Amid housing shortages and rising property prices across Wales, how much of a role could the repurposing and reviving of empty homes play in contributing to the solution to the nation’s housing crisis?

Housing pressures across Wales are a complex yet highly sensitive matter. Just this week, new figures showed house prices increased by 16 per cent in the past year, a rate faster than anywhere else in the UK. Every one of our 22 council areas saw property values go up, and the average price of a home here now tops £195,000.

As prices rise, the need for more investment in low-cost, high-quality social homes grows stronger – housing and homelessness charity Shelter Cymru calculated there are nearly 70,000 people on waiting lists.

The Welsh Government has committed to building 20,000 such homes during the current Senedd term, but that still leaves supply falling well short of demand. In some areas, as The National has previously reported, pressures on housing availability and affordability have been exacerbated by the rising popularity of second homes, with properties bought for this purpose and subsequently left empty for the majority of the year.

Similarly, the rise of holiday letting services like Airbnb has proved lucrative for people in tourist areas, who can make more money from weekend visitors than they could ever hope to charge long-term renters. In Conwy, for example, the estimated number of Airbnb properties in the county borough rocketed from 135 in 2016 to 1,627 in 2019, with one councillor warning the local authority’s inspectors would struggle to keep up with the trend.

All of these factors play into the current pressures facing the housing market, and while the obvious solution may be to build more houses, the planning process for large-scale developments is lengthy; such projects often draw opposition from some local interests, and given the Government’s move to prioritise climate change, there are going to be wider environmental considerations when it comes to new-builds on greenfield sites.

Meanwhile, an estimated 28,000 properties in Wales stand vacant, classed as ‘empty homes’. While some belong to the nation’s social housing stock, the vast majority are privately owned, and Shelter Cymru believes bringing these properties back into circulation could go a long way towards addressing our housing needs.

“Wales is in a housing emergency affecting one in every three of us, so any home that lies empty is a home wasted – which could be used for families and individuals as a safe, secure and affordable place to call home,” the charity said. “Bringing some of these empty properties back into the housing stock could help accommodate some of the nearly 70,000 people on waiting lists for a social home... [and] it could help to decrease the extra pressure we’re all seeing in the renting and buying markets, which is helping to drive the price increases for buyers and renters in Wales.”

Generally, vacant properties are classed as long-term empty homes once they have been unoccupied for a continuous period of at least 12 months, and data shows there are hundreds of these properties in every part of Wales, including 10 council areas with more than 1,000. For Shelter Cymru, these properties represent a golden opportunity to give people the home that is currently out of their reach, including some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

“An additional 28,000 homes would have a huge impact on the housing emergency, provided that they are affordable, the right size and in the right places to meet localised demand,” the charity said. “With over 6,000 people in temporary accommodation, rough sleeping numbers on the rise and waiting lists for social homes getting bigger, more homes would be very welcome.”

Beyond providing people with homes, bringing these properties back into use has other advantages. Many will be in existing neighbourhoods where there are already facilities, infrastructure and communities. Their environmental impact, too, is much lower than developing new-builds on greenfield land. But just as housing itself is a complicated issue, empty homes do not provide a simple solution, and Shelter Cymru acknowledges repurposing such properties would only be “only one part of the puzzle”.

For one, while there empty homes in every council area, these may not be the areas where housing pressures are most acute. Asking people in Gwynedd – where a rise in second homes has made local people feel forced out of the housing market – to move into one of the 1,200 empty homes in Neath Port Talbot, is not a practical solution. As well as distance, the market value of some homes may be significantly higher than anything that could be used for social housing.

Empty home status gives little clue as to the condition of these properties, and there may be significant costs to bring them up to scratch so they can be made inhabitable or put on the market. Nearly half of all empty home owners were either unable to afford such costs, or had inherited a property but didn’t have the resources to deal with it, a Senedd inquiry found in 2019.

Owners can apply for interest-free ‘houses into homes’ loans via their council, and during the last Senedd term, the Valleys Taskforce project, which covers much of south Wales, made reviving vacant properties one of its central aims, launching an ambitious £10m grant scheme fund to help people bring long-term empty properties back into use.

The regional fund attracted 500 applications in that time, and Shelter Cymru called the scheme “a huge and positive step in the right direction”, but now there are calls for such initiatives to go further.

“Grant funding to bring empty homes back into local stock is a crucial part of tackling this issue, however this now needs to be replicated on a Wales-wide level and part of a wider, national strategy,” the charity said, adding: “We need a Wales-wide action plan and the support to back it up, so that together we can bring these tens of thousands of empty homes back into stock and help to tackle the housing emergency.”

Progress should have begun, Shelter Cymru said, with the Senedd’s Empty Properties report from 2019 calling for such an action plan to have been published by last October.

The charity is planning its own projects and said it would also like to see councils given new powers and make the most of existing tools like compulsory purchase orders, which it described as “powerful and underused”.

“Empty homes has been a priority for us for many years,” Shelter Cymru said. “Lots of work has already been done and research already exists, we now need to look at how we can use this learning to deliver for Wales.”

In the meantime, one council has taken action, and is advertising for an “empty homes officer” position as it bids to ease local housing pressures.

Conwy County Council said the holder of the new role, which comes with a salary of about £30,000 on a three-year fixed-term contract, will be tasked with working with “the development teams of local housing associations, private landlords and empty home owners” on bringing empty properties back into use in Conwy town. The council’s cabinet said the scheme could also be expanded to other areas of the county if it is successful.

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