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Last Updated: Tuesday, 21 November 2006, 09:30 GMT
Saving Britain's empty homes
By Shari Vahl
You and Yours, BBC Radio 4

There are hundreds of thousands of homeless people in Britain and almost as many empty homes. Angered by the sight of two Victorian villas being allowed to decay, one Liverpool campaigner found an obscure legal remedy.

Numbers 18 and 20 Prescott Drive
The council have 12 months to come up with plans for the houses

"This is the capital of culture," said Liverpool resident Jonathan Brown as we stood in the shattered front garden.

"These are two fantastic double-fronted Victorian villas, built about 1880, six or seven bedrooms each, with big bay windows looking over the park, completely smashed to bits, burnt out and roofless."

Number 18 and 20 Prescott Drive are huge semi-detached houses overlooking a beautiful Grade II listed open space, Newsham Park. They are just five minutes drive from Liverpool City centre.

Significant and energetic refurbishment is everywhere in the private market.

There is money in Liverpool but these two houses, owned by the city council, stand forlorn.

Jonathan Brown wondered why most of the property left to become derelict was publicly owned, and believed it was a deliberate ploy to force the demolition of houses as part of large property deals with major developers.

He contacted the Empty Homes Agency and was advised to take out a Public Request to Order Disposal (Prod).

Higher authority

A Prod dates back to legislation drawn up in 1980, The Local Government and Land Planning Act.

On a single sheet of paper, and for the cost of a stamp, Jonathan Brown gained the ear of the Secretary of State

It was devised to stop public bodies, including the NHS, BBC, local authorities, British Rail, and others, from sitting on land or housing, preventing the right-to-buy policies of the time.

It is only available in England and Wales and has not been used since 1997, until now.

On a single sheet of paper, and for the cost of a stamp, Jonathan Brown gained the ear of the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Ruth Kelly.

In serving the Prod, she ordered Liverpool City Council to put numbers 18 and 20 Prescott Drive on the open market.

Liverpool City Council appealed and have been given 12 months to come up with plans for the properties, or they will be forced to put them on the market.

"We don't want to put them on the open market and sell them to the highest bidder because speculators then sit on them for up to two years, waiting for the land to appreciate," explains assistant housing chief, councillor Frank Doran.

"That doesn't help anyone, so we want them to be part of a much larger scheme, which we're already planning. As we were doing it anyway, the Prod hasn't made any difference to us, and the secretary of state has agreed that our way is the best way of doing things."

Land banking

Rubble outside a house
You can't just land bank properties if it's not in the public interest to do so
Jonathan Brown

Empty homes and derelict housing is a serious problem in Liverpool.

Seven thousand properties lie dormant. That is 5% of the housing stock, one of the highest levels in the country.

It is estimated that 34% of those are publicly owned.

Campaigner Jonathan Brown is still sceptical about the council's plans.

"Reputable small private developers will refurbish the houses to their former beauty within the conservation area, whereas a large scheme with a major house builder will just see them demolished and replaced with modern boxes," he says.

But he does see the Prod as valuable.

"I was really pleased when we got the letter from the secretary of state.

"It serves as a warning that you can't just land bank properties if it's not in the public interest to do so.

"The council has until next July to finalise plans for the villas, or face enforcement by the secretary of state."

You and Yours is tackling homeless issues in a four week season, weekdays at 12 noon on Radio 4.


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