'Compulsory purchase orders' not the answer | David Alexander
Over the last few weeks there have been several news reports of large numbers of unoccupied homes across Scotland, with the suggestion that if these properties could be made habitable it would help with the current housing shortages. Edinburgh is cited as having among the highest number of unoccupied homes and this recently prompted the Scottish Conservatives to call for compulsory purchase orders for appropriate properties so as to reduce demand for housing in the capital.
The latest official figures for vacant dwellings state that in Edinburgh there are 11,000 unoccupied homes out of a total of 254,000 properties (which includes the social sector). Across Scotland there were 112,000 unoccupied homes out of a total of 2,645,000 dwellings. There are a number of interesting elements to this. The number of vacant dwellings in Edinburgh has been steady at 10,000 every year since 2013 until 2020 when it rose by 1,000 which equates to 4.3 per cent of the total.
But why such a static figure over a prolonged period? Well, the obvious answer is that, whilst these properties may be unoccupied for a considerable period of time there could be a very good reason for this. Thousands of people now spend many years in care homes and their properties can, therefore, remain unoccupied for many years. When someone dies a property can remain unsold for a considerable period of time while the estate is being settled and the home is vacant.
The vacant dwelling situation is even more marked in rural and remote areas of Scotland. In Eilean Siar, for example, there are 2,000 vacant dwellings out of a total of 14,000 properties on the islands – 14.3 per cent of all housing. In Argyll and Bute the figure is 10.6 per cent, with 5,000 homes out of 47,000 vacant; while in both the Orkney and Shetland Islands there are 1,000 vacant homes out of a total of 11,000 in each area, a 9 per cent rate. Some of these will be second homes or may only be let during holiday periods so are not always vacant.
Many properties may be family homes left vacant by generations who have long ago left rural locations to live and work elsewhere. Therefore, a lot of these properties are in that position for a very good reason. But the notion that either local or national government should attempt to compulsorily purchase properties which are lying empty because of the personal circumstances of their owners is ludicrous unless it can be proved that these homes have been permanently abandoned.
Whilst there may be hundreds or even thousands of empty homes which might validly be converted to liveable properties, this is only a very partial solution and is not really addressing the key issue. Indeed, the latest report by the Empty Homes Partnership states that 1,152 properties were brought back into use in the last year. While this is welcome the fact remains that this is tinkering at the edges of a housing problem which requires a serious and continuous investment in new private and social sector properties in the most appropriate areas.
The best and most effective results will only come from a much larger level of properties being built for homeowners, private renters, and for the social rented sector. You can only resolve the housing shortage with long-term planning and a programme of major building.