With housing stock in short supply and councils’ budgets under pressure, the Government is sitting on hundreds of empty dwellings around the country whilst leaving the local councils with the bill of maintenance.

In our profession as professional probate genealogists, we often get asked what happens to ‘ownerless properties’ i.e. when there is no next of kin to inherit them? In these situations, the property reverts to the Crown or, in reality, to the Bona Vacantia division of the Government Legal department. According to these legal department websites; ‘If an asset becomes bona vacantia it belongs to the Crown. The Crown does not have to deal with it in any particular way, but normally an asset will either be disclaimed or sold for full market value.’

The issue that Finders has uncovered in recent years is that some local councils seem to be lumbered with the on-going maintenance costs of these empty, ownerless properties; despite alerting the Bona Vacantia division that the property has reverted to the Crown. This period of ‘inaction’ by the central Government appears to be expanding with some councils left to maintain empty, ownerless properties for up to two years.

Improper Strain on Local Council Budgets

In November 2016 Harrow Council notified the Bona Vacantia division that the ‘ownerless’ property of the late ‘Pamela Smith’ (names changed to protect identities/property) has reverted to the Crown. However, two years later, Harrow Council is still bankrolling the maintenance of the empty £600,000 property including paying the insurance for it.

Ms Y Subotic, client finance COP/POP Officer at Harrow Council, says;’These empty ownerless properties create an inevitable cost on the council’s already stretched resources.’

‘Although we are legally bound to monitor and maintain the upkeep until the Crown’s Bona Vacantia division take steps to deal with administering the deceased’s estate. this comes with unavoidable costs for service provision and staffing that are levied at the council.’

‘In this particular case, Bona Vacantia’s administration of the deceased’s estate has lasted over two years. We now find ourselves in a unique uncertain state that is highly improper and unsuitable.’

‘The current wait time for Bona Vacantia’s administration of a deceased’s estate is unreasonable and ambiguous at best, costing our local authority in excess of £3,000 a year.’

Norwich City Council reports a similar situation. It is currently tasked with maintaining a property of the late Mr Good, who dies intestate (without a Will) and has no eligible next of kin to inherit it. Almost two years on, the Bona Vacantia division has still not dealt with this property, valued at around £160,000.

Despite in excess of 200,00 long-term empty dwellings in England recognised as a scandal by Local Government Minister Rishi Sunak, the government’s own legal department appears to sit on empty properties around the country that could, in fact, be sold or used as housing stock.

Every year on behalf of local councils we identify around 100 cases of estates that have no next of kin. At an absolute minimum, we estimate that at least a third of councils in England have at least one ‘ownerless’ property that it is currently shedding money to maintain and insure.

We all know that empty properties can have a negative impact on communities through squatting, vandalism and anti-social behaviour. Surely these properties should be put back into circulation or sold to release finances in a more expedient manner. Come on Bona Vacantia division, you can do better!

For the latest list of unclaimed estates in England and Wales visit the Bona Vacantia List.