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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 the problem 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, a vicious circle can set in that scares investors away, worsening the problem.

These homes are wasteful eyesores and can attract squatters or become used for crime and antisocial behaviour. Bringing them back into use helps to improve an area's appearance and allows people in need to be housed.

Last October, Kent County Council launched an initiative to tackle the empty homes problem in the relatively deprived area of east Kent in partnership with the district councils. It was an unusual move for a county council since these bodies are not responsible for housing. But it feared that regeneration plans were at risk unless the number of empty homes was reduced.

The county has set up a 5 million capital fund to help bring some 9,000 homes back into use. Its annual plan sees this task as a priority. Every vacant property brought back into use reduces demand for new homes and takes pressure off land and infrastructure that has been imposed by government house building targets.

"Empty properties constitute a wasted resource that could provide homes as well as reduce the pressure for housing growth," says its strategy. "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."

East Kent is not the county of wealthy commuter villages, picturesque oast houses and plush suburbs. It is the Kent of faded holiday resorts, ports in decline 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.

With its "No Use Empty" slogan, the campaign raises awareness of the scale of empty homes and of the help available to owners. This includes free advice on how to bring homes into use and interest-free loans for refurbishment that some landlords might not otherwise be able to afford. Not all empty homes are owned by property speculators. The capital fund also allows the county to buy empty properties that are hampering investment.

The campaign coincides with the arrival of empty homes management orders, a power that lets councils take over long-term vacancies. Some of the advice to landlords concerns simple ideas of which they may be unaware. Homes in a less than pristine condition are still saleable because some people prefer to buy a wreck to refurbish. Housing associations may be willing to handle management for a fee if landlords do not wish to do this for themselves.

"East Kent has the 19 most deprived wards in the county," points out project manager Susan Pledger. "We want to bring in more investment to these areas. No Use Empty is a tool to encourage that because by dealing with empty homes we can make a direct impact." Boarded-up homes tend to be noticed due to rotted windows and peeling paint, she notes.

Although property prices in east Kent are low, they are rising in the expectation that High Speed One will dramatically cut travel times to London from 2009. Some owners buying homes as an investment either find that 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 in Dover, maintains that appearance is the key to successful regeneration. "You have the paradox of a large and successful port through which 15 million passengers in four million vehicles pass every year. But very few of them actually stop in Dover," he explains. "The town has more historic buildings and archaeology than Canterbury but a fraction of the visitors. This is because it suffers from a rundown appearance and empty homes do not help with that."

Local regeneration partnership Dover Pride wants to renovate the town centre so that people have a reason to stop and spend time there, says Hughes. The body also seeks to involve English Partnerships in investment because land values are too low at present for residential development on brownfield sites to be viable.

Dover is seeing some private investment. A major shopping development is planned for the town centre and the partnership wants to improve the area around Dover Priory station before the introduction of the faster train service. "The trains should bring investment but the appearance of the surroundings needs to be improved," Hughes argues. "No Use Empty helps because it can make a significant impact relatively cheaply."

In Margate, the local 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 the town round and attract residential investment on the back of the cultural faculties," says Margate Renewal project director Derek Harding.

Another major project is the redevelopment of the 8ha Dreamland amusement park site on the seafront, probably as a mixed residential and leisure project. But money shuns places that look blighted. "The number of properties that are vacant is a result of low incomes and low values and they are a visual blight on the area," says Harding, who works for Thanet Council but reports to a multi-agency board.

"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," he adds. "It is quite difficult because the majority of such houses are in private ownership. We cannot apply conventional improvement policies and we have to pick off eyesore buildings. No Use Empty allows us to do that."

NO USE EMPTY: KEY INCENTIVES

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

- Free advice on renovation, letting and management.

- Loans that help the conversion of redundant commercial property into housing.

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