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Why are we building thousands of new houses when so many empty ones already stand?

It’s always been a puzzle to me—but not being a town planner, architect or building contractor means I’m unlikely to know the real reason as to why this is.

Diane Hall


New houses are being built

In my village (sorry, due to the number of new houses built within it over the last five years, it’s actually now a service centre, whatever the heck that is), there are only a couple of derelict properties; however, go into either of the towns nearest to me and the picture is very different. Hundreds of unoccupied properties, derelict buildings and rundown Brutalist dwellings pepper the landscapes of these once thriving spaces. Yet, rather than overhaul these buildings and bring them back to their former glory for a range of uses, they’re ignored and simply left to rot. All the while, our green and brown belt is being bulldozed to make way for cookie-cutter starter homes that, whilst smart and functional, have no personality, no space, no privacy and a much shorter ‘life span’.

Abandoned house

Abandoned house

The costs to renovate a derelict building may be more than throwing up a prefabricated property, for all I know, but it’s likely that such a renovation would attract a higher selling price, which would make it worth doing. I also understand that the renovation of truly old, valuable properties, even if they are derelict, would be subject to a multitude of rules and restrictions, if a listed building, but that’s not the case for every forgotten property. And some that I see are quite unique and/or a wonderful example of the architecture of their time. Leaving them to rot not only affects the stability of the property itself, it also has an adverse effect on the property prices of adjacent and neighbouring buildings. Such properties could also attract unwanted guests, such as thieves, squatters or vermin. They may also, eventually, represent a health and safety risk to passers-by…what economical judgement or logic supports them falling to wrack and ruin?

According to government figures, in 2020, there were over a quarter-of-a-million unoccupied homes, i.e. empty for at least six months, which amounts to 3% of the country’s housing stock. In 2018, almost the same number of homes were newly built, taking up chunk after chunk of our precious countryside and landscapes. The claim that ‘we must build new houses to meet demand’ doesn’t ring true with these statistics, does it? We already have the housing stock, we’re just not utilising it to its full advantage.

However, even if all these empty properties were made good again, or the owners tracked down and dealt with, so that they could house our burgeoning population, we would still need to create new residences…eventually. That said, there are a number of reasons why houses become empty, and such instances will always occur; if we were focused on utilising these disregarded dwellings first, the amount of land that we have to give to new builds would surely be much, much less than currently.

The Empty Homes Agency agrees with me, and also believes that there are more benefits to renovating unused properties over building new ones—such as environmental gains and community cohesion. Spokesperson of the EHA, David Ireland, says, ‘Refurbishment, however extensive, usually retains the parts of the building with highest embodied energy costs, the walls and foundations. They require far less cement than new-builds, they don't cause the loss of land, and people like them more.'

Street of houses with dawn in background

Street of houses with dawn in background

The government has introduced certain measures to tackle the issue of empty houses, such as a levy on the homeowners’ council tax bill. This has seen some owners sell up or renovate, but in many cases, the owner of the house is unknown or it’s disputed. There are many reasons why a home is left empty, I just can’t understand why their owners would rather sit on it than drop their selling price—after all, every house will sell at the right price, it’s just that this figure is not always what the owner wants or can afford to accept. But if the alternative is no revenue and a house that will need more and more money to keep it habitable as the years roll by, why not just cut your losses? House prices have exceeded inflation and wage rises for many years now—if these owners can’t afford to sell now, they certainly won’t be able to sell in the future.

As I said at the top of the article, I’m absolutely not an expert on the subject. I’ve no doubt simplified the issue, too, and omitted a number of important points that would go some way to explaining why the situation is what it is. However, I can’t be the only lay person to think it such a simple problem to solve, a problem that becomes very real when the fields I’m used to walking through are now concrete jungles containing starter house after starter house, the sum of which has doubled the size of my once-idyllic village…sorry, service centre.

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