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


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-71)

WEDNESDAY 24 OCTOBER 2001

DAVID COWANS

NICK HUGHES, SUSAN HEINRICH, ROSIE MAY AND CLARE MITCHELL

Dr Pugh

  60. Is the problem of empty homes getting worse, in fact, getting more concentrated; and if the problem is changing why exactly is it changing?
  (Ms Mitchell) I am sure everyone will want to make some contribution, but the figures show, the overall figure is more or less the same in the last few years, although there has been a general decline, but the problem is increasing in areas of the north.

  61. It is continued failure of demand, is it?
  (Ms Mitchell) Yes; issues of low demand, unpopular housing, `hard to let' properties.

  62. Is that primarily an employment issue?
  (Ms Mitchell) I suppose the feedback we continually get is that empty homes in these areas are not empty due to bricks and mortar, it is not about the housing.

  63. It is the state of the properties?
  (Ms Mitchell) Yes, it is about all the other issues, and those have to be addressed. And I listened to the previous speaker; that is clear, that, although sometimes there are types of tenure that are less popular, the issue is not of bricks and mortar it is all the other issues.

Chairman

  64. A cynic like me would suggest that when the Empty Homes Agency was created it was to solve the problem; so have you failed?
  (Ms Mitchell) I suppose, if you look at the rise in issues of low demand and unpopular housing, the decline of certain areas, the social, economic problems, the Empty Homes Agency is not quite able to address those. I think what we have done is raise awareness, and we have continually lobbied for certain issues, such as the VAT issue, and obviously we are trying now to respond to the increase in problems of low demand and unpopular housing.

Mr Betts

  65. Can I just begin by saying that in some parts of the country really the collapse of demand is so severe that an empty homes strategy of the sort you are trying to propose really is dealing with the symptoms, it is a finger in the dyke job, when really we ought to be looking at the whole reasons why the housing demand has collapsed and see what can be done about that, or whether there is a much more radical strategy needed. Would you accept that?
  (Ms May) Sorry, could you rephrase the question?

  66. Really in some parts of the country there has been a complete collapse of housing demand, so looking round how you can fill one home, two homes and a few dozen homes is not really going to work, you have got to look at the causes of the whole problem rather than trying to deal with the symptoms?
  (Ms May) Exactly. That is why a national overview is needed, and there are very different problems in the north from the south, very different, which is exactly why a national overview is needed; then an empty property strategy at local authority level can then address, they will learn by example, for a start, so they will have an overview of their community, and then be able to get on board. There are so many resources available within a local authority that are wasted because people do not work together, and rather than having five or six council offices work on bringing one or two properties back into use, you could have five or six working together to bring ten times as many back into use.

  67. Can I just pick up on two possible scenarios; one is these areas where demand has declined. Are you accepting there implicitly that part of the strategy probably will be substantial demolition? But, secondly, also, in some areas, quite a bit like Sheffield, where I come from, where, yes, there is a desire to stop increasing building into the green areas round the City, and the sequential test of PPG3 will be helpful, but that does not mean to say that the status quo within the City then will hold, because there are some properties now which people are saying are no longer adequate, they want better quality homes. So you might have to have a programme of demolition and rebuilding in the urban areas even if you cannot build out into the green spaces; do you accept that sort of approach as part of the strategy as well?
  (Ms May) To a certain extent, yes. I think that, rather than just clearance, selective demolition is a good way. We visited Burnley yesterday, in Lancashire, and they have actually got a project, Burnley Wood is a relatively small area of low-demand houses; they have already reduced the supply of housing by demolition and it has not worked and it is creeping back. And if you went to visit, you can just walk up the hill and see gradually, the streets, more and more houses becoming empty; but some people are still investing heavily in their properties, some people, the core of the community is still there, they are still staying, there are a few `For Sale' boards up. So it is really selectively demolishing. Rubbish clearance; the rubbish clearance there is absolutely atrocious, there were two yards piled high with rotting rubbish and flies, and children play there. Now if they demolished, say, one row of the houses that back to each other, then they have their yards behind and then a big central alleyway, if they demolished one row, created gardens, had in their effective empty property strategy, if they had a corporate one, cleared the rubbish, made the area just generally a nicer place to live, that is going to be far more effective than just demolishing the next row, and then when the next row becomes empty the next row. So demolition is good if it is done selectively and it is done carefully and it is done with a corporate strategy in mind, but so many of the local authority services are failing there. So housing and whether or not the houses are just becoming empty because people have not got jobs is not necessarily the issue. I would not have said that the problem of empty homes is actually getting worse. And, just coming back to the previous point, the Empty Homes Agency, I would say, has been a success, we are here now, and ten years ago Bob Lawrence started off on his own; so that is good. The low demand figures seem to be on the increase for social housing, but that is because local authorities have just transferred, in the last year or so, 30,000 of their own low-demand stock over to RSLs, so RSLs are getting the flak for that one. So it is not necessarily getting worse, but I think it will do and it can get frustrated if we see regeneration policies not working simply because you demolished the whole lot.

Mr Wiggin

  68. I am just curious as to your view on the proportion of the blame you would apply to local authorities for empty homes, because, from what we have heard today, where demand is falling part of the problem is the attitude of the local authority, and, from what you have said, it strikes me that the better local authorities seem to have tackled the problem in a more proactive and creative manner, whereas the worse ones are the areas in which people do not wish to live. So do you not think perhaps the Government should be considerably tougher on the local authorities that are failing, instead of trying to blame the private sector perhaps?
  (Ms Mitchell) That is part of the reason we are calling for there to be a statutory power to have an empty property strategy.
  (Ms May) It is just that places like Burnley and places of low demand, no, you cannot solve the problem by just coming down on them like a ton of bricks, pardon the pun.

  69. I am very familiar with Burnley, I was there in 1997. But the point is that in Burnley in particular the local authority does not seem to do anything about it, and that was the constant complaint of the people who lived there.
  (Ms May) Because they are frustrated because of the lack of funding, because people just actually do not know. At the moment it is fashionable for a local authority to employ an empty property officer, they can tick a little box on the HIP form and they feel they have done their job. That empty property officer goes in with no qualifications, quite often, in housing or any other related field, some people are even taking on estate agents to be an empty property officer. A local authority at the moment has not got a clue of what they need or want their empty property officer to do, or even what their empty property officer can do.

Chairman

  70. But is it really a question though of the local authority managing its housing, or ought it really to be the Government actually trying to find ways of encouraging people to move from the South East to some of these areas, where there are some very good houses which are basically going to have to be pulled down because there is no demand?
  (Ms May) It is a combination of the two. There are mobility schemes in operation at the moment, they are being done very quietly, it would be good if they could be done with Government support and backing, but it would be no good to encourage people from the South East to move up to the low-demand areas in the north and then for them to be managed badly, or for them to just move out again. So it is a combination of the two.

Ms King

  71. What are those schemes, do you know what they are?
  (Ms Mitchell) One is LAWN; there is a scheme called LAWN, whereby London authorities have linked up with a number of northern authorities and RSLs to place homeless households in London in properties in the north.
  (Ms May) And also Brighton Housing Trust, they operate one. So there are ones springing up, but my concern is that they are being done despite Government work on empty homes, rather than as an addition to or with the support of. And low demand is an underfunded community with a failing infrastructure, and it needs funding and commitment for the whole lot, not just for the housing element, or to rebuild the houses or redecorate.

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


 
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