British councils will be given the power to auction off shops that have been empty for more than a year

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Ministers are seeking to tackle the scourge of empty shops on Britain’s high streets by allowing local authorities to take control of the properties, a move that has sparked unrest among landlords.

Under long-awaited plans, councils will be able to hold ‘high street rental auctions’ with no reserve price for properties that have been empty for more than a year.

Landlords of the auctioned properties will have to accept new tenants on leases of up to five years, even if they offer annual payments well below apparent market rates.

The initiative is the brainchild of Secretary Michael Gove and is being rolled out in a bid to “tackle the scourge of empty shops on the high street” and prevent landlords “sitting in empty properties”.

However, the move has been criticized by some landlords, who say it undermines property rights and risks damaging prices on the wider high street.

Currently one in seven shops on Britain’s high streets are empty, adding to the sense of decay in already struggling city centres.

About 80 percent of empty shops in Britain have been empty for more than two years, while more than one in five have been empty for more than four years, according to figures cited by the government in its response to a technical consultation on the details . of this week’s policy.

“Tackling the problem of long-term vacancy. . . is at the heart of the government’s next level agenda,” the report said. “We want to breathe new life into the once bustling city centers and transform them into vibrant places.”

With a £2 million rollout, eight councils will begin testing the program this summer, with the first auctions scheduled for September and the first units occupied in October.

Landlords will be given an eight-week grace period to attempt to rent out the units, and will have a final choice over which tenants to select, as well as the right to appeal.

But some property owners are unhappy with the plan and the prospect of below-market rents. “This goes against property rights,” said one industry figure.

There is a belief in Whitehall that some landlords are deliberately leaving their properties vacant to maintain an artificially high valuation – which would collapse if the property were let at a relatively low rent. That is a claim the industry strongly denies.

Melanie Leech, chief executive of the British Property Federation, said the government was wrong to scapegoat landlords for the scourge of boarded-up shops, blaming “excessive business rates, a lack of local disposable income and changing shopping habits”.

“Property owners don’t keep stores empty on purpose; they incur costs and lose rent if they do,” she said, adding that the new scheme “misses the point.”

The government said there are “safeguards” built into the process to ensure it is applied proportionately.

A spokesperson for the Leveling Up department said the measure is “really aimed at landlords who are not working with the council at all and are not taking proactive steps to let the property”.

But Andy Thompson, national director of Eddisons Property Auctions – which sells around 3,500 properties a year, many for local authorities – said letting properties at low rents risked hitting neighboring landlords because the valuations were based on the rental prices paid in the area.

“If you pay low rents for that building, you devalue those assets,” he added.

Jacob Young, the Conservative Senior Minister, emphasized that the policy has the potential to be transformational: “These new powers will enable local communities to take back control,” he said.

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