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Kent aims to reuse housing
Planning – 5 January 2007

Planners in east Kent are employing various means of tackling the problems posed by vacant housing, reports Mark Smulian

Empty homes are usually seen as a housing issue, rather than a planning one.

But what if the scale of them blights an area so badly that it deters investment in regeneration projects?

If the number of empty homes becomes significant enough for people to notice them, a vicious circle can set in that will scare investors away, in turn worsening blight.

These homes are not only eyesores and wasteful, but can attract squatters, or become used for crime and anti social behaviour.

Bringing them back into use helps to improve the appearance of the area concerned and allows people in need to be housed.

Kent County Council launched an initiative in October to tackle the empty homes problem in the county's relatively deprived east, in partnership with district councils.

It was an unusual move for a county council, since these bodies are not responsible for housing, but Kent found its regeneration plans were at risk unless the number of empty homes was reduced.

The county put its money where its mouth was too, with a 5m capital fund to help bring some 9,000 homes back into use.

Kent's annual plan say bringing empty homes back into use is a priority because "empty properties constitute a wasted resource that could provide homes as well as reduce the pressure for new housing growth.

"Stimulating empty property work across Kent contributes to regeneration objectives, creating a virtuous circle by bringing people to live in our town centres and thus acting as a catalyst for further investment in facilities such as restaurants, bars and shops," the plan says.

Every empty home brought back into use reduces the demand for new homes, and so reduces the pressing demands made on Kent's vacant land and infrastructure by the government's housebuilding target.

Get this right and everyone wins - planners, homeowners, new occupants and regeneration managers.

East Kent is not the Kent of wealthy commuter villages, picturesque oast houses and plush suburbs.

It is the Kent of faded holiday resorts, declining ports and a former coalfield.

The partner districts involved are Dover, Shepway, Swale and Thanet, all of which have pockets of serious deprivation within their boundaries. Using the slogan 'No Use Empty', the campaign raises awareness of the scale of the empty homes and of the help available to owners.

This includes free advice on how to bring their homes into use, and interest-free loans for refurbishment, which some landlords might not otherwise be able afford. Not all empty homes are owned by property speculators.

No Use Empty has coincided with the arrival of empty homes management orders, a new power under which councils can take over long-term empty homes. Kent's campaign might be seen as the carrot set alongside this 'stick'.

Some of the advice to landlords concerns simple ideas of which they may be unaware, for example that homes in a less-than-pristine condition are still saleable since some people prefer to buy a 'wreck' to refurbish, and that housing associations may be willing to handle management for a fee if landlords do not wish to do this for themselves.

The capital fund also allows Kent to buy empty properties that are hampering investment.

Project manager Susan Pledger explains: "In east Kent we have got the 19 most deprived wards in the county.

"We want to bring in more investment to these areas and No Use Empty is a tool to encourage that because by dealing with empty homes we can make a direct impact."

She says that not every empty home is boarded up, but they tend to be noticeable because of rotted windows and peeling paint.

Although property prices are low in east Kent, they are rising partly on the expectation that the Channel Tunnel high speed link will dramatically cut travel times to London from 2009.

Therefore some owners buy homes as an investment and either find they cannot get tenants, or simply leave them vacant and borrow against their rising value. Either way, they are empty and a problem.

David Hughes, the county council's project manager for Dover, says the appearance is key to successful regeneration.

"You have the paradox of a large and successful port, with 15m passengers a year in 4m vehicles, but very few of them stop in Dover, and indeed at the moment you might not wonder at that".

Dover Pride, the local regeneration partnership, wants to "uplift the town centre so that people have a reason to stop and spend time there," he says.

"It has more historical buildings and archaeology than Canterbury, but a fraction of the visitors because it suffers from a rundown appearance and empty homes don't help with that."

The partnership wants to involve English Partnerships in investment because at present land values are too low for residential development to be viable on brownfield sites.

There is some private investment. A major shopping development is planned for the town centre and the partnership wants to improve the appearance of the area around Dover Priory station ahead of the faster train service.

"The new trains should bring investment, but the surroundings need an improved appearance," Hughes says.

"No Use Empty helps because it can make a significant impact relatively cheaply."

Derek Harding, project director of Margate Renewal, works for Thanet Council but answers to a multi agency board.

Margate's regeneration strategy is based around the arts, in particular the Turner Contemporary Gallery.

Alongside this flagship project, the partnership has plans to revive the town's historic core as a cultural quarter with galleries and studios.

"We want to turn round the town and attract residential investment on the back of the new cultural faculties," Harding says.

Another major project will be the redevelopment of the 20 acres of the former Dreamland amusement park on the sea front, probably as a mixed residential and leisure project.

But money shuns places that look blighted. Harding says: "The number of properties vacant is to do with low incomes and low values, and they are a visual blight on the area.

"The key is to get owners to bring them back into use, but we are dealing with some of the most deprived areas in the south east.

"It is quite difficult because the majority are in private ownership, so you cannot apply conventional improvements policies, and we have to pick off eyesore buildings. No Use Empty allows us to do that."

No Use Empty offers:

Interest-free loans of up to 25,000 per home for refurbishment of properties empty for longer than six months.

Free advice on renovation, letting and management.

Loans to convert redundant commercial property to housing.

Purchase by Kent County Council of empty homes that deter investment in the adjacent area.