I received an email yesterday informing me that the Lib Dems were launching their empty homes campaign today, except that it doesn’t appear to have materialised. No matter, the embargo was today and a press release went out yesterday, so I’m sure it’s okay to talk about.
As a campaign, it seems quite laudable and I certainly agree with its aims. The party seems to have very little to say about how this will be achieved however, except by encouraging people to report local empty homes. Indeed, Tom Brake is today on a webcast telling us all about the wonders of Local Income Tax – a move no doubt designed to pre-empt the conference debate this autumn in which some will no doubt attempt to get us to water down or at least change our local authority taxation plans with specific regard to encourage greater efficiency of the housing stock.
The other thing I strongly challenge is the notion that using empty homes will help save CO2 emissions. This is for two reasons: firstly, the text of Dan Rogerson’s press release strongly implies that an empty house filled means that another new build won’t have to be built. I can conceive of no way in which he can model this accurately, especially given that his figures appear to be national ones and thus include all the empty houses in the North where there is much less demand than in the South where there is all that luscious greenbelt for us to bulldoze over. Secondly, if the government were to insist on strict environmental standards for new build (I emphasise if), then the overall carbon footprint of new build could be a lot lower than reusing old stock that was built to lower standards. Assuming it is still Lib Dem policy to have such strict guidelines, this press release is in danger of contradicting party policy.
Finally, can I just utter some heresy and suggest that there is a strong case for building on greenbelt? As a country, we squeeze ourselves into relatively small amounts of space compared to elsewhere in Europe. Villages across the country are struggling to justify basic amenities such as schools, health centres, shops and post offices, yet demand for village houses is huge. Subsequently they become rich ghettos, full of people driving environmentally unfriendly 4x4s who are forced to drive everywhere because their own community is woefully unsustainable.
My parent’s village has doubled in terms of housing stock in the past 50 years, yet the population is the same as it was in the 50s. Staying still is just helping to create ghost towns and for no environmental benefit. Let the green belt take the strain.