Empty homes, vacant stats and a bugbear

Happy new year! And don’t the Liberal Democrats know how to celebrate, with a widely reported press release calling the number of empty homes in the UK a “scandal”.

Now, I’m not party political in this blog. Yes, I spend a fair amount of time critiquing the government, but that is because they are the government. They are the ones able to see their policies come to fruition on a national scale, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that I want to look at that. But something caught my eye in the Lib Dem release, something that gets my goat every time I see it, no matter which organisation it comes from.

Let’s get on the same page first- using some simple language. Empty homes aren’t great and bringing them back into use is a good thing. I don’t disagree with the main conclusion of the release, that Councils need further powers to bring empty homes -the vast majority of which are privately held- back into use. However, when you actually dig into the data, there is some richness that has been missed and indeed some uncomfortable truths about where empty homes are that means policy directed only at solving this may not be completely successful.

Others have quite rightly pointed out that the numbers seem large, until you compare them with the total national housing stock, or indeed the numbers of new net homes the country actually requires. I’m not going to repeat those unnecessarily, but they are important points to make. Every single long term empty home could be brought back into use without making a really significant dent in the ongoing housing need for the country.

What I really want to talk about is the relative size of local authorities and why it makes comparing overall numbers particularly pointless. The press release goes into detail of the areas with the highest number of empty homes, citing Durham, Leeds, Bradford and Cornwall as the areas with the most empty homes. That may be true, of the places that replied. But what that doesn’t understand is that local authorities have huge differences in population and numbers of dwellings. So comparing absolutes for these areas is bound to lead to larger areas having more of a wide variety of variables.

I’ll put it another way. Let’s say I run a cat charity. I want to put out a press release saying which area is the “most cat loving”. So I write to the cat department of every local authority asking them how many homes have cats in the area. I dutifully get the answers back, put them in a spreadsheet and what do you know, the “most cat loving areas” are Birmingham, Leeds, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Liverpool. Why is that? Because they are the local authority areas with the biggest populations and number of households.

So one area has a higher number of empty homes than another, but what does that mean? Are we to expect to see more empty homes if we take a walk around the streets? Of course not, if there are 3 times the number of empty homes, but the authority is 10 times as large, then it looks to me like public policy is better focused on the smaller area.

So, in my opinion, what the authors of the press release should have done is work out the proportion of empty homes compared to the number of dwellings in the area. I don’t know why they didn’t; the figures are freely available for England, Scotland and Wales. I do know it takes about 2 hours to manually copy and paste them across into the spreadsheet, because that’s exactly what I did.

Here’s my version of the press release statistics, with sheets reordering the list of local authorities based on the proportion of vacant homes and the proportions of 5 year and 10 year vacant homes. This makes for some much more interesting and frankly depressing reading.

The 10 areas with the highest proportion of empty homes are:

Screenshot 2018-01-04 at 2.12.52 PM

And here is the proportion at 5 years:

Screenshot 2018-01-04 at 2.13.30 PM

And here it is at 10 years:

Screenshot 2018-01-04 at 2.14.10 PM

I’m not quite sure what is happening in Wycombe and Chiltern (this might be related to the law of small numbers), but the rest of the list looks somewhat familiar. All the original “big four” have dropped out apart from Durham and that looks in keeping with what could be an actual issue. Scottish, Northern, Welsh, Midlands, former strong working communities now de-industrialised, towns not cities, with relatively low house prices dominate the lists.

It is almost like the proportion of empty homes is a symptom of another problem rather than something that can be solved in isolation. So going on about empty homes in isolation might not be the best thing to do, when the issue might well be depopulation and corresponding low house prices.

The other thing to repeat is look at how small those figures are. Outside of Shetland (which will be an outlier due to its tiny overall size and living conditions) the areas with the highest proportion of empty homes after 10 years is less than one in 300. Yes, people get very upset if that one in 300 (or less) happens to be next door to them, but we do need a bit of perspective when thinking about policy.

This puts the over-simplified conclusion of the Lib Dem release under some doubt. If empty homes are a blight and a waste (and they are!) then the areas with the highest proportion of them must be the areas with the biggest proportions of blight and waste. But perhaps what is required is not just Councils taking over empty homes, but wider and more thoughtful approaches to improve the economy of those areas and give empty homeowners a reason to want to bring them back into use.

There’s a couple of other flaws with the release, the most major being that a large number of Councils aren’t included. Both Manchester and Birmingham (Councils, not the whole conurbations) manage to not be included in the release, most likely as a result of not getting the FOI response back before the Lib Dems wanted to issue it. Sure, that can only increase the overall number of empty homes, but it can change the overall proportion of homes and looking at the government’s figures suggests that Manchester especially has an interesting (and positive) story to tell about bringing empty homes back into use.

Which brings me onto the final point of concern about the release, which is the over-reliance on looking at Empty Dwelling Management Orders (EDMOs) on bringing empty homes back into use. The Lib Dems have actually asked Councils how many homes have been brought back and how many EDMOs they have used. The only thing that they have reported is the proportion of Councils using EDMOs. When you actually look at their own figures, what you see is that areas like Leeds (although be careful about proportions rather than overall numbers!) and Newcastle are bringing the most empty homes back into use and they are doing it without significant use of EDMOs!

Clearly, if the press release authors wanted to look at bringing empty homes back into use, if they really wanted to understand what worked and what didn’t then they might have asked the areas doing best what was happening. I’m sure (in fact, I know) both of the Councils in these cities have been trying very hard to bring down the numbers. But at least part of the answer might lie in the fact that both these cities have inward investment, public and private and improving economies.

Which takes us back to the earlier point- perhaps what this data is showing us is the solution to empty homes is found in improving the wider economy of de-industrialised areas, particularly towns, as well as individual measures on housing.

Please please please Letwin get what I want

It would be the first time. So, are we all enjoying the post-budget lull? It is quite possible that Philip Hammond will be off our TV screens for a little while (at least on things relating to his brief) as the world returns to worrying about Brexit.

In my previous post about the budget I tried to outline why I would be concerned about any policies announced that would have a long lead in time. Frankly, I’m worried the government, in its current iteration, won’t last long enough to bring in the longer term policies it announces.

So the news that a major part of the “housing budget” will be another review into turning planning permissions into homes, this time chaired by Sir Oliver Letwin, is a particular worry. It has been given a short period to assemble and write up its conclusions, with the demand that it should have published the results by the Spring Statement (March 2018).

Even then, it looks like a tall order for the government to stay in its current guise. Who knows what might happen in the next few months and, as experience has taught me, I won’t be celebrating any positive policy changes until they are enacted or implemented.

Of course Sir Oliver won’t have to necessarily commission new bits of research, he could just look into what has already been proposed and choose some options. He could look at the Barker Review, the Calcutt Review, the Lyons Review, the most recent Parliamentary briefings on housing supply, their own white paper and the Farmer Review, looking into skills shortages and demographic change. Plus plenty of others (feel free to tell me your favourite!).

Indeed, Sir Oliver has a veritable smorgasboard of options available to him. What needs to happen is for the government to actually take some of them and implement them. Which is where the problem lies.

For the government seems very keen to offer further demand measures whilst not really combatting the need for supply. Put simply the government’s approach since at least Eric Pickles’s days has been to force councils to release more sites whilst posturing and taking tough to housebuilders whilst doing very little to change the market to strongly incentivise or directly create steel toe capped boots on the ground. This has led to the situation where developers have lots of options on which site to choose, but no time or incentive to actually build much faster than they are already.

This approach was evident once again in the budget, with limited support for council building (£1bn seems like a lot of money but it spreads very thinly over the country) and lots of loan underwriting and guarantees. As if all housebuilders need is the final push to get them over the line on individual sites. If only they had share issues or assets they could borrow against.
It’s actually been a common point of my last few posts- political will is required to move beyond this and that means deciding to directly impact some negatively in order to help others. It’s as true with unrepentant city centre drivers as it is with housebuilders.

Trying to capture and reinvest land value uplifts (which is rather popular at the moment) would stop those who have land to sell from receiving the full market price. Robust compulsory purchase order powers (or use it or lose it), joint partnerships or new homes corporations will take business and/or profits away from existing housebuilders. Reducing house prices (however that is achieved) or reducing the rate of growth of house prices would impact people who already own homes.

Indeed, what the government seems incredibly shy of is actually using an arm of the state to directly build homes at scale. Yes, local authorities have been very adept at setting up joint ventures and yes, the government has some small scale schemes like the accelerated construction scheme. But at present these don’t add up enough to a significant market intervention. More funding, especially to cover start-up costs (you’d hope building would be self-funding quite quickly) are required in order to allow one bit or another to build at scale in a way that competes with existing developers.

There’s a word for this kind of decision making. That word is politics. Politicians are accountable to us as voters, but that isn’t the same thing as them needing to please each individual person by each individual decision.

So Sir Oliver, and by extension the government, don’t have to venture very far to solve the particular puzzle of increasing housing supply. Indeed, they have everything they need.

What they want to do, and what they are struggling to find is a way is to achieve, is creating supply without upsetting anyone else, particularly existing homeowners, landowners, landlords or those whose supposed purpose is to build houses on land. But in the real world that is very often simply necessary. It’s a puzzle of their own making, in their own heads and if they could see beyond it they would be able to deliver positive changes.

We’ve come full circle in a way. The government need to make a decision; they have the policy options laid out infront of them. But choosing not to choose is about the worst thing they can do. More delays and half measures make building the right homes in the right places at the right prices significantly more difficult.

Paint, power, priority and priorities

It’s amazing what a lick of paint will do in the right place. I say this partly because our kitchen could do with a refresh and partly because of the launch of the King Street pilot in Toronto.

In the pilot King Street is seeing a huge priority shift in favour of public transport, with cars only able to use it for short (ie. one block) periods before having to move off. This leaves the rest of road free for public transport. The early results show large drops in commute times for public transport users, although there is much more time to see if this continues.

So there you have it, new roads or rail aren’t necessarily required to improve public transport travel times. Just change the roads around to favour whatever public transport is already using the streets. So why aren’t we seeing similar approaches tried everywhere? Well, to get into that we have to look at what it would mean and what the political risks are.

But let’s first have a think about why this is important. Many of our city centres are clogged with poisonous fumes, many are difficult to cross with any form of transport. Large, often multi-storey sections of city are used for the storage of wheeled lumps of metal and plastic that lie unused for much of the day, whilst often buses are half empty outside of peak hours.

I don’t think changing prioritisation is something unknown to policy makers or politicians. They know it is possible, in the right circumstances. They probably also know that in the long run it is likely to do some good and convince some people to change from car to public transport (the elusive prize of “modal shift”).

The first part of answering the riddle is that giving priority to one group of commuters (in this case public transport users) takes it away from another. All the economic theories about whether one group can “compensate” another through a change in policy won’t apply when you have a swarm of angry motorists (and their well organised lobby groups) making a path to your door.

Yes, the changes would hopefully convince some of them out of their cars, but in the meantime they are going to be unhappy and quite likely vocal about it. In Britain it has been a couple of years since the tabloids have unilaterally declared that there was a war on motorists, but I am sure with the right cajoling they could reopen hostilities. It would be a fearless politician who tries to unleash major prioritisation changes on an unsuspecting populace, but even with years of warming up quite a few people are still going to be upset about it.

The second issue is that while there are many people who feel they cannot live without their car, there really are some who actually can’t. People with certain disabilities, those whose work involves deliveries, those transporting raw materials and tools, people with caring responsibilities who may need to leave work in an emergency. Taxi drivers (of every description) might feel that they are a form of public transport. All these groups will be caught up in any de-prioritisation of the car. There may be a way to try and work with these groups to provide them with exemptions, but each time you do that you put more traffic on the restricted roads and lessen the overall impact of the policy.

Thirdly, especially from a European perspective, many of our roads weren’t designed for multiple lanes of cars. They weren’t even designed for cars, but for carts or pedestrians. Especially in city centres, it is hard to imagine road widening taking place if it will destroy buildings.

Add into this that almost all of our cities are built straddling rivers (because: history) then you have a real problem.

I grew up in Worcester, with one four lane road bridge in the city. If you don’t cross that bridge you can travel 2 miles south or five miles north, on essentially local roads, just to get to the other side of the river. The road layout means it’s pretty hard to see how some people travelling across the river won’t have to pass by the Cathedral in all its splendour. This means whatever happens with priority and prioritisation, cars are still likely to be getting close to the city centre when traversing the city, even if they are not travelling into the centre. They will still have to cross the bottleneck that is the road bridge and that is effectively that.

Just as the rivers present an obstacle, so do the actions of previous decision makers. I live in Leeds, where someone a long time ago decided to build a motorway into the heart of the city centre. We also have the shortest numbered motorway in the country right in the city centre. Indeed, if you are travelling from east to west, north to south or vise versa, you are most likely to get pretty close to the city centre. No lick of paint is going to take the roads away and even with lane priority for the buses that use the motorways people are still going to want to travel in large numbers close to the city centre. Better public transport that doesn’t travel to the city centre may be part of the solution to that, but that would require us to be able to direct public transport where to go.

Which leads me onto the next point and the need for public transport priority improvements to be matched with decently directed and quality services. People won’t be nudged into moving out of their cars if the public transport is slow, liable to break down, doesn’t go where you want or is not very pleasant to sit on. For much of the UK that just isn’t happening and the growing consensus is that local democratic control (and perhaps higher subsidies alongside this) is the only thing that could improve this.

Finally, there’s nothing truly exciting about changing priorities for most people. No-one apart from us policy geeks are going to remember the politician who decided to repaint the roads, no matter what impact it makes.

There’s even a school of thought, connected with my previous point, that says you have to wow the middle class, middle income commuters out of their cars with something exciting. Trains excite people more than buses, trams even more than that and don’t even start people on undergrounds or monorail (monorail monorail!). But all of that comes at a cost (exorbitant in some cases) that is not only financial. Roads have to be dug up, viaducts built, stations expanded, tunnel diggers bought, buildings knocked down, land purchased.

Hopefully what I’ve described isn’t enough to turn anyone off road reorganisation, but has laid out why it isn’t as easy as it might appear.

Let’s take a second to look at a case where it most definitely did not pan out. York is one of those historical cities with a medieval street layout, a large river and a set number of bridges in the city centre. It has issues with pollution and slow travel times for private and public transport travellers alike. The council, much like Toronto are currently doing, decided to pilot a scheme where one of the bridges -the one with the highest level of bus use- would effectively become a bus only bridge. It wasn’t just paint, they paid out for some number plate recognition cameras and signs, which meant people received notifications and (eventually) fines for driving through in their cars.

What happened next is most likely seared into the collective memory of every transport planner in the country. It became the single most important issue in the city, dominating press coverage for months. Many people received fines, some without knowing they had broken the rules, some out because they found themselves funnelled into a route that they couldn’t get out of, some out of intransigence. The council lost legal battles to enforce the fines and it eventually became such a millstone around their neck that they ended the pilot. It weakened the ruling administration in the council and strongly contributed to it’s eventual loss of power.

So, upsetting motorists is a difficult sell. It needs careful management and early and clear engagement with the public. You need to be able to show that the majority of the public want better public transport and you have to try and deliver the results early and aid a quick modal shift so that full public transport is passing three quarter empty cars.

Crucially, to my mind at least, you have to be able to present any changes as part of a package that looks wider than a single street or improvement. If X or Y road is effectively closing to cars what will happen elsewhere? What public transport improvements can you lever in at the same time?  Who gains from increased use, a private company or local services? Can investment be made in out of centre parking? And also crucially, how will the needs of people who genuinely need to use their cars be met?

This is an issue many councils in the UK are going to be looking at. Hopefully all eyes are on Toronto, but it will be important to learn not only what they did on the road, but how people reacted to the changes and how the public can be convinced to accept re-prioritisation of the roads for what is clearly in the interest of everyone.