Last week I gave a workshop at the Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland’s (REHIS) Annual Forum. The audience was largely council Environmental Health Officers with experiences of dealing with complaints about empty homes causing problems for neighbours. Of course I stressed the benefits of EHOs (Environmental Health Officers) & EHOs (Empty Homes Officers) working in partnership. I was helped in illustrating the benefits of this by a case study supplied by Robyn Barrie from Edinburgh City Council.
The problem property was a flat in a 6 in a block building that had been empty since 2002. Robyn was passed this no hope case when she took up post in 2015. The neighbours had been complaining about the untidy garden, smell of damp and flies. The property was also visibly empty from the outside so vulnerable to break in.
Robyn worked with the council’s Environmental Health Officer to get a warrant for enforced entry due to the flies effecting a neighbour’s property. Once inside they found saturated carpets form leaks in the kitchen sink and wash machine. They also found that that it was this build-up of water causing the flies and also fungal growth.
The leak was fixed and the flat sprayed to rid it of the flies. This solved some of the immediate issues for the neighbours but clearly not the issue of the home lying empty and unused, and inviting a break in. Robyn got to work gathering archived records for the property form various departments at the council that had dealings with it over the years. The previous owner had died and officers in these departments had all struggled to make contact with the Executor. Robyn eventually found a contact who turned out to not only be the executor but a co-owner of the flat as well. After this huge step forward she was able work with the owner to get the keys to clear the property out. And that brings us up to date with the flat getting emptied in preparation for sale.
Of course for the Environmental Health audience the key here is that the Empty Homes Officer has the time and remit to dedicate to seeking out the owner and working with them to find a long term solution, which means they shouldn’t get repeated complaints about the same property year after year. From an Empty Homes Officer’s point of view it’s not hard to see the value of working with Environmental Health colleagues as they hold the enforcement cards that help instigate the conversations that can eventually lead to re-use.
One bit of feedback from the audience was interesting, an officer pointed out that in the various examples I had given during my presentation, including the one from Edinburgh, success was very reliant on the tenacity and creativity of the Empty Homes Officer. He seemed to be pointing this out as a bit of a weakness, as in ‘you have no actual powers so it’s all down to persuasion, negotiation and problem solving and that’s pretty precarious’. We all know we’d ideally have appropriate enforcement powers but I also think it’s a testament to all the Empty Homes Officers across Scotland how much has been achieved with honey rather than vinegar as it were. I’ve seen countless examples of long term problem empties where notices served from various departments to deal with immediate issues can’t solve the underlying problem until an Empty Homes Officer with a smile and a fresh approach wades in and takes the time to unpick the issues that are keeping the property empty and unloved. Now just imagine what the same Empty Homes Officer could do if they led with that lovely honey pot but just happened to have a strong jar of vinegar in their back pocket just in case….