Should Local UK Councils Have Extra Powers For Empty Dwellings?

Earlier this month, Barcelona City Council fined a number of banks for having empty homes, but should councils be given additional powers to do this in the UK?

The banks fined in Barcelona had twelve empty properties on their books, which had been empty for more than two years. They were fined more than €60,000 by Ada Colau, the city's mayor, and a further 62 properties are being investigated.

Currently, councils do not have powers to be able to do this, but have limited powers to regulate certain kinds of behaviour, such as anti-social behaviour, with criminal sanctions.

In order for councils to fine property owners here they would need a form of devolved power to make specific laws. It is unlikely that this would happen as it would give powers to councils that they have not previously had and it is not clear that the problem that exists in Spain, necessarily exists here.

The banks in Barcelona, and Spain generally, have been repossessing properties and not selling them on due to the depressed property market there. The mayor has taken this action to pressure the banks into taking action.

The empty dwelling problem in the UK is not the same, as the housing market is relatively healthy at the moment and there is no incentive to delay sales; the causes are more complex and varied.

In order to impose criminal sanctions, similar to those adopted in Barcelona, the law would need to be changed. However, some local authorities are already giving financial penalties to deal with empty dwellings in the form of an increase in council tax (typically up to 150% of normal council tax) to encourage owners of houses that have been empty for 2 years or more to bring them back on to the market.

There are a number of other powers councils may use to combat this, such as Empty Dwelling Orders (not popular), Enforced Sale Procedure (if the owner is in breach of financial obligation to the council) and Compulsory Purchase (quite difficult procedurally and can be expensive).

But, are these methods effective in bringing empty housing stock back into occupation? The two most popularly used methods, Compulsory Purchase and Enforced Sale Produce, are not specifically designed to deal with this problem. Empty Dwelling Management Orders, which was intended to reduce the problem, is used much less often, which suggests that it needs to supplemented or replaced.

It seems that if councils are to have greater success in reducing empty properties within their area that more specific and tailored powers need to be granted to them.

Would a fining system, such as that used in Barcelona, be effective here? It is doubtful that it would be effective, as professional landlords are less likely to leave properties empty and those that are left empty are left so, not for financial reasons, but more as a result of the individual property owner's personal circumstances.

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