I spoke in the chamber on the Empty Properties Bill, aimed at regenerating communities.
Read below for the full text of my speech:
We know the problem of empty properties is worse in rural areas, and it is nothing short of tragic to see otherwise handsome market towns spoiled by abandoned shop fronts ooze a sense of neglect.
The number of Long Term empty properties in Dumfries and Galloway has risen from 695 in 2008 to 823 last year. The percentage of Long Term empty properties in the region is above the Scottish average.
In preparation for this debate I gathered views from officials who work in economic development, regeneration, housing and planning in the south of Scotland and they all welcomed this proposal, which is in line with the consultation on empty homes conducted last year.
Nobody is pretending, of course, that the bill will eradicate the blight on its own. Rather, it is viewed, certainly among the stakeholders I spoke to, as a welcome addition to the regeneration “toolbox”, which includes other Scottish government initiatives such as the Shelter run “Scottish Empty Homes Partnership”, the small business bonus, which benefits small shop owners, and the town centre regeneration fund.
In Dumfries and Galloway, the local authority has already used existing powers to reduce the council tax discount on empty properties and second homes, and as a result, generated £900,000 a year to invest in affordable housing. This bill increases such powers and is therefore an extension of something that has been proven to work. In terms of town centre regeneration, I’ve been told that improvements such as streetscaping and community involvement are hampered in the area being improved it marred by empty property.
Without the levers this bill will provide, the main power available to authorities is enforcement – for example if a number of properties are lying empty and neglected, legal intervention is an option. But it is a costly and time-consuming option.
This proposal is of course designed to incentivise owners into returning these properties to positive use. As one senior economic development professional pointed out to me, this might encourage some lateral thinking. The landowner may have to consider a change of use, for example if a retail unit that is no longer viable may be suitable for a community use. The same official also hoped the law might encourage rental charges to be lowered, thus incentivising new business start-ups.
This bill seeks to take into consideration the concerns of local property owners who are simply struggling to cope with economic recession. But the stakeholders I spoke to were keen to point out that the biggest issue for them was absentee ownership, where properties are part of a wider investment portfolio.
This is particularly the case with larger properties that may once have been rented by retail chains – the former Woolworth’s springs to mind. Often local authorities, I am told, find it difficult to have any meaningful dialogue with such faceless owners, other than through property agents.
The harsh truth is, presiding officer, that these agents are primarily interested in financial return and spend little or no time considering their wider responsibilities to communities in which they have very little stake. Affecting their bottom line may be the only way to make them sit up and listen.
To watch the full debate on the Local Government Finance Bill on the Scottish Parliament website:
The Motion Submitted
This issue is one for which I have in the past recognised programmes and policies to fight, as per the below Motion I submitted to Parlaiment in December 2011.
Motion S4M-01551: Joan McAlpine, South Scotland, Scottish National Party, Date Lodged: 08/12/2011
Tackling the Problem of Empty Homes in Scotland
That the Parliament welcomes the Channel 4 series, The Great British Property Scandal, which, it believes, highlights the problem of long-term empty homes; understands that there are 25,000 long-term empty homes in Scotland; welcomes the Scottish Government’s funding for the Scottish Empty Homes Partnership, which is hosted by Shelter Scotland, and further welcomes the Scottish Government’s ongoing consultation on extending council tax charges for such homes, with the intention that additional revenue raised is re-invested in affordable homes, including the re-use of empty homes.
Supported by: Margaret McDougall, Marco Biagi, Paul Wheelhouse, Gil Paterson, Fiona McLeod, Mike MacKenzie, Annabelle Ewing, Richard Lyle, Sandra White, David Torrance, Chic Brodie, Drew Smith, Margaret Burgess, Bill Kidd, Gordon MacDonald, Adam Ingram, Kevin Stewart, James Dornan, Mark McDonald, John Finnie, Colin Keir, John Mason, Dennis Robertson, Jamie Hepburn, Colin Beattie, Graeme Pearson, Jean Urquhart, Dave Thompson, Linda Fabiani, Aileen McLeod, Margo MacDonald, Stewart Maxwell, Elaine Smith, Stuart McMillan
Current Status: Fallen on 13/03/2012