Delinquent ownership – a PS about the council role

When it comes to dealing with derelict and disused buildings and land, Councils are in a practically impossible position (but that’s quite normal for local government!). They have a set of ‘powers’ that are theoretically available but technically complex. In my experience, councillors quickly learn a default position to say they won’t use them – too difficult, too expensive, too risky (the DER response). It’s important to remember that this is a cultural and political position and it can be changed.

But once you get the ‘DER’ response, it can take years for a local community to campaign to get the local authority to pay attention and consider using its powers. Most will fail simply because people have better things to do, but others – doggedly persistent – will see it through to a win. The council will come round – through political pressure or officer change-of-heart, or both – but even after that it will take longer than tolerable to actually make it happen. (You’ll know I’m referring to Hastings Pier… the CPO process included unpredictable delays including the Secretary of State lecturing us about Ravenclaw’s human rights and the final document being sent to Panama by courier, who couldn’t deliver to a PO Box so had to return, mission unfulfilled, and rely on the royal mail instead!).

There are two ways that this unhelpful tension between democratically-elected local authorities and their voters concerned about precious buildings can be resolved – either making it easier for councils to use their powers (eradicating ‘DER’), or giving communities powers directly. Which would you advocate? ANSWER THE SURVEY! http://www.clicktools.com/survey?iv=yiytndcmileo

There are two councils I’m aware of that have consistently and systematically used particular powers over a sustained period:

  • Great Yarmouth – compulsory purchase on heritage grounds
  • Hastings – section 215 ‘grotbuster’ orders to tidy up the outside of buildings and charge the owner

I would welcome any additions to this list…

And then there is the terrible story of Manchester’s failed CPO of the London Road Fire Station. A compulsory purchase that (imho) should have happened, if the timely restoration of the Grade II* listed building was the primary consideration. Stan Edwards, CPO expert extraordinaire, has written a fascinating article (IRRV Valuer Journal May 2013 – CPOs Listed Buildings)  exploring why it didn’t happen. It’s no wonder MCC feel burned and cross about it. They will need to be coaxed away from this ‘ghost’…

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3 Responses to Delinquent ownership – a PS about the council role

  1. stevenboxall says:

    This echoes one of the findings of my MSc Dissertation back in 1993 about empty historic buildings and how to bring them back into use. Local Authorities who have a reputation of taking robust action and are willing to use their CPO powers (often in conjunction with community groups to provide uses to the buildings), rarely have to use these powers to bring empty buildings back into use. The knowledge that the local authority is serious and has a reputation for seeing the process through to the end (and has a budget earmarked to do so), usually results in owners taking the necessary acton (one way or another) and the local authority not actually haveing to spend the money.

    Of course, this is a simplification and the rest of the dissertation went into more detail.

  2. jesssteele says:

    Hi Steven.

    I completely agree that the ‘threat deterrent’ is extremely important. One of the key problems is that delinquent owners know that local authorities are scared of these powers. The better-financed delinquents have whole teams of lawyers and other specialists to fight their corner.

    The ‘earmarked budget ‘ is very relevant. One suggestion has been that government should allocate a fund that LAs can apply to for support to use their powers. I worry that this would be a lawyer-fest at public expense and that it doesn’t tackle the more fundamental point that the powers are all too legalistic and concentrated in the hands of (and therefore bottle-necked by) local government. However, just having the fund in place would begin to assemble the threat deterrent. In parallel we should focus on innovation and rationalisation to improve the efficiency of the process of rescuing precious buildings at risk due to irresponsible ownership.

    Your dissertation sounds interesting – have you got a copy I could read? I’m currently fascinated by 1993 because we’re marking the 20th anniversary of my book ‘Turning the Tide: The History of Everyday Deptford’ (www.dfpbooks.co.uk) and hoping to co-produce locally an Update – the story of the last 20 years.

    • stevenboxall says:

      Hello Jess,

      Afraid that I don’t have an electronic copy of my dissertation – too many formats ago and I neglected to transfer at some stage. I keep meaning to post something on my conclusions – I must try to actually do this soon.

      An earmarked fund, a local authority with the skills and determination to go through the process and a Building Preservation Trust to take on the buiding (at a price which makes sense to their business plan not the inflated value which the delinquent owner has in mind) can often work wonders. Since I wrote the dissertation we have the National Lottery distributors which canact as an additional source of funds.

      I am wondering if we can use this sort of approach with empty shops on high streets. Say by a local authority developing policies that they will not accept any building being empty for more than (say) 2 years, and if a building is they will CPO it in order to rent it (or sell them) to, for example, a pop-up shop co-operative, at a rent/price which enables use to take place. I haven’t thought through the detail of this yet but I am sure that with determination a local authority could make this work.

      I was in Deptford last Saturday on the artist open studios trails,and on London Open House Weekend looking at Master Shipwrights House and Convoys Wharf. I started off dissapointed with proposals at Convoys and ended up quite angry.

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