Housing Executive: We don't know where empty homes are

Andrea McKernon

THE Housing Executive says it does not know where Northern Ireland's empty homes are located, despite being charged with returning the vacant properties to use.

A strategy to deal with the blight of empty social housing and private properties was announced last year by the then housing minister, Nelson McCausland, who at the time said there were "around 32,000 empty homes".

But the Housing Executive now says it does not have current data on the whereabouts of the vacant properties.

The empty homes strategy was a Stormont response to the crisis in housing and involved the setting up of a dedicated office to deal with the issue of property shortages - in the decade between March 2003 and 2013 housing applications rose from 26,250 to an all-time peak of 41,350 in March 2013.

But a request to obtain a current list of empty properties and the numbers by council area was said to be in breach of "data protection".

"Unfortunately, due to data protection laws this information could not be shared," an official from the Housing Executive said.

"We ourselves are totally reliant on the general public or local councils reporting empty properties to us to add to our database as there is currently no legislation supporting sharing of information between ourselves and Land and Property Services who are responsible for rates collection."

An empty home is defined as any residential property not currently occupied that has remained unoccupied for longer than six months, and that is not currently being actively marketed by the owner.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Social Development, which has overall control and responsibility for preparing and directing social housing policy in Northern Ireland, directed enquiries to the Department of Finance and Personnel.

When launching the strategy, Mr McCausland said: "It is estimated there are around 32,000 empty homes."

He added: "We need to properly identify the numbers and the locations, looking at the reasons why these homes lie empty and exploring best practice in other parts of the United Kingdom for bringing empty homes back into use.

Actions in the empty homes strategy and action plan 2013-2018 have also included collecting "relevant, accurate and up-to-date information".

"The Housing Executive will develop and maintain a database of empty homes in Northern Ireland," the document states.

Leader of the Green Party Northern Ireland Steven Agnew criticised what he said was "an incomplete picture" of the problem.

"There appears to be a little sharing of information between DSD and the department of finance," he said.

"This lack of joined-up working means the empty homes strategy is based on an incomplete picture.

"Getting this right is important as there is significant housing need in Northern Ireland and the utilisation of empty properties could go some way to tackling this.

"This is particularly important at this time as the building of new social houses has slowed considerably in recent years."

* NO DATA: Derelict houses


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