Edinburgh’s wasted homes

The City Council needs to get its act together on empty homes. A friend of mine lives in an average flat in an average tenement in Edinburgh. He has lived there since 1989. In all the time he has lived there the flat opposite has been empty. Or, not quite empty, but occupied by the owner – who lives abroad – for 2 weeks a year, usually at Festival time. My friend has mused that, if, instead, the flat had been rented out, the owner could have afforded to take a luxury suite at the Balmoral Hotel for those two weeks with the rent he received.

That is how irrational empty homes are. Of course, over those fifteen years the property will have increased in value two or three-fold, simply by sitting empty. That is why, as I have argued elsewhere, we need land value taxation.

But it is not just my friend’s phantom neighbour. The irrationality is widespread. In Edinburgh, according to a recent Bank of Scotland survey, there are 10,000 empty homes. While some of them will be owned by social landlords, the majority will be privately-owned.  The last Post Census Vacant Dwellings Survey showed that Edinburgh had more private sector empties than anywhere else in Scotland, while, according to the Council Tax database, almost 600 private sector homes have been empty for more than a year.  And that is in a city where 25,000 people are on the housing list and 4,600 were accepted as homeless last year. Indeed, such are the housing pressures in the capital that we have displaced thousands of families to west Fife, in search of more affordable housing. That evacuation and the consequent commuter demands, more than anything else, explains why Scotland is contemplating lavishing £2.3 billion on yet another road crossing of the Forth.

So, faced with such pressures, I imagined that the city council would be making serious efforts to bring empty homes back into use. In October 2007, my Green councillor colleague, Steve Burgess, brought a motion to the Council requiring the city to adopt an empty homes strategy; instead, all we have had is a very limited annual report to the Health, Social Care and Housing Committee.

The Council Tax database relies on property owners to declare a property empty.  So a number of Scottish councils have signed up to a new website organised by Shelter and the Empty Homes Agency. The website allows members of the public to report an empty home to council staff. I would have thought that the City Council would have welcomed this additional source of information. But, it turns out that Edinburgh has not signed up. This reeks of complacency about a valuable potential resource. It also represents lost revenue from council tax since long term empty homes attract a council tax discount of between 10-50%.

It seems that, on empty homes, the City Council is determined to see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.

That complacency is not acceptable. I’ll be talking to my councillor colleagues about what we can do to inject some urgency into empty homes work in the city and, if I am elected as a Green MSP in May, I’ll want to explore what additional powers or strategies might help more properties to be brought back into use.

And if Edinburgh wants any help, it could ask Brighton and Hove Council for tips. The city council there has an excellent empty homes strategy which has resulted in hundreds of private sector homes being returned to use. The fact that Brighton and Hove has a growing group of 13 Green councillors and hosts the UK’s first Green MP, Caroline Lucas, may be pure coincidence.

About Alison Johnstone MSP

Alison is a Green MSP for Lothian. In what spare time she gets she's a keen runner.