In June, I wrote about the large number of empty garages owned by councils in London. Freedom of Information requests I put in identified 15,875 of them. But several councils didn’t provide figures, so the true total is bound to be higher. Since then, I have broadened my enquiries to the rest of the country and identified a further 61,325. They are listed below. Birmingham City Council tops the list with 4,149 – the majority of its garages sit empty. That brings the identified tally to 77,200. I suspect the true figure is over 100,000. Swansea and Lanarkshire councils replied to say they didn’t know how many empty garages they owned. Several councils did not reply. Many others said they had handed over their housing stock to a housing association or an arms-length housing management organisation. So the underestimate is sure to be significant.
Property Partner, a property investment company, has also investigated this subject. Looking at square feet, they calculated that if they were redeveloped for housing, a typical row of 10 garages could be knocked down and replaced with seven or eight homes. That was a conservative estimate, as it assumed only bungalows would be possible.
This waste of resources is quite unacceptable given the housing shortage. The Government should change the law so that local authorities have a presumption to offer for sale and redevelopment for housing, any row of garages that are empty. The new cottages should be traditional beautiful buildings and thus enhance the appearance of the estates where they appear – a welcome replacement for the ugly garages.
But the new rules should also go further. Often when garages are let, they are done so at commercial rates to residents not living on the estate. Sheffield City Council, for instance, has 1,532 empty garages. It has a further 1,073 garages let to non estate residents. Only 868 of its garages are let to its tenants or leaseholders. I suppose there is some benefit in easing parking pressure in the city. But most of the space is probably used for storage. Should the state really be competing with the private sector in the storage business? Councils should be told that there must be a presumption that commercial lettings be cancelled where redevelopment of housing is considered viable.
There should also be some gradual efforts to make available more of the garages that are currently used by estate residents. I concede this brings us into more controversial territory. The presumption should be that garages being vacated should not be offered for reletting where housing redevelopment is considered viable. Residents occupying garages where housing redevelopment is considered viable should be asked to vacate and offered the use of another garage on the estate if available. Where garage fees are below the market rate they should be gradually increased, over a five year period, until the fees are aligned.
What about the risk of parking congestion on council estates? Of course, that would need to be assessed. But in most cases that should highlight potential for more sites for new housing rather than of any difficulty. Often councils make no check of how many parking spaces on their estates are actually used. My council, Hammersmith and Fulham, only has the figures for those estates where traffic management orders operate. The total number of parking bays under TMOs is 2,894, while the total number of active estate parking permits on TMO sites is 1,780.
Other London councils which keep some records include:
What about the loss of revenue if the garages are knocked down? Obviously, this point doesn’t apply with the empty ones. But even if a garage is let than foregoing the £20 a week (or £10 or £30) would make sense if the land can be sold to provide a new home.
I would propose that proceeds of council receipts must first clear any backlog of capital works in the estate where sales have taken place – including any road repairs. There could also be, say, £25,000 from the sale to be allocated to Big Society Funds for local projects chosen by residents. There could be environmental improvements – such as tree planting, or providing electric car power charging points.
Sometimes a Council might decide to maximise its proceeds by allowing all the housing to be private. At other times it might negotiate a lower price but with a mix of tenures. Any social housing should give priority to existing estate residents. For instance, those suffering from overcrowding or those wishing to take up an opportunity for discounted home ownership or shared ownership.
It’s not only garages and surplus parking spaces that offer potential. Last month I wrote about unused, or underused, “tenants’ halls.” Then we have the rows of small lock-up store sheds (sometimes known as “pram sheds”) on council estates. Tower Hamlets Council owns 3,776 of which 2,320 are empty or in disrepair. Isliongton Council owns 3,779 again a majority – in Islington’s case 1,970 – sit empty. Usually, councils don’t charge separately for them and so don’t have any records. Supposing they wrote to their tenants, offering them £50 a year or £100 a year cut in rent, if they surrendered their (probably unused) pram shed? That would allow more space for attractive new homes. There is a large ball court on the estate at the end of my road which has been closed off for years.
These changes should be popular. Councils would benefit financially from the capital receipts for the new private housing and from the new social housing easing the need for placements in expensive temporary accommodation. Existing estate residents should benefit from their share of the proceeds and the aesthetic improvements. Most of all, those whose ambition for home ownership is currently frustrated, would welcome a chance to get on the housing ladder. So council leaders should get on with it. It would mean they could win votes while easing pressure on Council finances. The Government could make a start by including greater transparency over some of the wasted assets. But that will not be enough. Localism has its role but there must also be a legal mechanism to ensure these opportunities for new housing become a reality.
Over 4,000 empty Council-owned garages:
1,500 – 2,000
1,000 – 1,500
500 – 1,000
100 – 500