Last week, over a thousand City workers stood at the bottom of Tower 42’s monumental staircase and thought, “Why did I sign up for this?” Joining them was City A.M.’s digital team and architect-turned-TV personality George Clarke, who reached the top of the skyscraper in a very respectable nine minutes and 29 seconds, all in aid of housing and homeless charity Shelter. “Before we started, there were members of the press going, ‘Is he actually going to do this or is he just here for the pictures?’”, George Clarke says in his cheerful Sunderland lilt. Though he laughs it off, I get the impression that simply being that-man-off-the-telly is a recurring annoyance.
It’s true that Clarke has been a ubiquitous televisual presence over the last decade, fronting shows like The Restoration Man, The Home Show and George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces. But recently his series’ have taken on a campaigning tone, with The Empty Homes Show and The Great British Property Scandal both exploring the depth of the housing crisis and what can be done about empty homes.
On top of owning his own architectural firm, George Clarke + Partners, he’s an author, a visiting lecturer at Nottingham University, an ambassador for Shelter and the Landmark Trust, and an advisor to the Department for Communities and Local Government on how to tackle empty homes. Does he ever feel like just saying no?
“When they approached me, there was no way on earth I could say no,” he says. “I’m obviously known for architecture and buildings, but my biggest passion is for building proper homes, which I’m always pushing for on every level. There’s no doubt about it that we’re in the biggest housing crisis we’ve ever seen. We’ve got 95,000 children living in temporary accommodation in Britain, and I find that not only disgusting on a personal level but also a national disgrace.”
Working on the empty homes campaign has taught him a lot about the scale and complexity of the problem, says Clarke. Figures from the Empty Homes charity put the number of vacant properties in England at 610,000, with 200,000 of those empty for six months or more. It also estimates we need an additional 200,000 homes a year to keep up with household growth, meaning these long-term empty homes could go a long way to alleviating the current housing shortage.
Clarke has toured the country speaking to local councils, advising how to allocate funding and what can be done to bring these properties back into use, but easy solutions are proving hard to come by.
“An empty homes problem in Glasgow is very different from one in Cornwall. They’ve got different economic problems and levels of unemployment and there’s always a unique story as to why they’ve been left empty.” Some have been left because they’re in such bad condition they’re struggling to find tenants, while others have simply been abandoned.
Clarke drew up a 12-point plan for the government, which champions alternative methods of procurement like Homesteading (discounting the cost of empty homes), co-operatives and Sweat Equity (self-renovating in exchange for a share in the property). But many local councils have found their own innovative ways to bring these homes back to market. Clarke says he attended an Empty Homes open day in Leeds, educating residents about the problem and what they can do to help, and he’s visited schemes in Mansfield and Lambeth that employ ex-army personnel and young jobseekers to refurbish these derelict buildings.
“The fact remains that 80 per cent of empty homes are privately-owned,” says Clarke, “so local councils come in for a lot of stick, but they only own 20 per cent of them.” This is where Clarke’s work with the DCLG comes in. Ministers have invested £150m, removing automatic council tax exemption on long-term vacant homes and allowing councils to charge up to 150 per cent of the standard charge instead to incentivise owners to occupy or sell their properties. As such, the number of empty homes has fallen by 80,000 since 2012. “To stop the number getting higher would have been enough for me,” says Clarke, “but to turn that figure around... Credit where it’s due, the coalition government has been brilliant at raising funding and awareness. Apart from having three gorgeous kids, it’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
But there’s still a lot more to do. Clarke says the first priority for any new government should be to build more council houses, rather than “passing the responsibility onto developers”, and create a more comprehensive transport infrastucture so towns in the north of England aren’t left behind. But he can add that to the list of challenges he’s determined to win, one step at a time.
Register for next year’s Vertical Rush for Shelter at Tower 42 at shelter.org.uk/verticalrush.