Scotland needs fresh ideas for empty homes - Alastair Stewart

​Last year I wrote that homelessness should embarrass any modern country. Sadly an increase in homelessness is one of the many tragedies to come out of 2020.

We're not just suffering a housing shortage, but a waste of the housing stock already in the market. If there are real changes to be made, we need to think strategically to get on the front foot in 2021.

According to recent Scottish Government figures, there has been a 16 per cent increase in long-term empty homes from 40,963 last year to 47,333 in 2020. COVID-19 has unequivocally led to more homes becoming empty and remaining so for a more extended period.

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​Experts ​anticipate that empty home figures may continue to rise for some time after the pandemic is over. If there is any positive outcome, it should be energised thinking.

The Scottish Empty Homes Partnership (SEHP) has called on local authorities to include Scotland's 40,000 long-term empty homes in its pandemic recovery plans. Scotland must grasp every opportunity to protect people's right to a home as coronavirus restrictions continue.

Covid-19 has already jeopardised Scotland's ability to deliver 50,000 new affordable homes. Dundee City Council recently announced a £6 million housing expenditure programme to tackle the 7,70​0 person​​​​ waiting list for housing. Six hundred people are registered as homeless in Dundee. The speed of making additional housing available is critical.

Many problems that existed before the pandemic have been exacerbated during it and will exist after it. Utilising empty homes can provide a cost-effective way of providing much needed affordable homes right now.

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And the costs are far more realistic. The average price of returning an empty home to a habitable state is between £6,000 and £12,000. This is at least ten times lower than the average cost of building a new home.

Extensive renovation work to revamp an empty house can take just six months compared to a minimum of 12-18 months to complete new housing developments. In terms of a quick turnaround, this is the kind of solution we need against a relentless virus that wreaks havoc.

While it is commendable to build new homes, we need to ensure that other quick, cheap and efficient solutions operate concurrently. There are, of course, complexities given that empty homes are generally privately owned​. ​​But this is where out of the box thinking ​must factor in.

Covid-19 and Brexit have quickly become umbrella terms for everything wrong at the moment. But we must remember many social issues that existed before these two miseries. Unless we act fast, the housing crisis will be worse even after the storm has been weathered.

Alastair Stewart is a freelance writer and public affairs consultant