Shocking figures showing the number of empty private houses in Cambridge have been obtained by the News.
In the wake of our story revealing that 14 new flats near the Grafton Centre are still unoccupied seven months after being built, the city council has provided statistics on the total number of empty properties city-wide.
The figures are estimates only, but they reveal 655 properties in Cambridge – 1 in 78 of the entire housing stock – have been uninhabited for more than six months.
That total includes "unoccupied new development properties", a council spokesman says, although an exact figure for how many there are is not available.
Of the 655 homes, 60 are undergoing major repairs or structural alterations in order to be made habitable, the council says.
A further 52 are thought to have been empty for more than two years.
The spokesman said: "Our empty homes officers’ work largely focuses on properties that have been empty for a long period of time particularly those empty for more than two years, or those where the owner does not appear to be working towards occupation of their property which can be for a variety of reasons.
"Properties empty over two years are subject to an additional 50 per cent council tax charge. This means the owner pays 150 per cent council tax on a property empty more than two years."
The figures cover all properties in the city that the council knows to have been empty more than six months, including properties owned by companies or social landlords.
Residents living near the 14 new flats in Tredgold Lane near the Grafton are angry that they have not been sold or rented. One, Eden Street resident Anthony Martinelli said: "It looks very much like this is a case of housing being treated just as an investment asset – exactly the sort of thing that holds up the supply of new housing in a city that needs it so badly.
"Homes should be treated primarily as living places, not financial instruments."
Others have been critical because Cambridge has a serious homelessness problem.
In recent years, reports have also suggested investors from abroad are buying up properties in the city to cash in on its soaring house price inflation.
In 2015, a study found that more than two thirds of property sold through estate agents Savills the year before was bought by investors.
The News has attempted without success to contact the charitable trust that owns the Tredgold Lane flats for comment.
The council’s Lib Dem group leader Tim Bick, who has taken up residents’ complaints, said the scale of the empty homes tally was "worrying."
He said: "These figures suggest that well over 500 properties have been empty for more than six months with nothing known about the reason.
"That's worrying. It’s difficult to get away from the impression that getting housing into use is a lot less urgent for some owners than it is for most people needing homes in this area.
"This may be financially worthwhile or affordable for those owners – or they may be too tolerant of bureaucratic delays, but it isn’t a great sense of social values in the middle of a local housing crisis.
"It’s good that the council is following up reported cases like in Tredgold Lane and I hope it wakes some people up by doing so. I think we should be open to hear good reasons, like redecoration or alterations, which can actually be the hallmarks of good property owners – but I’d be surprised if this was every case.
"The council itself isn't immune from criticism about urgency in sorting out problems to fill their own social housing. Nine new units in Hawkins Road have been empty for about a year – so this isn’t limited to private owners only.”
He said his party is proposing a clampdown when the council finalises its budget for the year ahead – increasing the amount of council tax owners of empty properties must pay.
He said: "The proposal my colleagues and I are making in the council’s budget will mean that owners will be charged double council tax after two years. Doing this represents a real financial alert to owners of how this city regards delay, which may help to encourage them to accelerate filling their properties to be sure of avoiding an even higher penalty."
Cambridge housing: factfile
- The city has 51,000 homes
- More than 22,000 are privately owned
- About 12,000 are rented out privately
- Just over 11,000 are rented from the city council or housing associations
- A study of housing needs has found that 14,000 extra homes need to be built in the Cambridge area by 2031, 10,400 of them in the ‘affordable’ category
- The average price of a home in the city is £524,530
- Between 2016 and 2017, the council received nearly 400 applications for help from people who said they were homeless. Just under 200 said they had been sleeping rough
- As of last December, there were 2,455 people on the council’s housing register waiting for accommodation
- A study of housing needs has found that 14,000 extra homes need to be built in the Cambridge area by 2031, 10,400 of them in the 'affordable' category
Cllr Kevin Price, the city's executive councillor for housing, said: "Our Empty Homes Officer has been very successful in working with many individual owners of a long-term empty property to bring it back into use – for example where the property needs repairs or has been left empty after a family bereavement – but we need more powers from the Government to tackle properties like those in Tredgold Lane.
"The legislation around empty homes needs changing to make 'Buy to Leave' a bad option for owners, especially foreign investors. Since 2013 we've been able to charge 150 per cent of council tax on some properties left empty for more than two years as long as they have been both unoccupied and unfurnished, though as many of us said at the time that's not a strong enough deterrent.
"The Government are due to bring in legislation to make that 200 per cent – we hope from this April – but again, it is not likely to be a serious deterrent to an investor, either in the UK or overseas, who wants to leave it empty and knows that the housing market in London or Cambridge will make them more money than they'll have to pay in extra council tax.
"It would be worth looking at reducing the time period from two years before we can start charging more council tax for a start, but in Canada and Australia they have also introduced a annual charge of 1 per cent of the value of any property left empty for more than six months.
"Other countries also charge higher stamp duty or put an extra surcharge on buying property to overseas investors, often thought to be the most likely to use Buy to Leave.
"If the Government is serious about giving councils the range of tools we need to deal with homes deliberately left empty, it needs to look seriously at all of these options."
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