “160,000 households stuck on waiting lists” for accommodation because of a chronic slowdown in the rate of house building.
“Bringing as many empty homes as possible back into use should be an urgent priority,” says Hubert. “It won’t solve the problem of homelessness on its own, but there are enough of these homes in both rural and urban areas that a concerted effort will have a significant impact.”
Although the situation is at its comparative worst in rural areas such as the Borders, Argyll, Aberdeenshire, Highland, Moray, Dumfries and Galloway, the islands, and Perth and Kinross, the situation is now worsening in cities too. In Edinburgh, where 4,500 families are registered as homeless and a further 25,000 more are on the EdIndex waiting list, a recently launched scheme has seen the council contacting the owners of empty homes urging them to let their properties through the council. Under this scheme the council will manage the property and guarantee the payment of rent and return of deposit.
If the carrot is in evidence, so too is the stick. Tim Jays, a spokesman for the Scottish Government’s housing minister Keith Brown, says there are plans to increase the council tax on empty homes to a punitive 200 per cent of the standard amount (at the moment, empty homes incur no council tax charge for six months before rising to a 50 per cent charge for the second six months and 90 per cent thereafter). These proposals are about to be tabled to Holyrood, with Shelter Scotland arguing that the money should immediately be reinvested in renovating currently empty buildings.
“The proposals we consulted on would allow the doubling of council tax on long-term empty homes,” says Jay, who is at pains to stress that councils would have discretion over whether or not to levy the extra charge (a cynic might argue they would automatically charge full whack). “We are currently considering the results of that consultation and will move forward with the Bill shortly,” he says.
The Scottish Government is also stepping up its commitment to the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership with a grant of £67,000 to fund extra empty homes officers, although £20,000 of that is to be used to part-fund two empty homes officer posts to be shared by five councils in the south and east of the country. This compares with total spending of £70m south of the Border, money which will be used to fund 95 projects aimed at bringing more than 5,600 English properties back into use.
With a statutory duty to house the homeless and councils desperate to increase their stock of taxable homes, it is easy to see why the Scottish Government is so keen to bring empty houses back into use, even if it can only ever be part of the solution to homelessness. The Empty Homes Agency in England has estimated that it costs between £6,000 and £25,000 to refurbish an empty home (which means they have yet to meet any builder I know), whereas the cost of building a new home is £100,000.
If the endgame is simple, the means to get there are less certain. Although the listing system for buildings of “special architectural or historical merit” has always allowed for compulsion, there remains a rightful reticence when it comes to forcing people to sell their property. That, however, is breaking down and, while Jay says there aren’t currently any specific powers to force people to rent empty homes, there are provisions in the Housing (Scotland) Act 2006 which councils can use to require owners to carry out renovation work in certain circumstances (this applies to occupied homes as well as empty ones).
Compulsion does, however, work. In Carlisle, the council started aggressively targeting the owners of long-term empty houses, with compulsory purchase the final option. It is an approach that has met with some success.
As Carlisle’s environmental health officer Amelia Mandle says: “At any one time we have 30 or 40 properties on a hit list for enforcement action because their owners have not been carrying out any work and ignoring our letters. The city’s authorities also use an empty dwelling house management order, which gives officers the power to take control of a property where an owner has refused to take action for seven years.”
Combined with the appointment of an empty homes officer, the policy saw a five-fold increase in the number of homes being brought back into use, with 93 in the city in the last six months alone.
The general approach in Scotland has revolved around providing incentives rather than sanctions. South Ayrshire Council, for instance, is taking forward an Innovation Fund project (the Scottish Government is contributing £414,000) to provide loans to empty home owners to allow them to carry out repairs to their properties and make them available to the council for use as affordable housing. Several other councils are also looking at setting up similar loan funds.
If you’re looking for proof that such an approach can work then look no further than Culross or the East Neuk. Now quaint, pristine little villages, the whitewashed facades of Culross and the coastal villages of Fife would be an ancient memory were it not for the efforts of the National Trust of Scotland’s Little Houses Improvement Scheme, which over the past 50 years has restored more than 200 empty, traditional houses plus whole streets which were on the verge of becoming derelict.
A fund which started with just £20,000 (one half from the NTS and the other half from the Pilgrim Trust) has now spent £2m and saved iconic buildings such as The Study by the Mercat Cross in Culross. By selling all of the “little houses” it restores, the Little Houses Improvement Scheme is able to roll over any profits from the sale and renovate more houses. From a standing start in Fife, villages and towns throughout Scotland, such as Dunkeld, have benefited from the scheme.
It would be a welcome relief were the Little Houses to be the way of the future, with the private, public and charity sectors working in perfect harmony to protect our built environment and provide accommodation for a good chunk of our most vulnerable fellow citizens. But back in the real world, that is unlikely to work on its own, so it’s back to the application of the carrot and the stick. «
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Tuesday 21 May 2013
Temperature: 6 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 13 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: West