Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witness (Questions 20-35)

WEDNESDAY 24 OCTOBER 2001

DAVID COWANS

  20. Do you think the fact that a number of local authorities and housing associations are bringing in tougher penalty agreements and putting in clauses which probably did not exist in old agreements, to impose on the tenants a condition, you know, "you behave yourself"; in your experience, is this resulting in a number of the worst neighbours from hell, if I could call them that, moving in to the private rented sector?
  (Mr Cowans) There is evidence that is happening. There is also evidence that the most difficult people, with the most chaotic lifestyles, just move between public sector landlords, so they move between local authorities, they move between RSLs, and in areas of oversupply it is pretty easy to do; and the processes of handling that are not as well developed as they ought to be. The fundamental question, which remains to be asked and answered, is what on earth do we do with the most problematical people, where do they live; do we abandon them completely? There was an interesting experimental study and a project in Dundee, which actually took Dutch models of handling anti-social behaviour, which was never replicated anywhere in the UK, and we ought to look at that in a bit more detail.

  21. Could you just perhaps tell us, briefly, about that?
  (Mr Cowans) Yes. It is a small project in Dundee, it is still running, to my knowledge, and the local authority was having problems where it was evicting people, who exhibited recidivist anti-social behaviour, and they just did not know what to do with them any more. So they made it a condition that these particular families had to move into a secure unit, this is a very, very difficult issue, and they had to go through a process of, it is difficult to know what to call it really, re-education, skills in budgeting, parenting, and all of this sort of stuff. But it is a huge issue about what on earth does one do with recidivist anti-social behaviour perpetrators when they do not actually necessarily break the law, as such.

  Chairman: They just break everyone's hearts, yes.

Mr Betts

  22. Dave, it is a long time since we first met across a table like this. Can I just pick up on the anti-social behaviour orders that you mentioned. They were seen as something that was really going to sort out some of these problems and be of great benefit to housing managers and to the police; the police in my area are saying that, in practice, they find them too cumbersome and too mechanistic and want to see them changed. I think everyone agrees the principle is right, but in practice they are not really delivering. How do you find it, do you think there ought to be some changes, have you got any suggestions?
  (Mr Cowans) I think that is true, that they are cumbersome, they are difficult to deal with. It is very difficult when you get to a court, whatever process you use, whether it is anti-social behaviour orders, or grounds in the Housing Acts, or whatever, the rules of evidence are so complicated that it is relatively easy for the defence lawyer to actually stop the process, which is fine in rule of law, and, of course, no-one wants to see an injustice take place, but, when you go back to that community and explain that, you can imagine the response you get. What happens is then the people who actually glue the community together start to move out and decline sets in. So it is a very complicated and difficult area. My own view is that we ought to make greater use of probationary tenancies, but there are weaknesses there, because what happens if someone fulfils their probation and then goes on to practice anti-social behaviour. We have got to do a lot more work on this; but I still think we ought to study more what we do about the recidivist anti-social perpetrator, because, often, in my experience, it is the recidivists who are causing the problem; they have caused problems elsewhere, some people get moved down the street, and communities do not understand that, and you can see their point really.

Helen Jackson

  23. Why do you think so many housing regeneration programmes have failed, in the sense that the areas that they have been attempting to regenerate remain often the top candidate for the next regeneration programme that comes along?
  (Mr Cowans) That is a central question. My own view is that there was an overemphasis on housing. Estate Action was a good example of that; it was well meaning and it did put resources into the most difficult estates, but it almost completely emphasised housing. The tenure changes that took place were peripheral, they were small, and there was no real attempt to tackle the underlying causes of neighbourhood decline, such as anti-social behaviour, employment, training, and a lot of that is being dealt with now. The problem I think is that the housing baby has been thrown out with the regeneration bath water, in a sense, because many New Deal for Communities in former SRB areas almost have no housing component at all; and trying to get that balance back is crucial. There are also some areas where the various tools are tenure specific. There is a set of policy tools for the private rented sector and the lower-value home ownership market, there is a set of tools for Registered Social Landlords, and there is a set of tools for existing local authority stock, rarely do the three meet, really.

  24. Can I press you, because have you any experience or examples of an area that is justifying special social measures, because of multiple poverty, deprivation and housing, as being one of those, that actually, through special measures, becomes successful in the sense that it no longer qualifies for any further special measures?
  (Mr Cowans) We give one example, of Viking Lea, in Sheffield, which, when we took it from the local authority, was 50 per cent vacant, and through a series of special measures it now is 5 per cent vacant. So if we are just looking at this from an empty homes perspective, that is a reasonable result.

  25. But it still needs input?
  (Mr Cowans) There are very, very few examples, in my experience, of special measures that then have been lifted because the area has been radically turned around, without it being very large-scale, and the tenure mix has been radically shifted, which tends to suggest large-scale demolition. I have seen that in various places; Broomhall, in Sheffield, was the most extreme case, because the problem was removed completely by demolition .

  26. Is it therefore possible that another special measure, the Housing Market Renewal Fund, might not be as successful as finding answers to deprivation, poverty and poor housing, that are more closely built in to mainstream local government or Government policies?
  (Mr Cowans) I think, if the housing renewal package was to work it would have to be strongly built into ongoing revenue services, and I think it is one of the mistakes of regeneration, that special measures tend to be on top of what already happens and not sufficiently connected to routine services. So housing market renewal would have to be part of the planning of the local authority and all the other agencies about how they were going to continue managing it. That is why I think 20 years is probably reasonable.[3] The problem with 20 years is, it sounds like for ever, and to a degree it is, and it would be difficult to have a programme where at the end of 20 years you then said, well, did it work or not; so you would have to have some very clear milestones. I think the other thing I would say is that large geographical areas are actually multiples of tiny neighbourhoods, and if we took every tiny neighbourhood as an individual unit and slowly changed it over time you would be able to see a gradual improvement of the area. Because many of these areas actually can be made worse by current regeneration activities; the classic is if you have a regeneration programme that happens in a disadvantaged area, the first thing people do who get a job is move. So actually all that regeneration does is decapitate the leadership of that community endlessly, and actually it gets more and more and more disadvantaged; whereas if we had that Housing Market Renewal programme linked into job creation and entrepreneurial job creation, that actually gave people housing choices that meant they could continue to live in the area, but better their housing circumstances, that would strengthen the neighbourhood.

Chris Grayling

  27. Very quickly on that, the impact then of developments like the Merseyside Docklands, the Salford Docklands, and London Docklands, where you bring professional housing into an area of deprivation, what impact does that have on the surrounding community, in your judgement?
  (Mr Cowans) If you just put a high-income silo in the middle of a very disadvantaged area that does not help much really. So the issue of mixed tenure housing has to be addressed in a much more pepper-potted way; it is a very old form of housing, centuries old, that people live together in different income groups. What tends to happen is, if you get the new yuppie flats in the middle of Liverpool's Riverside surrounded by a wire fence, that does not do a lot really, because those people tend to jump over the local economy to service their needs. So just doing that does not help. But tying that sort of housing programme into local employment programmes, actually trying to spatially integrate different forms of tenure, can have a massive impact, it can drive local shops, it can drive the survival of shops that would have gone under ordinarily, it can drive economic opportunities for people who would not have got them, okay, they might be low grade, they might be cleaning, but they will be there; and it traps more of that money in the inner city, whereas it probably would have gone to the outer suburbs. So there is lots of evidence where that does happen.

  28. Where has that been done well?
  (Mr Cowans) I think it has been done well in bits of Manchester and Birmingham; but the problem is that you have to build a market in the city centre. I think it is done well in parts of London, just because it has always been done like that, by the way. In parts of Manchester areas of high-value housing are starting to creep out into the outer core of the city, because that is what will happen, people will seize on the inner core housing opportunities first, and then as demand increases it increases development opportunities which become more attractive outside the inner core. So it works quite well in parts of Manchester. I do not think it works particularly well in Liverpool yet, because of the severity of the problems and the very strong concentration of low-value housing.

Christine Russell

  29. In areas of really severe economic decline and fall in demand, like perhaps the areas you have mentioned, what are your views on large-scale clearance?
  (Mr Cowans) I think in some places it is inevitable and necessary, but it has to be managed in a way that we do not just repeat all the social costs that we saw in clearance programmes in the fifties and sixties. So smaller, bite-sized, community clearance within an overall, large-scale plan, moving those communities together to new provision, planning the new provision first, because often the new provision comes after the clearance, which disperses local communities, and having a whole series of opportunities for people who own their home not to lose out, so relocation grants, and things like that.

  30. Yes, I was going to ask you about the funding. Have you got any examples from your own portfolio that you could give us, and perhaps if you could just elaborate a little bit more on how you put the funding package together to do it, in your case?
  (Mr Cowans) It will depend, to be honest, on the nature of the community as it is; if those people were almost exclusively social tenants you would have one set of funding, which would be home loss, disturbance, all the classic stuff really, but the real problem is getting the new provision in place before the clearance happens.

  31. And what is that new provision?
  (Mr Cowans) It is new housing for those people who need it. So, for instance, when I worked for Leicester, the City Council was demolishing old, pre-cast concrete properties, "Boot-houses", for those of you who are into this, and new provision came first; and then those people who were in phase one of the clearance got to design the homes they were moving into. But that is very expensive, and it takes a long time. If we just clear 2,000, 3,000 properties at a time, we will destroy those communities, and that will be a real tragedy.

Mrs Ellman

  32. How does Places for People decide where to invest?
  (Mr Cowans) We have a detailed analysis of local economies, we look at where we are already strong and where we are not, and we look at where we can add most value. We also tend to go for the larger schemes, because, to be honest, building 11 properties on the end of a street, anybody can do that, whereas we have strength to do the bigger schemes. And we also, now, only do mixed tenure, we will not just do big estates of affordable housing, because all the evidence is people do not want that. Over 75 per cent of people in recent surveys said they would prefer to live in a mixed-tenure neighbourhood than in a mono-tenure, affordable housing neighbourhood, and all the evidence is that people outside of that neighbourhood have a better perception of it if it is mixed tenure.

  33. What requirements do your funders have, for investment?
  (Mr Cowans) They have views about covenants, they want to get their money back and they want to get a return, they have views about our overall economic strength, and they will have views about things like rent arrears and vacant properties. Coming back to the Chairman's point about is there a pressure about filling vacancies, well, yes, there is, and they also have a view about whether they think we are a worthy investment, and on the whole, because we meet 35 lenders every year, they think we are, because we demonstrate a lot of thought about what we do and where we are going in the market.

  34. Is there any difference between the criteria the private funders want and the criteria the Housing Corporation lay down?
  (Mr Cowans) Yes, there is. We have gone through two bond issues, and the assessment from the underwriter about a bond issue is far more rigorous than anything the Housing Corporation does.

Chairman

  35. Should the Housing Corporation be more vigorous then?
  (Mr Cowans) It depends what you mean by vigorous. I think they could have a stronger view about the financial strength of smaller organisations, I think there is definitely an issue there. There have been lots of examples of smaller organisations that have breached covenants, that have missed bullet repayments on loans, that were not far short of in difficulty such as West Hampstead, Bristol Churches, but, having said that, the sector has a very good record, no-one has ever gone bust, and no-one has ever defaulted on a loan, which is not true in most other parts of the economy.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very much for your evidence.


3   Note by witness: A reasonable timescale for a housing market renewal area. Back


 
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