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


Examination of Witness (Questions 72-79)

WEDNESDAY 24 OCTOBER 2001

DAVID THOMPSON

Chairman

  72. Can I welcome you to the Committee. Would you like to identify yourself, for the record; and do you want to say a few words, by way of introduction as well, or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?

  (Mr Thompson) Good morning, and thank you. My name is David Thompson, I am Director of Housing at Birmingham City Council. I have been in Birmingham for a year, and I was in Hackney, East London, for seven years and in Belfast for ten years before that, in housing management and renewal. I have forwarded to you my memorandum, which makes my point about a longer-term view and approach, as well as the immediate approaches we have heard, by local authorities to housing renewal. And I am willing to answer your questions.

  Chairman: Thank you.

Chris Grayling

  73. Can we start by asking you to describe the nature of the problem in Birmingham of empty homes?
  (Mr Thompson) Yes. Birmingham is a city with just over 400,000 homes, houses, in it, and 30 per cent of that total is managed by the City Council or housing associations, social housing; 70 per cent is either owned or privately rented. It is a city of a million and a half people, and we have recently started to look at that city in terms of its characteristics, its housing characteristics, in discreet areas, an area-based approach, a housing market area-based approach, areas which have similar socio-economic, similar social characteristics, similar condition characteristics; and we found that in Birmingham there are eight such areas, each having their own past and own current needs and issues in terms of housing investment, in terms of housing demand. We are in the process of preparing detailed plans for three of those areas that in most critical need of intervention, housing market intervention, because the viability of those three areas is in question, the long-term housing function or viability is in question. But it is a city of great complexity; however, we are mindful of economic change. And I noticed, earlier on, that when you asked David Cowans where he invested he said, "I have an economic profile of the areas I invest in." So in Birmingham the economic characteristics, the socio-economic characteristics, are being defined to lead on to how we invest in the long term in housing.

  74. Can you just give us an indication, you have talked about the areas that are of questionable viability, can you just give us a quick pen portrait of one of them?
  (Mr Thompson) Yes. At any one day of the week, there are about 3,000 empty homes in the council sector alone in the City. About 2,000 of that 3,000 are awaiting clearance, there is an existing clearance programme, about a thousand of those are awaiting reletting. In the privately rented sector there is another group of homes that are vacant, and also in the Registered Social Landlord sector there is a further group of homes that are vacant on any one day of the week. There are programmes of traditional intervention and also programmes of housing management to resolve those vacancies locally, where the houses are capable of being relet; but that needs to be balanced alongside a longer-term view. So, to answer your question, if you take the south east of Birmingham, around Longbridge, Longbridge and the Rover car works, the car works used to employ about 27,000 men and women and now employs 6,000, following the recent takeover. There are 20,000 council houses around the Longbridge works that historically thrived on employment in Longbridge; that employment base in the south west of the City has been removed, the reason for existence of many of those peripheral estates, as Longbridge is right at the edge, Northfield, of the City, has been eliminated. Therefore, in addressing the vacancies there, the City is looking at the longer-term view of clearance, on a significant scale, and tenure change, change to affordable ownership, change to other types of land use. So that is an example of one of the areas, of these eight areas we are looking at, where intervention in a longer-term way needs to be undertaken.

  75. Just to ask you, in terms of your own experience of public and private sector, where unpopularity of housing applies to the different housing stocks in those sectors, where do you find the differences, what are the causes, and indeed what differing responses are required from you and from policy more broadly?
  (Mr Thompson) They can be very much the same from where I began, in terms of the long-term need for investment in the area concerned, has it a viable housing function; so that applies to the privately rented or the council housing sector, what is the future of that neighbourhood, that area; and in Birmingham we have chosen areas of about 50,000 houses, significant neighbourhoods, where is that area going, ask that question, all follows from that, be it public or private. But in the public sector Government certainly has a focus on reletting voids, on policies of housing management, and local authorities will be punished if their void rate is unnecessarily high for relettable areas, and there is a debate with central Government, that you have heard this morning, about long-term demand, are the houses lettable, given the high refusal rate of many of the applicants. Or given, if you filled them with some of the most vulnerable people on your waiting list, just to fill those houses, what are the implications for the viability of the community that you create as a result, in low-demand areas. In the private sector, we tend to have less scope for intervention, it is mostly stimulation by grant aid, it is mostly final stage intervention by compulsory purchase, but a big gap between those two forms of intervention in the privately rented sector. My paper was pointing to the need to look at that sector, alongside, in the same geographical area, the future of public sector renting and ownership.

Mr Betts

  76. Just on Birmingham's housing problems in the wider regional context, to what extent do you think regional planning guidance takes account of the housing problems you have just described in Birmingham, particularly with the change of PPG3; do you think that is now working properly, is it being given sufficient weight, and is it having an effect?
  (Mr Thompson) We have three primary sets of guidance, although you have mentioned the fourth, which is the planning framework, the UDP and the planning framework, we have the Regional Development Agency, we have the Housing Corporation and we have the Government Regional Office. So as a local authority you have three sets of guidance, and a fourth, that you have mentioned, the planning guidance. At the moment, most guidance is descriptive; as you said, we are getting statements rather than strategies, we are certainly getting statements from Government Regional Offices, we are getting statements from the newly reorganised Housing Corporation regional offices, and indeed the RDAs are very descriptive in their role at this stage, and that partly reflects the newness of their recent reorganisations. We have an appetite at a local authority level for strategies, statements that have the courage of their convictions after research to say, "These are areas of housing growth and these are areas of housing decline;" we do not see that. In terms of planning guidance, on affordable housing, affordable housing one component, we are very happy, on the periphery of the City of Birmingham, that is the outer suburbs, in terms of new housing provision under PPG3, but in the City centre we are not getting affordable ownership provision, we are getting developers who will give the Council a commuted sum of money to go and build affordable housing elsewhere, so in our central business area we are concerned that we need additional measures for affordable ownership with City centre developers. But my overall message on the planning framework is, currently, overtly descriptive, and a need for local authorities to be pushed towards greater intervention.

  77. Are you finding, say, on PPG3, that the regional guidance is saying to some of your neighbouring authorities, "The plan now is not to carry on building out into green spaces, but we should be looking, as part of the regional approach, to concentrate more on building on brownfield sites in Birmingham;" is that happening?
  (Mr Thompson) Yes. You have got to contrast that guidance against powerful forces at work. Our great fear is, and some research underwrites this, that younger, economically active households are moving out of Birmingham, particularly black, minority ethnic households, to cities around the edge of Birmingham, to Telford, to Redditch and to Tamworth, three growth towns, 15 miles away, and we are in need of clearing obsolete and outworn housing areas in the inner city to create those brownfield sites. So, yes, we have a planning framework, holding greenfield growth and putting pressure on brownfield development. My message to you today is that I think a long-term approach to housing investment will clear outworn council housing areas to build affordable ownership homes in place, instead, and that is one of Birmingham's messages, inside that planning framework.

  78. Can I just pick up one of the issues you mentioned, about the City centre housing and the fact that you cannot get the affordable housing built alongside, in the hope that that sort of housing will be a catalyst for regeneration, in the wider sense; you say that really is not happening in the current circumstances?
  (Mr Thompson) Yes.

  Mr Betts: What steps would you like to see, what changes to policy or to instruments you, as a Council, might have, to make that process work better?

Mrs Dunwoody

  79. And how do you control the prices for your affordable housing, because all they do is clear council housing and put really quite expensive houses back, which are not affordable by the people who have been forced out?
  (Mr Thompson) In the very heart of the City centre in Birmingham there is new house-building, in a way we have not experienced before, and that is to do with the confidence in the City centre as a result of some major economic investment. That housing is for unfettered owner-occupation. The local authority, in giving planning permission, asks that a certain proportion is for affordable ownership. We are getting major developers, instead of building giving us the money.


 
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