Converting empty premises into homes

THE percentage of empty houses in the Borders is running at double the national average despite the high demand for housing in the region, particularly in Duns, Eyemouth, Peebles, Kelso, Galashiels and Selkirk.

There are a total of 2148 empty properties in the region - 880 long term empty, 317 properties exempt from Council Tax and 951 second homes. In Berwickshire there are 200 long term empty properties, 68 exemptions and 301 second homes (total of 569).

And recognising the need to help improve the availability of housing in the region by bringing some of these empty properties back into use, Scottish Borders Council has drawn up a strategy and action plan on how they hope to achieve this.

The council’s Empty Homes Strategy, approved by the executive this week states their priorities: “To reduce homelessness and increase the availability of decent and affordable housing for local residents.

“Bringing empty homes back in use will result in an increase in the housing stock available to meet the needs of local residents and result in an improvement in the condition of the housing stock.

“By working with empty homeowners, to support and encourage action SBC will endeavour that, where possible, properties brought back into use are also affordable.”

Making sure the houses are affordable is key. Over a six year period between 2002-2008 rents in the private sector rocketed - Berwickshire seeing the highest increase of 50 per cent from an average monthly rent of £342 in 2002 to £512 in 2008.

The action plan drawn up by the council aims to: identify empty homes; raise awareness of the issue; assess empty homes to determine their priority for action; develop options and incentives to bring empty properties back into use; and address the issue of empty properties.

To do this they are joining together with four other local authorities in south east Scotland to employ two officers - their remit being to bring 20 Borders properties a year back into use, draw up a database and raise public awareness about empty properties.

Financial assistance, through grants, is no longer available to home owners to bring empty houses up to a satisfactory living condition, but “information and advice, and in some cases practical assistance regarding property maintenance, repair and improvement, can be provided.

“This service could be extremely valuable to those with the responsibility of an empty property.”

Where tenants find it difficult to raise the necessary deposit to rent a home Scottish Borders Council can step in with a Deposit Guarantee Scheme (which has been used by 255 people in the region since 2007). The scheme, which is administered by the council and funded by the Scottish Government’s Homelessness grant allocation, guarantees the deposits to the landlord for people who are homeless or threatened with homelessness,

Scottish Borders Council has also established a Private Sector Leasing Scheme where properties are leased from private sector landlords and then rented to homeless applicants, usually for temporary accommodation as an alternative to B&B accommodation.