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‘Every emptiness is different – we need to analyse them then act’

Together we can create neighbourhood ecosystems of social enterprises supporting each other’.

‘Reviving whole areas, not just empty homes, and engaging community, business and local government stakeholders’

These are three of many insights from our recent Housing and Communities Network event on Empty Homes- Community Solutions –International Perspectives. Speakers introduced us to types of emptiness found in Southern Spain, rural Japan and inner city Hull and to the ways in which communities have worked together to turn empty homes into opportunities through neighbourhood social enterprises. Discussion linked us back to current policy issues in England including the need for an ‘ethical disposal policy’ by registered providers, continued local authority partnerships as recommended by the Action on Empty Homes report published in the week of the seminar, the need for greater attention to existing rented and empty homes within community-led housing strategies and a return to a more holistic urban renewal policy for older homes and neighbourhoods.

The English context for the seminar was introduced by David Mullins who recapped three policy eras in which empty homes were first (between 2002 and 2010) increased by demolition programmes that used shedloads of public money to empty them and compensate owners only for the money to run out before they could be demolished and replaced; second (between 2010 and 2015) seen as a key enabler for localism and the ‘big society’ as 100 ‘self-help housing’ groups secured £50 million of public funding to develop community-led solutions bringing 3000 bedrooms in empties into use and generating a wide range of community benefits; and third (after 2015) amidst worldwide acclaim for the above community solutions they were abandoned by central government but thankfully partially sustained by some local authorities such as Hull and Leeds.

The scope for community solutions to activate and use some of the 3.4 million empty homes in Spain was explored by Eva Morales Soler. She identified the importance of the municipal level action to address growing social vulnerability. In addition to examples from Seville, Barcelona and Sant Cugat in Spain she reflected on successful models from across Europe including Rotterdam. She introduced institutional programmes such as the Fundacion Habitat 3 programme from Barcelona and the recent radical public land transfers to cooperatives in that city, and the municipal empty homes programme in Seville. Her concluding analysis drew out some key elements required for municipal and local intervention strategies including securing leasing agreements with public and private owners and support for collective organisation to undertake repairs and bring the properties into short term use for a mix of uses according to local demand. ‘By activating empties we can activate cities’. Eva highlighted the very different contexts and possibilities provided by empty homes - ‘Every emptiness is different – we need to analyse them then act’.

Caroline Gore-Booth reflected on her role in Giroscope, one of the most successful ‘self-help’ projects in England which together with Canopy in Leeds, received a World Habitat Award in 2015. She has overseen the renovation of over 50 empty houses in one local neighbourhood in Hull to provide decent affordable homes for people in need; volunteering and training opportunities to help people from disadvantaged backgrounds move into employment.  Working in partnership with Hull City Council has enabled Giroscope to achieve continued neighbourhood transformation well after the national community grants programme ended in 2015. In the Boulevard Area of Hull there had been 96 empty properties empty over 6 months, the majority of them empty for 2-10 years. By 2019 there were only five empties there, as well as a community gardening project, numerous social enterprises and even a project to purchase and transform an empty Anglican Parish Church! Caroline introduced her next project, self-build housing at the back of Giroscope’s Offices at Coltman Street and her learning from a recent Winston Churchill Fellowship study visit to the US and Canada.  She reflected on the range of self-organised housing models she had visited and the scope to ‘create neighbourhood ecosystems of social enterprise supporting each other’.

Yoshinobu Kikuchi outlined the dramatic context of demographic shrinkage, low in-migration and rural depopulation in Japan where often responsible local authorities can see few alternatives to demolition of many of the 8 million homes now standing empty across Japan. Despite this unpromising scenario Yoshi provided a range of examples of how communities and students are being engaged to develop alternative uses for empties to revitalise areas and create new businesses. These include housing for migrants and locals, business and commercial space, local hubs and weekend homes. Community- led projects are growing but their reliability and capacity is affected by funding and local acceptance. Often successful projects depend on entrepreneurial individuals such as the lady returning to her home town of Onomichi who first restored an old wooden house for her family and  then stimulated and co-ordinated local community renewal through conversions into cafes, a gallery, a bakery, playground and an interaction hub for young people. Projects in Fukui have involved Yoshi’s own students working with community organisations to restore wooden homes for visitors to boost the rural economy. Another ambitious partnership engages a local authority, older residents and care providers to develop integrated community care models in neighbourhoods of emptiness and ageing. These projects are reviving whole areas, not just empty homes, and engaging community, business and local government stakeholders.

Jon Fitzmaurice summed up the key learning from the event: empty homes as an opportunity, revitalisation of neighbourhoods and communities as well as homes, partnerships with local government and other social businesses, creativity and empowerment through jobs and training. He chaired a lively discussion with the diverse network audience of academics and students, local government officers and councillors, local residents, registered providers, Action on Empty Homes, Power to Change and Birmingham Community Homes activists.  Discussion themes include the limits to community involvement in the absence of broader policy interventions in urban housing renewal, fuel poverty, poor PRS conditions and weak regulation, the cost and limits to compulsory purchase polices by local authorities, property disposals by registered providers and the need for more action on empty homes within community-led housing strategies.

There was detailed discussion of recent disposals of street properties at auction by larger registered providers. A local Handsworth resident highlighted the adverse impact this was having in her area. A speaker from Action in Empty Homes whose recent report highlighted the need for an ‘ethical disposals policy’ to ensure continued neighbourhood stewardship (as in North Ormesby where a CLT has bought properties from a large housing association to prevent further area decline.

A speaker from Power to Change highlighted the need for a broader focus for community led housing to include existing dwellings such as empty homes and poorly managed PRS properties.

The Hull example highlighted the importance of a pro-active local authority in enabling community led action to continue in the absence of central government funding. A Birmingham local authority speaker highlighted the commitment to work with Birmingham Community Homes as the local authority’s empty homes strategy 2019-24 is implemented.

The seminar was just the start of a fascinating week for David, Eva and Yoshi with a study visit to Birmingham City Council, and to community-led housing groups and local authorities in Leeds, Hull and Tees Valley. A separate report of their study visit will be posted shortly.