How to find new leads in an old news report on empty property

empty property in Croydon - image by United Diversity
empty property in Croydon – image by United Diversity

Background material and general reporting on an area can often provide all sorts of clues and leads for further, deeper investigation.

This piece from the Birmingham Mail is a particularly good example. On the surface it is a rather general report on an empty property in the city – but along the way it includes all sorts of helpful pointers if you want to dig further.

Here’s the first line that should be registering:

“The city council’s empty property team was set up in 2006″

This tells you who to call to find out more about what information exists about this area – that can save a lot of time to- and fro-ing between various contacts and switchboards.

And how about this?


“In most cases the threat of CPO is enough to get owners to tidy up and either let or sell them.”

A CPO is a Compulsory Purchase Order. Any sort of acronym normally means either a contact or process: in this case, a process.

And where there’s a process, a trail is generally kept.

That means this is something you could write a Freedom of Information (FOI) request* about – for example: ‘Please provide details on how many CPOs have been made in relation to empty properties, postcode, etc. etc.’ (it’s a good idea to first find out what data is held in relation to CPOs too so you can shape your request accordingly).

Next key passage:

“Since 2006, the council has successfully taken out 160 CPOs and forcibly seized 38 houses.”

So there’s already information about how many CPOs have been taken out, but you could still request more detail.

Furthermore, presumably forcibly seizing houses also leaves a paper/data trail you could FOI.


“40 properties were put in four separate groups in order of priority.”

Again, more context – you could request that priority data. Note that these have not had a CPO requested yet, so wouldn’t appear on the other data.

Another set of data that wouldn’t appear in that CPO data is indicated in the next line:

“The council prefers owners to voluntarily co-operate and, since 2006, 1,835 have.”

There may be overlap between the two (a CPO may be taken out and then people co-operate), but the figures tell us it would be small.

And finally:

“Apart from the enforcement programme we have the repair and lease scheme”

Yet another data trail!

From just one article you have a number of possible leads that you could pursue through a phonecall to the empty property team and then through FOI. Those include:

  1. the CPOs,
  2. the prepared-for-CPOs and priority levels
  3. the forcible seizures
  4. the voluntary cooperation,
  5. the repair and lease scheme.

Of course talking to the team about the issues and what they feel isn’t being reported helps too.

*Note: councils often refuse to provide details on locations of empty properties because they fear squatters will use that information to occupy them. Here’s some background. With that in mind it may be worth asking if exact location is central to what you’re interested in, or whether you can tell stories about more aggregate data, e.g. by first part of postcode.

A further issue which may crop up in FOI requests is data protection. On these objections you may need to quote this guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office.