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Wednesday, 12 December, 2001, 13:27 GMT
Who lives in a house like this?
Derelict house
The derelict house in Kenton, Harrow
Empty homes in England outnumber homeless families by four to one. But why do properties get into this state? As a select committee debates the issue, we look at the story of one vacant house.

With their neatly laid out rows of semi-detached houses and well-tended gardens, the streets of Harrow are the living embodiment of the proverb that an Englishman's home is his castle.

But in Kenton, a neighbourhood within Harrow borough's borders, one property definitely doesn't fit into the Keeping Up Appearances fold of this north London borough.

Good neighbours
Living next to an empty property can devalue your home by up to 10%
Source: Empty Homes Agency
The front garden is a jungle of brambles and spent building materials, some of the downstairs windows are broken and upstairs, in place of the bay window, is an ugly gaping hole.

It looks more like the unfortunate target of a rogue B52 bombing mission than a typical commuter belt residence.

The house is one of about 1,000 empty and derelict homes in Harrow. At the last count there were 762,700 vacant properties in England - more than four times the number of homeless families.

Why does it happen

The issue of vacant properties has slowly crept up the political agenda and on Wednesday, housing policy experts were quizzed on the subject in a parliamentary special committee.

Front room
The view from the main bedroom
One of the most pressing questions is why properties, many of which are privately owned and worth tens of thousands of pounds, are left to rack and ruin.

Pat Goddard, who lives opposite the derelict property in Kenton, has witnessed its decline over 29 years - which is when the last residents moved out.

"When they left it was immaculate," says Mrs Goddard, on the doorstep of the neat semi where she has lived for 43 years. "They were a lovely family, with three children. They just moved out I think because they wanted more space.

"You can't avoid looking at it. It's such an eyesore. That's why the people next door have grown their hedge to block out the view, and why we've got such thick net curtains."

Cowboy builders

"It devalues your own home. I know the next door neighbours had some problem selling because of it."

Nick Caprara
Nick Caprara has put 500 derelict properties back into order
Every derelict home has its own story, says Nick Caprara, empty homes coordinator for Harrow council. In this case the house was bought in 1972 as a future retirement home, but never occupied.

After some years the owner, an elderly man who now lives in south London, set about renovating the house and building an extension at the back.

But the workmen turned out to be cowboy builders who ended up vandalising the property, says Mr Caprara. From the inside, their mark is immediately evident.

All the radiator pipes have been deliberately hammered out of place, the bathroom units have been smashed, plaster has been ripped from the walls. As funds dried up, the house spiralled into decay.

Jungle out there

The front porch and garage came down and the roof above the back extension has rotted.

Bathroom suite
The property has been badly vandalised
"It's a sad story for the owner, but some people don't know what they're getting into with a renovation. They aren't able to project manage it," says Mr Caprara.

From upstairs there is evidence of further decay. The back garden is a thicket of brambles and weeds which have grown to about six feet. There is no sign of rodent infestation - common with derelict properties - but a family of foxes has been living in the garden.

There is also no sign of squatters or further vandalism, but neighbours are constantly wary of such threats, says Mr Caprara. He has been working on this case since 1996, when Harrow first assigned somone to the empty homes problem, and now has a "good working dialogue" with the owner.

"We can force them to make improvements and even go as far as a compulsory purchase order, but it's better to work with the owner if you can find them."

Outside help

Mr Caprara believes the property, which could be worth 250,000 in a refurbished state, would be ideal for housing a large homeless family. But that can only come after "40,000 or 50,000" worth of renovation work.

Back gardens
How does your garden grow? Like a jungle
Last year he did a deal with a housing association which would have taken an 11-year lease on the house. But it fell through at the last minute when the association went into receivership.

He is now pinning his hopes on another plan whereby the council will split the rebuilding costs 50/50 with the owner and another housing association will take a shorter, but renewable, five-year lease for use as temporary accommodation.

"I think we've got a deal," says Mr Caprara. "If we have, the house could be back to normal by the middle of next year."

The only question that remains is, after 29 years, can the neighbours remember what "normal" looks like?

See also:

16 Feb 99 | UK
'Scandal' of empty homes
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