Can George Clarke and C4 solve the housing problem by renovating empty homes?

How do you solve the empty homes problem? And with it, the housing problem? Call in a celebrity architect to front the cause.

Gorgeous George is not happy – he’s maybe not quite as unhappy as Jamie Oliver was about school slop, and he’s definitely no match for Joanna Lumley wailing  “Jai Mahakali, Ayo Gorkhali” but he’s quite miffed all the same.

Why? Because, as the PR for C4’s new property show reveals, almost two million British families are currently on the waiting lists for social housing, and thousands live in unsuitable temporary accommodation or are struggling with soaring rent payments.

Meanwhile, close to one million properties lie empty across the UK.

For The Great British Property Scandal season, Channel 4 (it says here) will investigate this conundrum.

Clarke argues that “the Government’s plan to build new homes is not necessarily the right approach,” and will advocate “more cost effective and efficient ways to utilize the properties that are currently lying empty.”

In line with this he will also lobby central government and local councils to commit to re-using empty homes across the whole of the UK.

We applaud the effort; we really do. And it is indeed a scandal that so many homes lie empty.  The more that get renovated the better.

But Halifax took a closer look at the stats a few years ago and showed that:

  • Yes, there are 1 million empty homes but the 17 English local authorities with the highest proportion of empty private homes are in the North of England with nine in the North West.
  • Fifteen of the 17 LAs with the highest proportions of empty private homes are amongst the 20 per cent most deprived areas in England, according to the CLG’s 2007 Indices of Deprivation.

So while George says building is not the answer, it’s worth remembering that this is not a simple numbers game. There are indeed lots of empty properties out there, but what we need is the right properties in the right places.

The Empty Homes Agency was set up way back in 1992 and still the problem persists.  They have many good suggestions – tax reforms, action on public property – on how to improve the situation (you can read them on the Empty Homes website).

But there are hard economic realities here – economic decline in the industrial north, and finding the finance to refurbish homes that are often in a very poor state ­–  that just won’t go away.

We applaud the effort to bring empty homes back into use; we’ll be watching the programme on Monday with interest and hope the campaign is a huge success.

We’re just not sure that it’s the answer to the housing crisis.


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