In this country we would never let someone drive a car that was uninsured or dangerous. That’s why we have the MOT system and DVLA to keep records of car ownership. Yet we allow hundreds of owners to keep buildings and land irresponsibly, the Land Registry role is limited and non-regulatory, and the only fallback mechanism (Compulsory Purchase) is torturous, expensive and fraught with risk.
It’s time to do something about it. First we need to know more about the scale of the problem. If you know about a building that matters to the local community but is disused or derelict please complete the questionnaire and help to build the evidence.
The impact of buildings in limbo is particularly acute given the financial climate and the need to squeeze the contribution from every available resource. While Empty Property Rates provide some incentive to owners to secure new uses, they seem to have little effect on the most irresponsible owners, perhaps because they pay no rates at all on a ‘derelict’ building. Currently a CPO authority may insist on nil compensation if it can be proved that the owner is deliberately mistreating the building in order to profit from development on the site. But this does not deal with the majority of irresponsible ownership which is not driven by development pressure but rather by market and regulatory failure. Meanwhile some sites stay problematic for decades due to the rule that, once work has started, a planning permission lasts forever. Most owners are responsible but are dragged down by the tiny but troublesome group of delinquent owners.
- Hastings Pier – owned by Ravenclaw, a company registered in Panama to avoid English company law, abandoned in 2006, burdened by a £1.8m mortgage, uninsured and subject to dangerous dilapidation and eventually arson. Saved at last by local people’s dogged persistence over seven years against all the odds.
- South Parade Pier, Portsmouth – owned by people with criminal convictions (horse theft and assault) and associated with the Lapland New Forest Christmas funfair scan, who keep the management companies separate from the asset ownership so that the former can go bankrupt as often as they like without losing the asset.
- Palace Theatre, Plymouth – owned by Manoucehr Bahmanzadeh who was imprisoned for nine years for allowing the ‘overt and blatant’ sale of Class A drugs at the theatre in a controversial case that has kept the building empty and deteriorating for many years
- Rose & Young site, Caterham – a large historic building in the centre of the high street, empty for 25 years, owned by a man who continues to collect rent on his other local properties. The council feel it is not their responsibility to take action.
- London Road Fire Station, Manchester – owned by Britannia Hotels and kept empty for the past 27 years. They recently won a CPO against Manchester City Council on the basis that they will develop it and then promptly said that it was not viable now or in the foreseeable future.
- Undercliff, St Leonards. Permission was granted in 1966 to build 16 flats and 19 garages. A 1972 landslide put the work on hold and the site into limbo until in 2008 work began again under new owners. A second major landslide led them to abandon the project and the developers have now gone into liquidation. The land is likely to go to auction, still carrying an entirely unsuitable 50 year old planning permission.
- The Observer Building, Hastings – 41,000 square feet in the heart of the town centre, empty since 1985 while a series of speculative owners achieved planning permissions to ratchet up the price without ever starting redevelopment or undertaking essential safety works.
In all these cases there is strong local community interest and an existing or emerging community trust willing to take on the asset. Many more examples are emerging all the time, including some that could be seen as ‘borderline delinquent’ where just the threat of action would be likely to change the behaviour of owners.
Local authorities often say that the powers exist but they don’t have the resources to make use of them and they are wary of the risk of legal challenge or of ending up owning the building themselves. This is immensely frustrating to local people trying to save buildings and sites from the grip of delinquent owners. It takes huge campaigning effort to convince local authorities to take the risk even of approval in principle to make a compulsory purchase order, and then many years to see an outcome. Although increasingly acute due to budget pressures, this is not a new problem. The answer is not necessarily more resources, but simplified powers and strong encouragement.
It’s time to tackle delinquent owners of precious buildings.
We want to extend the evidence base, support communities and local authorities who are fighting delinquent ownership , and petition government to bring in more effective policy solutions.
Please click here to add your precious building to the list and contribute your views about the problem and what should be done about it.