Restoring eyesores and family homes to their former glory falls to a two-person team of enforcers at Blackpool Council, as Jacqui Morley reports
It’s a decline, rather than sign, of the times; neglected properties, bearing visible signs of blight, rising damp, failing rendering, peeling facades, crumbling structures, clogged gutters, overgrown gardens, rubbish which could attract infestation, or signal squatters could move in.
You’ll spot them anywhere, and everywhere in Blackpool, in socially deprived wards, and also in more affluent communities, where maintaining a property has simply become too much for the owner.
Some are empty, overlooked, ignored, or simply forgotten, rather than wilfully allowed to run down. It may be that occupants, often elderly, alone in what was once a family home, or having nursed a partner through final illness, are struggling to cope. Sometimes it’s not just the house which needs rescuing.
One before and after transformation at Morley Road, Marton, has been hailed, by Blackpool Council specialist officers, as a happy example of what can be achieved, the previous occupant having moved into a nursing home, the house was given a makeover, funded by a charge against the property, to prepare it for a family.
“It’s amicably resolved for all,” says Alex Bracken, Blackpool’s housing enforcement manager. Other empty homes may be caught in legal wrangles, locked in probate, estates as yet unresolved by solicitors. They may have been repossessed by mortgage companies.
Or they have been left to rot, by absentee landlords who planned to transform them until cash ran out, or let them to clients who trashed them and moved on, or were moved out.
The Empty Homes Agency calculates keeping a property empty could cost owners or landlords £135 a week – excluding the cost of vandalism and depreciation.
One of the most graphic examples in Blackpool Council’s catalogue of before and after transformations is a property at Loftus Avenue, Marton (pictured), which stood empty for two years, the target of anti-social behaviour, fly tipping, repeat break-ins and vandalism... and is now a show home.
Alex explains: “The owner from Bolton had bought it to renovate and rent and the mortgage company repossessed it. The mortgage was £80k, the value £40k. The mortgage company agreed in principle to an Empty Dwelling Management Order to allow a family to occupy the property but, in the event, sold the house on the open market. We’re delighted with the action. The property has been turned around. This is a really good result.”
Detective work is often needed to find owners. The council’s environmental protection team had to secure a property in Central Drive after being told it had been entered by kids, and a waterpipe broken.
Alex adds: “We learned it had been sold to somebody in Africa; eventually the owner undertook all the repairs, following warning letters from us.”
Some may get referred back to housing associations. “One house was found to be owned by a housing association from another authority – they couldn’t apologise enough, but it had just fallen off the system. In other cases, we find owners who are reclusive, or need help, but don’t know how to go about it.”
The sheer scale of the blight presented by Blackpool’s empty properties could defeat many a larger local authority, for the resort copes with city-style problems on a small town budget.
Yet Blackpool has become a beacon of best practice to others, beating a path here, to learn how persuasion, and, if necessary, threats of more draconian action, can restore properties to former glory, either through voluntary action, by owners, or enforcement action by the council.
Blackpool has yet to resort to issuing one of the controversial empty dwelling management orders which, under Labour, allowed a council to seize problem property after six months. Under an addition to the Housing Act 2004 Communities secretary Eric Pickles proposes to extend that period to two years, to safeguard homeowners’ rights.
Since last April, 50 problematic empty properties in Blackpool have been brought back into use by early intervention, mostly through voluntary action by owners or landlords, or after enforced sales and compulsory purchase orders.
“It’s a record number of properties brought back into use,” says Nicci Rigby, senior planning enforcement officer, who serves section 215 notices which require work to be carried out on getting a property, “adversely affecting the amenity of an area”.
Both enforcers, with other frontline agencies involved, have inspected 13,000 properties in some of the most socially deprived districts of Blackpool, since July 2008. The big concern is empty and/or neglected property can become the target of anti social behaviour, squatters, risk of arson, or fall into such disrepair it blights the area, visually and environmentally.
“Blight begets blight,” says Coun Roy Haskett, chairman of the town’s Problematic Empty Properties group, which co-ordinates the work. “This is all about our neighbourhoods and community, helping restore pride. Priority is given to empty residential properties that have an impact on the neighbourhood, key positioned eyesores or those that give an initial impression of dereliction, particularly when sited along the main gateways into the town.”
An allied operation is targeting problematic property, such as empty hotels, shops and other outlets, in and around the holiday heartland, and seafront.
Nicci concludes: “It’s about seeing the bigger picture, a better Blackpool, and we feel the general public has a greater role to play in reporting land and buildings of concern.”
Tim Coglan, head of quality standards for Blackpool Council, concludes: “Such properties tend to increase the fear of crime among the public and that is why tackling them is a key part of the council’s robust clean up campaign.”
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