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

Examination of Witness (Questions 80-99)



  80. How do you define that?
  (Mr Thompson) We have a set of criteria about sale price which we give to the developer that we agree with the Housing Corporation that they would use for shared ownership or low-cost home ownership, dwellings that are built by RSLs, Registered Social Landlords, so we have a set of prices. But what we are getting from developers is money, "Please go and build your affordable ownership outside our area; we give you a commuted sum, we don't want to build." The question was, how do we challenge that; by the Secretary of State being aware of this trend and supporting local authorities when they say to a developer, who they wish to invest in the inner city, where there has not been accommodation built in many years before, "No; in your development we want a component to be built which is affordable, not the money to build elsewhere." Because that given to Birmingham means that affordable ownership is out of the City centre.


  81. Has Birmingham refused planning permission because someone will not co-operate with putting the affordable housing into the area, and, if they have, have the Government planning inspectors backed it up?
  (Mr Thompson) No, unfortunately, we have not.

  82. You have succumbed to the blackmail?
  (Mr Thompson) We have succumbed to the developer's view that he, or she, will withdraw interest altogether if forced to build a mixed tenure development.

  Chairman: Thank you very much.

Christine Russell

  83. Could we stay in the inner-city area, where you have got quite high local communities of ethnic minorities and black people. You mentioned briefly, a few moments ago, about the change in aspirations of some of those communities; could you expand a little on that and the consequences for those inner-city areas in Birmingham?
  (Mr Thompson) Birmingham's black and minority ethnic population, particularly the Asian population, has owned, does own, in the inner-city ring immediately outside of the central area, typically in pre-1919 terraced properties. First generation and second generation Asian households have maintained that as a form of ownership and a form of living that is appropriate to them; the Council has had in the past a renovation grant scheme that has underpinned that. However, we are finding that third generation Asian households and third generation Afro-Caribbean households in the north of the City, east of the City is primarily Asian, are saying, "I will not tolerate an ownership future in pre-1919 terraced streets, I would like to have a choice of ownership of new homes, new house-building, new-build owner-occupation, of all types of affordability, preferably in my neighbourhood." The difficulty is that that opportunity does not currently exist, and so young, economically active Asian and Afro-Caribbean households are leaving the inner area to move out of the City completely. We would be characterised by our outer suburbs being predominantly white and council housing suburbs, so that movement from the inner ring to out of the City is the preference. What we are saying in Birmingham is, there needs to be an approach which recognises those characteristics of a housing area and those needs and invests appropriately; and what we would say is that we are probably coming to the edge of a clearance programme of some substance of pre-1919 homes to build new ones.


  84. Have those pre-1919 homes had substantial public money spent on them modernising them?
  (Mr Thompson) They did, 25 years ago; it was enveloping of all the roofs and all the windows and it was grants following through from that, and we should celebrate that, that was a success, it had a 25-year life and 25 years further on, with houses that were already 100 years old, it is time to either reinvest that way again or move on to new homes.

Christine Russell

  85. I was going to say, there seemed to be a bit of a contradiction there, because you were saying that there is a keenness and a willingness from the third generation to actually remain with their families in their own communities, and I think I am aware that in London and in my city, Chester, pre-1919 terraced houses are exceedingly desirable, in fact, probably more desirable than boxes on the outskirts. So there seems a bit of a contradiction here. And, following what the Chairman was saying, I would like to pursue that a bit more, as to, is the answer to reinvest again in those pre-1919 dwellings?
  (Mr Thompson) The first point is to have a view of areas of the city that have similar characteristics; mine is a housing market approach, otherwise you will get into very precise approaches without having a longer-term vision about that neighbourhood, that area, and it is hard to generalise. But in many of Birmingham's pre-1919, particularly `front of pavement' terraced houses, they have reached the end of their life.

  86. Structurally?
  (Mr Thompson) Structurally, in terms of condition, in terms of the maintenance costs, to keep them in that form. Pre-1919 villas, larger, three- and four-bed homes, do have a future, tend to be built later and to a better standard. So within that terraced, owner-occupation stock lie a number of communities and a number of solutions, and what I am guarding against are individual bespoke solutions, we must look at the areas in which populations sit; what we find in black and minority ethnic populations in Birmingham, they are in the inner ring, outside the central business district, are vibrant and expansive communities, the children of which want to own and want to have affordable, local ownership opportunities which are not there. So, what do they do, they leave Birmingham; because immediately outside are suburbs which are not attractive.

Ms King

  87. I just wondered if you had seen this in Birmingham, I do not think it has happened in Hackney but it certainly is evident in Tower Hamlets, where housing planning policy has even opaquely contributed to segregation of communities, and how you would try to tackle that?
  (Mr Thompson) If you look, and again it is my message, at housing market areas, at areas with similar characteristics of whole cities, then you start to look at those policies which sustain communities, and in Birmingham certainly if you left it to a purely planning approach you might get a degree of segregation that was unnecessary, in east Birmingham, where the Asian community lives and, as I have said, there is an expansive community, there needs to be housing provision in outer east Birmingham to prevent that community having to leap over the top. How will that happen; if you look at outer east Birmingham, which is one of our eight housing market areas, you see that the low demand in predominantly white, elderly estates means that there are clearance opportunities and opportunities for inner east Birmingham to expand into outer east Birmingham, a natural evolution by that community, if you take a market overview and do not leave it to some of the more mechanistic processes of planning and housing departments. So, therefore, in Birmingham we are now brokering the fact that we are going to be seeing a wave-like movement of younger households, that would otherwise leave the City, into the next band of accommodation which is being cleared which is appropriate for them to own in.

Mrs Ellman

  88. You advocate a Housing Renewal Fund and housing renewal areas; how would this be different from the existing programmes?
  (Mr Thompson) Existing programmes from housing departments, when they view housing needs, look at council housing, privately rented sector, the Registered Social Landlord movement and owner-occupation. Generally, they measure their needs separately and have historically a variety of policies for each one of those forms of ownership, or tenure. The housing market renewal approach looks at areas with similar characteristics in cities, looks at their future viability, throughout all of the tenures that exist there. Government sponsorship is definitely focused, as we have heard earlier, to each of the forms of ownership or rent, and it would be an approach which could have resources directed in a different way. At the moment, we do not have housing resources with an area focus in this country; we have housing resources that are given annually to housing departments, and councils decide on the needs. We have historically had focused housing resources, but at the moment the focus in the country has been from SRB to economic regeneration area focused resources, with an economic edge, or we have some focused resources around health, Health Action Zones, some around education, Education Action Zones. My submission is that we have lost area-based focused resources, and each year Government dishes out about £1.7 billion in capital, and you could have area-based resources around housing market areas, where you intervened using, and I am advocating in my paper that there could be some top-slicing, we have no top-slicing of housing resources in this country to stimulate area-based, focused work.

  89. What about New Deal for Communities?
  (Mr Thompson) New Deal for Communities has in part a housing outcome but not exclusively a housing outcome; housing may be a lesser or greater degree of New Deal for Community Areas. Again, in the two New Deal areas we have in Birmingham there is primarily an economic focus: jobs, education coming second and health third; housing follows on.

Ms King

  90. But that is because the local communities decided that was what they wanted?
  (Mr Thompson) They did; but the guidance notes, two years ago, with the New Deal Pathfinders, were that housing could be a lead but it would only be one of several characteristics, and, Shoreditch, in the south of Hackney, where I worked, indeed, housing was a mainstream, but I understand, of the 18 Pathfinders for New Deal, they were not all housing-led by any means. But a housing focus, using existing resources, a range of agencies that are acting separately, focusing on the long-term future of housing areas, is not apparent in the way that local housing authorities behave now in their planning.

Mrs Ellman

  91. Much of the evidence we have had indicates the importance of wider regeneration objectives, as well as just straight housing; now is what you are saying going against that argument?
  (Mr Thompson) No. I do not believe you could ever have, as we have had some in the past, purely bricks and mortar housing-led regeneration any more, the criticisms are well known and well understood of purely a bricks and mortar approach; there would have to be a rounded approach to the wider needs of an area. But the lack of integrated working, the lack of collaborative working, between the tenures, between the agencies that work to each tenure, from our perspective, demand an area-based perspective and, where intervention is needed, a plan, a plan which draws together particular resources, for example, for land acquisition, property acquisition, where there is no demand, and no future for whole areas of housing, and I am speaking about very large areas of housing, where resources need to be directed.

  92. Housing agencies do not seem to work very well across local authority boundaries; does that indicate a need for stronger regional guidance?
  (Mr Thompson) In response to one of the questions, I would agree with that, yes, they are mostly descriptive, currently, and shy away from saying some areas have a future and others do not; please, local authorities, have the courage of your convictions to define those areas, and, in those areas with no future, have a plan for a new future, which may mean ownership, it may mean different land uses, but at the moment we do not have that particular focus for those areas with no critical future role.

Ms King

  93. I am just trying to understand what you were saying about the plan. Local authorities have to come up with a housing strategy plan, as it is, so what are you talking about that is different, are you talking about just bringing every agency together just on housing?
  (Mr Thompson) Yes. You have to have a plan, and that plan is usually for the whole of the local authority area, which identifies some neighbourhoods which need additional work, usual council housing neighbourhoods, not entirely; it looks at each one of the tenures of this country separately, very often, without any integrative conclusions. What I am saying is that we need to look at local authority housing areas as homogeneous neighbourhoods, with similar characteristics, on a scale which deals meaningfully with the future of that neighbourhood. They are usually areas with complex tenure issues where demand is falling, or where there is recycling of occupancy between those tenures, they can be areas where there is a range of agencies working independently but not together, and where there is money going in separate silos or directions toward the city but they need to be integrated for certain neighbourhoods at risk. In Birmingham I can only see two or three neighbourhoods that are at risk and need that degree of housing market intervention, widespread intervention. I would be talking about the need to clear council housing where there is no demand and building affordable ownership instead, in those areas, or other forms of land use, health, educational land use.

Chris Grayling

  94. Just to pick you up on that point, a question I asked at the start of the morning's proceedings. Would it be your view, historically the purpose of local planning in this country has been to plan and manage the development of city areas; where you have got cities or towns where there is clearly, frankly, too much property for the demand today to live there, should plans actually manage the reduction in size of an overall community, Birmingham or Liverpool or Manchester, wherever, should there be a managed programme of reducing the size by 10 per cent, pushing land back into the Green Belt, and so forth?
  (Mr Thompson) Yes, I am advocating that there should be a view about the long-term future, whether it be a planning department or a housing department; for me, it is usually the housing department has the greatest intelligences about the issues you are asking, about housing viability. And there should be a plan for those areas, which, of course, is brokered with the residents of those areas. But, at the moment, if I looked at that south west part of Birmingham, where Longbridge employed so many people, you would have characteristics of high unemployment, single, carer households, long distances to employment, no viability for those major council estates, whereas there is a technology corridor between Birmingham University and Worcester and a need for new income households, different types of households, to have affordable ownership choices in the same area.

  Chairman: Do you think really city fathers could actually come forward and say, "We've got a plan for the decline of your area"?

Mrs Dunwoody

  95. It is all very well to say you are going to broker it with the people in the area, but what you are saying, in effect, is, "This group will never work again, even though they may even be in their fifties, this group, who are going to come in, who need the houses, are those who are in the high-tech industries and we need to provide for them." Fine; but what local authority is going to have the courage to do that, if it is courage, foolhardiness, to say something like that?
  (Mr Thompson) You have to compare that against not recognising low demand, and what housing departments do is simply put the most vulnerable on their waiting list, the least vulnerable refuse, and the most vulnerable, who cannot refuse, are put into low-demand areas.

  96. But why is that an alternative? You see, it seems to me you are taking the two ends of the scale. Somewhere in-between there lies a plan that says, "Before this area is allowed to decline any more, we must use the other agencies to bring in employment, to bring in land use planning," that will provide a stimulus. You are just assuming that the alternative is accepting decline, and I do not think many of us who are elected Members would accept that?
  (Mr Thompson) It would be wrong to say that. You have to diagnose each area carefully. What I do not want is a lack of recognition. Your perspective was, where there is a viable future for an area then you invest in it; I would agree with that. I am saying that in a city the size of Birmingham there are areas, conversely, that we should be honest enough, with the resources we have, to say that, "We will adequately rehouse you elsewhere, and that will be in a place which has a future; but this place has a different future." We are getting a correlation in some of the peripheral estates of pressures on health, pressures on the education service and policing pressures.

  97. And so your answer to that is to decant those people elsewhere, and then say, "Of course, we're brokering it with the people in the area." Forgive me, but I might have a few reservations about that?
  (Mr Thompson) Yes, but I am talking here about a Midlands city, where the demand for council housing, in significant areas of that city, is nil.

  98. I am sorry, I am obviously not getting over what it is I am trying to say. The way that you deal with the situation is to say to people, "You're in decline, we need your land use; tough. The problem for you is that you are now going to have to go some place else." You have been setting out in considerable detail how all the agencies have to work together, how you must not put money in individual silos, fine; you will not get any argument from an elected Member about that. But then you go on to say, "But the logical conclusion of that is that we will manage our housing stock on the assumption that some areas are to be, in effect, cleared and their population decanted somewhere else, because they do not fit in with the economic factors that I think we need in the future of this city"?
  (Mr Thompson) All the plans that I am proposing to you are about a long-term view, so the brutality of the image that you are drawing, or the immediacy, is not there; it is about how you invest and how you manage those areas over the next 10 to 15 years. Of course, you would not clear in that brutal way you are describing, because you would naturally get, and quite rightly get, communities reacting. This is about the viability of whole neighbourhoods over the next 10 to 15 years, and in letting homes and in investing in those areas that will be done in the next few years very carefully in the way that is appropriate to a change of direction.


  99. It is still very hard for the people living in that area to face up to that sort of change, is it not?
  (Mr Thompson) If you looked at those areas, you would get a high number of voids, blocked-up dwellings, you would get a huge number of people on the transfer list, you would get a churning, a huge turning over of those people who live there anyway, if you asked them how long they had lived there they had only lived there a year and a half and they were on the transfer list; they have fundamental instability. That is the council housing component. You would get similar characteristics from the housing associations who had some pepper-potted new-build, and from privately rented, if it was an area of inner-city mixed tenure at risk; you would get voids and vacancies and landlords who were scratching their heads and in need of a longer-term view.

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

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