Council take-over turns deserted house into widow’s dream home

HORSHAM District Council is continuing its work to bring deserted homes back into use.

The council says there are between 400 and 500 long term empty properties across the district, where council tax is not being paid and the owners are not keeping them in a good condition.

The council can take court action to force owners to pay outstanding council tax bills or costs of emergency work carried out by the council in the owners’ absence.

The council can also use powers to eventually take possession of empty properties.

One of their success stories is at Lakers Meadow, Billingshurst, where the owners left the country.

HDC solicitor Liz Creswick said: “This was owned by a couple who moved abroad to Singapore and then moved from Singapore and we did everything to try and contact them.

“It was reported to us by the police neighbourhood officer because it’s close to Jengers Mead and they were concerned about teenagers hanging around there.

“Here there was council tax debt and we carried out work by default.

“We cleared the garden and charged them for those works, after first asking them to carry out the work.”

The council took possession of the house at a court hearing in March 2010 and it is now the happy home of neighbourhood watch co-ordinator Elizabeth Reise, who lived nearby.

She said: “As the neighbourhood watch co-ordinator for the area, when it became apparent the property was empty we tried to tidy up the garden a bit, but were told it was trespassing.

“Then there was a squatter in the churchyard opposite and with older ladies about something needed to be done.

“The people who had the owners’ email in Singapore tried contacting them but there was no response. The council said they could take it on.

“The area is lovely and I had been living in a one-bedroom flat on my own since my husband died in 2006.

“I would never have had the chance to buy somewhere like this.

“I was involved from the beginning and so I asked the council if I could buy it from them.

“I do wonder what happened to the people who lived here.

“When the council took over it there was a paint pot with a brush in it in the kitchen and a meat tray on the worktop, like they had left in a rush.”

Penny Marsh, environmental health officer at the council, said: “Effectively these people have abandoned their house.

“The council claims back all the court costs, legal fees, administration costs, costs of the auction and we pay the owner the balance.

“The owners (of Lakers Meadow) can still have the money if they come back at some point. We go to great lengths to contact people, using solicitors and sometimes even Facebook.”

She said there was a whole team trying to solve the problem of empty properties. “We have got a group of officers who meet every six to eight weeks to discuss the progress of our cases.

“We have officers from environmental health, planning, building control, community safety, council tax and the legal team.

“We found we had different departments looking at the same properties at the same time and sometimes duplicating work, so we formed the empty properties group.”

When the council first hears about an empty property, officers first contact the owner and give advice, while grants are available to help bring properties back into use in return for taking tenants nominated by the council.

Anyone interested in letting their empty property with council tenants can call 01403 215449 or email housing@horsham.gov.uk

To report an empty home go to http://www.horsham.gov.uk/housing/12978.aspx or contact Penny Marsh at Horsham District Council on 01403 215423 or email penny.marsh@horsham.gov.uk.