Especially good news that organisations like Canopy – a self-help, community housing project that renovates derelict houses to create decent homes for people that are homeless – are in on the conference.
Given that no-one knows where the money’s going to come from to build new affordable homes any more, it feels like a great opportunity for the Council to show proper civic leadership and bring the refurbishment of empty homes closer to the heart of its housing policy.
But first, how many properties are we talking about?
Since the council announced the conference was going to happen the figure that’s been bandied about as the number of private and public empty homes in Leeds is 15,883.
But that figure, which seems to have been picked up from a report in the Yorkshire Evening Post, refers to the situation in March this year. By August, the last time the Council gave an update, the number had gone up to around 17,000. It’s a rough figure because the Council doesn’t release precise numbers regularly, but updates a pretty imprecise graph on its website every now and then.
Here’s the latest version of the graph. You can click on it to see it better:
Just as important as the tall blue lines on the graph representing the overall number of empty properties are the purple one in the middle and the little white one down at the bottom. These show the number of private properties that have been empty for over 6 months (purple) and the number of council properties (white) empty for the same time.
Plenty to be going on with.
It’s worth noting that the number of council-owned empty properties – or “voids” as they like to call them – appears to have fallen quite a bit over the past two years. Who knows whether that’s because the properties have been refurbished by the council and brought back into use, passed on to an organisation like Canopy, or just demolished.
So what about that rethink?
On the right all the way down this post are clickable photos of boarded-up properties taken on a fairly random swing through parts of south Leeds a few weeks ago. Some are just empty. Many others have been condemned by the council as “obsolete” and are earmarked for the bulldozer as part of a “regeneration” programme.
They’ll be knocked down and grassed over or replaced by new-builds that will cost an arm and a leg and probably (if past regeneration efforts are anything to go by) won’t achieve the desired aim of improving the lives of the individuals and families living in the area.
Lest we forget, the track record of council-led housing regeneration/renewal in Leeds is not up to much: Quarry Hill, Seacroft, Little London, the Leek St flats, Holbeck Towers…
It speaks volumes that a large part of the £180m that’s being spent on the latest PFI regeneration project in the city is going towards regenerating areas of housing built by the council in the 60s and 70s in an earlier less than successful stab at renewal (that’s what they called regeneration in those days).
So, in this cash-strapped day and age, isn’t it time that the council – especially where it concerns Victorian and Edwardian terraces – finally gets rid of the obsession with demolition and new-build that it’s been clinging to for decades?
What if as a result of today’s conference Leeds council tried to find ways of helping loads of people and groups to do up empty houses in the areas where they live? What if the council began to see an empty terraced house as an asset that plenty of people would happily exploit – an unemployed person, a group of friends, a would-be DIY expert, a couple at risk of being made homeless… Anyone.
So, what if – as a start – the council gave away all its long-term empty properties?
What if it then made a serious effort to requisition as many long-term empty properties from the private sector as it could, paying the market price if it had to? What if it gave those houses away too or offered them at a peppercorn rent for refurbishment by people eager to learn new skills, find work or create a home?
Funnily enough, giving the houses away would be a cheaper and greener option than the traditional demolition/new build route. Earlier this year we worked out the unit cost of some new houses being built by the council on land in Beeston where several rows of terraces used to stand. When we factored in the costs of acquiring the terraced houses, paying compensation and demolishing them on top of the cost of the new construction, the total per house came out at £315,000.
So for every one new build you could bring at least 3 empty properties back into use. And give people an opportunity to make a real difference to where they live.
Go on, Leeds City Council. Be bold!