The benefits of having an empty homes officer are clear. In 2019, before Covid-19 struck, a record 1,412 long-term empty homes were brought back into use as a direct result of interventions by empty homes officers at local authorities across Scotland.
The need to tackle the problem of empty homes is also clear. A 16% increase in the number of long-term empty homes in Scotland in 2020 is part of the economic legacy of the pandemic. More homes became long-term empty as renovation work was put on hold and rental properties stood vacant. More homes remained long-term empty as people put off house moves and private sector landlords held back on further investment in the property market.
It was against this backdrop that the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, funded by the Scottish Government and hosted by Shelter Scotland, hosted our 10th annual conference with the theme of ‘Providing Homes, Helping Recovery’.
Housing Minister Kevin Stewart MSP opened the conference, reaffirming the Scottish Government’s commitment to tackling the problem of empty homes, before a wide range of experts spoke about the way the pandemic had transformed the empty homes landscape, the challenges and opportunities of the year ahead, and the achievements of empty homes services across the country.
There is no doubt that the pandemic has brought the shortage of sufficient social housing across Scotland into sharper focus, highlighting the lack of suitable housing and the large numbers of people in unsuitable accommodation. Presentations from the Vice President of COSLA and the National Policy and Advocacy Manager for Shelter Scotland, both emphasised the important role that bringing empty homes back into use has to play in addressing this shortfall and increasing the supply of suitable accommodation that is urgently needed to address the housing emergency.
At the same time, while the pandemic has impacted on the number of long-term empty homes, it also provides an opportunity to reimagine and revive town centres as people continue to reconnect and rediscover what's on their doorstep. Also, the scenery and sense of space that rural Scotland has to offer now has new appeal for people looking to make a permanent escape from city life. The conference looked at how empty homes can play a part in meeting this demand for something different post pandemic.
Looking wider than Covid-19, the conference heard how empty homes work was helping to rebuild and sustain communities in the Western Isles, how elsewhere in the UK, empty homes were being used to help victims of domestic violence transition to independent living, and how many Scottish councils are already using previously empty homes to provide good quality social housing to people at risk of homelessness. All of this demonstrated once more how bringing empty homes back to use can transform communities and improve lives through a step change in the way we deliver services to some of the most vulnerable members of our society.
We call on all councils to confirm their commitment to empty homes work in the coming year, to employ empty homes officers where they don't already have them, and to make bringing empty homes back to use a key part of their strategies to address the housing emergency and pandemic recovery.
Shaheena Din, National Project Manager, Scottish Empty Homes Partnership