Lucy Alexander standing next to decorative door.

Lucy Alexander’s open letter to property developers: Find diamonds in the rough, and your creativity could help fix the housing crisis.

20 Mar 2024 | 4 min

I spent 13 years of my career presenting Homes Under the Hammer. It was a privilege to be part of such a legendary show, but more so to be part of hundreds of homebuyer stories. Every single one is different.

There have always been a variety of different routes into property ownership – from auction, to inheritance, to traditional purchase chains. That has never changed. But, as the housing crisis deepens, the market is seeing a shift in the popularity of renovation and redevelopment; those who are ready to purchase property are, more than ever, looking for transformation projects.

We know that demand outweighs supply. That’s why, as we ask government and local authorities to act fast, we should leave no stone unturned in the drive for increasing property availability in the UK.

I’m proud to be an ambassador for Together’s UK-wide Hidden Gems campaign, to raise awareness of the scope and scale of the UK’s abandoned and derelict buildings problem. We need to continue to highlight the opportunities for restoration and redevelopment as a way of opening doors for homeowners and investors. Across our major cities, towns and villages, we can get creative in order to fulfil ambitions, preserve our heritage and provide exciting opportunities for future generations.

What is ‘the empty homes problem’?

According to research from Together, there are 1.55 million empty homes in England and Wales – that’s property valued at a massive £500 billion.

At a local level, 41% of people surveyed by Together believe that derelict buildings are a source of rising crime and 29% of people believe they add to an overall lack of community spirit. But there’s much more to it than eye sores and antisocial behaviour.

The picture of empty homes tragically sits in front of a backdrop of homelessness at an all-time high, and young people and families struggling to get a foot on the housing ladder. With perfectly good housing stock falling into disrepair, and around 20% of empty homes lying vacant for at least six months, it’s no wonder that frustration is high when 67% of the population pass abandoned and derelict buildings monthly.

The redevelopment of empty homes may be an unappealing investment for many developers – presumably due to the expectation of higher costs for renovating buildings that may require more work due to disuse. However, properties can sometimes be stumbled upon - at auction, for example – and sold for a tempting price, with many empty homes having utilities and infrastructure already in place. So, there is potentially an attractive return on investment up for grabs.

Ultimately, the empty homes problem often sits with government, councils and local authorities who can ease the path for purchasing abandoned and unused buildings (70% of people believe that developers and local businesses should be given more help to repurpose abandoned buildings).

That said, if even a small portion of the already ‘for sale’ properties can be snapped up as transformation opportunities, a significant slice of both cash – and history – can be saved.

Empty properties, full of potential: the historic hidden gems awaiting refurbishing for the future

We’re extremely fortunate, in the UK, that our highstreets and suburbs are lined with buildings that tell all kinds of stories – from old Victorian picture halls in town centres, to ‘two-up two-down’ terraces in ex-mining villages. These silhouettes are often overlooked and underappreciated; and, when they become disused or uninhabited, they can easily fall into disrepair and misuse. Any abandoned building, whether or not architecturally unique, stands in the skyline of our communities. And those up for sale are a rich, untapped vein of opportunity for developers.

It might be an old temperance café transformed into luxury apartments, or perhaps it’s a country hall given a new lease of life with an award-winning landscaped garden space – it may even be as simple as taking one of the 330,000 terraced homes lying empty in England and Wales and creating a refurbished family home. Putting existing, often unassuming, property in the creative hands of a developer can bring a new era of life and longevity.

But it isn’t just about honouring history and refurbishing for the future – it’s also about solving housing shortages with creative solutions. Around 14% of the empty homes in England and Wales can be found in the North West of England. The region is a great example of the need for creative thinking to boost property stock. Barrow-in-Furness, one of the most economically deprived areas in the UK, has recently seen BAE Systems announce a £3.95 billion contract to build the latest generation of nuclear-powered submarines at its Barrow base, and is looking to add an additional 5,000 employees to its 12,000 strong workforce. With an influx of industry and workers, in a location crying out for regeneration and rejuvenation, Barrow is among many towns that could benefit from empty home development.

Tools and elbow grease: mining for diamonds

This open letter to developers isn’t intended to make the job feel simple. The empty home problem isn’t going to be solved overnight, and it isn’t easy work to polish hidden gems. But return on investment for those willing to take on the challenge could be significant – with empty home property valued at around £500 billion.

The intention of the campaign is to highlight how we need creativity and investment from new homebuyers, and experienced and new developers, to see the potential in the empty homes that are available for sale. It takes risk, bravery and imagination to see beyond the bricks and mortar.

We so desperately need more homes to solve the nationwide housing crisis – and the solution runs much deeper into economic and homebuilding policy (40% believe that addressing the UK’s abandoned and derelict housing crisis should sit highly on the Levelling Up agenda). But 1.55 million is a significant amount of vacant property, and it’s likely that many are up for sale right now and await a buyer. This is where we can encourage investors to take the chance to change the future of these derelict buildings.

The people taking on the challenge, and opportunity, of renovation projects are playing a part in preserving and creating history – the history of the concrete that makes up the buildings, but also the history of the communities in which they stand.


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