Leap in vacant council homes in St Albans

FIGURES have revealed a dramatic rise in the number of council homes in the district lying empty for six months or more.

The information, obtained by St Albans MP Anne Main who raised the issue in Parliament, shows a 14-fold increase in the number of properties vacant for six months over the past three years.

In 2007 just five were vacant for that length of time but in 2008 the figure rose to 44 and in 2009 had leapt to 71. In the whole of the east of England there were only 685 properties empty for six months which means St Albans accounts for more than 10 per cent of the regional total.

Numbers have also shot up for housing associations – there were 35 properties vacant for six months in 2009 compared to just eight in 2007, bringing it well above the average across the region.

Mrs Main said she had spoken to many people in need of housing at her MP surgeries who had told her they were frustrated to see empty properties. She continued: “I felt it was necessary to explore because of what people that come to my surgeries with inappropriate housing or whom do not have any housing at all are saying and it is interesting to learn how many homes are staying vacant.

“There are obviously things that skew the figures but I would like to know from the council why the numbers do seem to be rising and why the number of properties is so significant at a time when there is a great housing need in St Albans.”

In light of the figures Mrs Main obtained after lodging a Parliamentary Question, she will be writing to St Albans district council chief executive Daniel Goodwin to ask him to explain the sharp increase.

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But Karen Dragovic, head of housing at St Albans district council, this week attributed the bulk of the figures to sheltered accommodation for the elderly which is currently undergoing an extensive programme of refurbishment to bring it into the 21st Century.

The council took the step after trying and failing to find tenants who wanted bedsits in sheltered housing schemes. Eric Steele House, Laelia House, the Grange, Leacroft and Caroline Sharpe House – which collectively provided 126 housing units – are to be redeveloped. But, as reported in last week’s Herts Advertiser, work has not begun on some of the schemes as a handful of residents are still living in them.

Ms Dragovic said it could take considerable time to move the residents out as the process relied on suitable alternative accommodation coming available and would result in housing units remaining vacant for longer than six months.

She added: “The council has weekly meetings to monitor all vacant council-owned accommodation and regularly reviews its void procedures. There are very few general needs housing units that have been vacant for periods of six months or more as we work to ensure all properties are turned around quickly.”