Tackling the increase of empty properties through proactive engagement

The number of long-term empty homes has increased in the Braintree district by 46% over the past 3 years. This is during a time of critical housing need locally and the supply of safe, affordable, high-quality housing being a top priority for the council to meet current and future resident needs. Braintree District Council is working to engage proactively with homeowners to address the issue of empty homes and bring more into use wherever possible.

The challenge

2,647 empty homes were identified in the Braintree district in September 2023, with 1,016 being empty for six months or longer and unfurnished and unoccupied. 

Whilst empty homes is a national issue, Braintree District Council was keen to invest more resource into bringing empty properties back into use, focussing on privately owned homes that are long term empty and that have been empty for at least six months, are unoccupied and unfurnished (as well as second homes and furnished empties).  Empty properties are a wasted resource for the community at a time where demand for housing is so high and can potentially become targets for vandalism and anti-social behaviour.

This work follows resident feedback showing 80 per cent of respondents in the council’s Healthy Housing Strategy consultation in 2023, rated 'reducing the number of empty properties in the district by exploring options to bring them back into use' as important to them.  

The solution

The Council recruited a dedicated Empty Homes and Private Rented Sector Officer in April 2023 to support and lead on a coordinated, resilient approach to tackling empty homes through the development of a new Empty Homes Policy. This policy was recently adopted in February 2024 supported by the council’s cabinet in order to reduce the number of long-term empty properties and help increase the usable housing stock in the district to help ensure everyone can live in a home that meets their current and future needs. 

As part of this proactive work, an internal Empty Homes Working Group has been established to encourage cross-departmental working across the council. The group includes involving environmental health, housing, planning and council tax teams, utilising insight data to drive forward collaborative working and actively target empty buildings and proactively source case studies to promote the council’s approach so residents can see first-hand the positive impact this support can have. 

The council is issuing a set of engagement letters to homeowners setting out its ambitions to assist homeowners of empty properties to bring them back into use.  The aim is to understand individual circumstances and outline the benefits of renovating (to bring back properties into use) such as VAT reductions. An information pack has been produced providing advice on renovating, letting, or selling properties, VAT discounts, conversion of premises and how to improve the energy efficiency of buildings. 

A Landlord Incentive and Tenancy Sustainment Scheme is also being piloted to support eligible residents to access good quality and affordable homes in the private rented sector. A Tenancy Sustainment Officer has been in post since November 2023 and households/families have already been supported to access private rented sector accommodation or to remain in their existing private rented sector accommodation. Other households/families are currently in the final stages of being supported to access private rented sector accommodation and the Tenancy Sustainment Officer is working with many more households to offer support. 

Enforcement action will be taken to return empty properties to use, but only if it is necessary. As part of its budget plans, from April 2024 changes will be made on the council’s 100 per cent empty property premium for certain empty properties, from two years to one year, as well as introducing a 100 per cent premium on second homes, subject to certain exemptions, from 1 April 2025. 

The impact

With this dedicated resource, the council can work more collaboratively with partners, including local housing associations who now own the council’s housing stock, to understand conditions of empty homes and encourage their use.

Since issuing the first batch of engagement letters to empty property owners, several owners have contacted the Empty Homes Officer and proactively engaged.

Lessons learned

Insight from other councils has helped develop the council’s initial strategy to tackling the issue, with a focus on taking a proactive voluntary engagement approach with homeowners and building up support and resources to enable them to look at options available to them to return their property to use. This has worked well in the Braintree district so far, rather than taking a harsh enforcement approach. 

Further information

Please see Braintree council's empty homes website for more information.