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Could a change in the law be the answer to the UK’s vacant property crisis?

The current property crisis, more acute than it has been in living memory, straddles the public and the private sector. Theresa May’s social housing business plan has given the illusion of progress, but, in reality, the number of new social homes being built has been on a steep decline since the 1950s.

Certain political milestones have exacerbated this social housing shortage. Council tenants having permission to purchase their homes under Thatcher’s government might have prompted a spike in private ownership, but it was a devastating blow for social housing. Since then, rules preventing councils from borrowing money stopped the building of social housing almost entirely.

Private ownership is also on the decline. Millennials are four times more likely than baby-boomers be renting (privately) at the age of 30, as ownership levels slip back to 64%, and the percentage of income allocated to housing costs mounts.

These statistics have been prompting cries for change. In the lieu of government action, one potential solution to the housing crisis is a system of property guardianship.

What is property guardianship?

This concept is relatively simple. There are a huge number of empty properties in the UK at any given time. Uninhabited for any number of reasons (redevelopment plans, a change of purpose, a foreign owner, a deferred sale etc.) these properties can lie vacant for months – even years. Unused spaces offer an accommodation opportunity, as more and more owners are opting to have their properties managed by an on-site guardian.

Oaksure Property Protection explain how property guardianship is beneficial for both parties: guardians are housed at a relatively low cost, and property owners can secure their building against vandalism, thieves, squatters or general disrepair. The guardian’s presence functions as a security patrol for the property. In exchange, guardians are offered secure, maintained accommodation, with necessary living facilities, for a fraction of the cost of a conventional private tenancy.

What are the problems?

Whilst property guardianship seems to offer a simple, viable solution to the housing crisis, the system operates in foggy legal ground. This lack of legal clarity became apparent in a well-publicised case: Camelot v Greg Roynon.

Mr Roynon, occupant of two rooms in what was previously an old people’s home owned by Bristol City Council, refused to leave the property after being asked to do so by Camelot Guardian Management Ltd (who had entered an agreement with Bristol City Council to provide temporary guardians for their empty property).

The disagreement was taken to court and the issue of whether or not Mr Roynon was an assured shorthold tenant was decided upon based on specific details regarding the nature of occupation. The decision was significant: Mr Roynon was deemed to be a tenant not a licensee, even though he’d been given a ‘licence agreement’. Whilst this decision was specific to Mr Roynon’s circumstance, the result was a watershed moment for property guardianship.

What’s the solution?

 Property guardianship demands a two-pronged approach: the legislation has to be such that property owners and guardian companies are incentivised, but, equally, the rights of guardians need to be protected and upheld. To marry these standards is essential, else this viable solution to the housing crisis will quickly become a short-lived dream rather than a long-term prospect.

But the tensions in this system can be resolved. Assured tenancies might still be terminated with relative ease. All that’s required is a more scrupulous approach to timing implications.

Property owners and guardian schemes should place their written contracts and practical arrangements under review, taking the recent ruling into consideration. A better understanding of timings will ward against legal dispute, as more stringency will help to ensure that vacant possession is obtained at an early enough point, such that it becomes possible to retake control of the premises within the necessary timescale.

Legal disputes might muddy the waters of property guardianship, but as this arrangement becomes more commonplace, legal clarity on this new way of living will begin to emerge. As is so often the case, legislation is panting to keep up with social change.

Cautionary measures will allow systems of property guardianship to progress with the ease and convenience for which they were devised. Arrangements that benefit both owners and occupants are few and far between, but property guardianship offers a sacrifice-free solution to the housing crisis.

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