By Bob Howard
BBC Radio 4's Money Box
Property owners who leave their homes unoccupied for more than six months could from 6 July have them taken over by their local council to rent out for social housing.
The government wants to make use of the thousands of empty homes
The Empty Dwelling Management Order was introduced as part of the 2004 Housing Act.
Any council which wants to take over a property must go first to the Residential Property Tribunal Service for a ruling.
The tribunal will weigh up the interests of the owners and the benefit renting it out would bring, before coming to a decision.
Many properties will be exempt, for example those where someone has gone temporarily abroad or is in hospital; where it's a holiday home, or within six months of probate being granted where the home owner has died.
If none of these exemptions apply and the tribunal rules in favour of the council, it could take control of the property for seven years.
The local authority has to give details of the efforts they've made to notify the relevant proprietor
Siobhan McGrath, Residential Property Tribunal Service
The owner would receive the rental minus the council's costs and benefit from any repairs when they retake control.
Siobhan McGrath, senior president for the Residential Property Tribunal Service explained the criteria for granting an order: "We have to be satisfied that the dwelling has been unoccupied for six months.
"The local authority has to give details of the efforts they've made to notify the relevant proprietor that they are considering making an EDMO."
Councils already have strong powers to deal with properties which represent a hazard through Compulsory Purchase Orders.
The Empty Dwelling Management Orders will target properties generally in a better condition.
Another difference is owners will have to justify what they intend to do with an empty property after a relatively short time.
It introduces the concept that property should be used and if it isn't the local authority has a say in bringing it back into use
Henry Stuart, law firm Withers
Henry Stuart, head of property at the City law firm Withers, said these new powers represent a significant change in the law: "It introduces the concept that property should be used and if it isn't that the local authority has a say in bringing it back into use. That is a new departure."
Islington Council in north London is one council considering using the new powers. Sean McLaughlin, the council's assistant director of housing, described a property in Highbury which had been vacant for five years.
"This property would not have been empty so long if Empty Dwelling Management Orders had been in place three or four years ago because we could have pursued an order and either got one or it would have prompted the owners to take action."
The new law is supported by the Empty Homes Agency which campaigns for unoccupied properties to be utilised.
It estimates that over 80% of vacant property across England is in private hands. Jonathan Ellis is the agency's chief executive:
"If the owner has a clear plan and can show there's progress being made then an order won't be granted."
Baroness Andrews is Minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government which is overseeing the new law.
She said the powers will benefit everyone and there are adequate safeguards for home owners: "This gives both owners and local authorities some more scope to bring properties back into use.
"Owners will not be harassed, they will have appeal rights even up to the final point."
The government estimates around a 1,000 orders will be issued across England each year.
The Residential Property Tribunal Service can start adjudicating cases from 6 July.
BBC Radio 4's Money Box was broadcast on Saturday, 24 June 2006, and will be repeated on Sunday, 25 June, at 2102 BST.