David Ireland, Chief Executive of the Empty Homes Agency, came from London in February to talk to us on one of the coldest days of the winter. The two dozen souls who braved the ice and snow enjoyed an excellent talk and a lively discussion. The Agency is an independent charity set up some twenty years ago with governmental help. It exists as a focus for individuals and communities who are appalled at the number of homes known and seen to be empty while the Government is urging local authorities to build ever more dwellings.
David described some initiatives involving flats and houses - on a large scale in Liverpool. In Leeds, the Canopy Charity had taken on the renovation programme of a derelict block and over a period of time had renovated fifty dwellings. In another instance two people, one autistic and the other blind, formed a mutual partnership enabling them to lead useful lives in renovation work. More locally, a community organisation, Housing Action based in Saxmundham, operates across Suffolk and Norfolk. They are expanding rapidly and have recently brought one empty house into use in Ipswich. They are keen to develop more and would like to speak to landlords in Ipswich who have empty property.
There are many empty flats above shops, the owners of which (particularly those of national chains) are very reluctant to combine residential accommodation with retail use - something which was pioneered in Ipswich in the 1980s, at a time when grant aid had been made available. Local authorities do have certain powers when faced with long-term empty properties but are usually reluctant to use them because of the amount of officer time and the resultant costs involved.
The problem of surplus flats such as those on the Waterfront was discussed. An unusual solution was adopted by a developer who modified a block of existing two- or three-person flats into larger numbers of single person units and met a particular need. The Waterfront flats in Ipswich pose a different challenge. They are not in disrepair, although many are unfinished. The problem is there are too many for the size of the market here. Experience from elsewhere is that over time the market finds a solution. Owners are forced to reduce rents to a point that the market will accept. This resolves the vacancy issue, but may not be the end of the problem. In Leeds and St Helens where this has occurred, students and low-income households have moved in.
The buildings in these places were designed for light users and have not weathered well with heavier use. Management of the blocks has also proved unsuitable and anti-social problems have developed. A further consequence is the knock -on effects elsewhere in the local housing market. Students in Leeds have flocked to the new apartment blocks causing the private rented sector in traditional student areas to collapse. Similar problems could develop in Ipswich. Some people have already commented that the private rented market in Ipswich is fragile and a flood of new properties could reduce margins and viability for many existing landlords.
David also spoke about newly announced Government funding for Ipswich Borough Council to tackle empty homes. The Agency campaigned for this fund and persuaded the housing minister to include Ipswich as one of 17 recipients. The money is revenue intended to help the Council resolve the 500 empty flats on the quayside. Hopefully this may help to turn the empty property in Ipswich into an asset for the people who live in the town.
(1350 empty homes in Ipswich, 844 of which empty for more than 6 months. IBC brought 80 of these back into occupancy in the past financial year. Evening Star, 18 March 2010.)