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


Examination of Witness (Questions 289 - 299)

WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001

GEORGE COWCHER

Chairman

  289. May I welcome you to the Committee? Could you identify yourself for the record?
  (Mr Cowcher) I am George Cowcher and I am the Acting Director of Operations of ONE North East, the Regional Development Agency for the North East.

  290. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?

  (Mr Cowcher) I am happy for you to go straight in.

Mrs Ellman

  291. The Urban White Paper asks the regional development agencies to address the issue of empty properties. What has ONE North East done about that?
  (Mr Cowcher) Our primary remit is not necessarily in relation to housing, but we have a remit for improving the economic performance of the area and for increasing the area's competitiveness. Our agendas to achieve that have effect on housing and empty housing. We are aware that in our region empty housing is not a constant factor throughout the region. There are pockets of areas where it is a particular problem. Those are good indications to us that those are areas of under-performance for the local economy. Therefore, in terms of our economic strategy, we are aiming to address those areas to try to improve the local economy in those areas to create greater demand for housing in those areas.

  292. Do you feel that regional development agencies can have a direct role in housing provision?
  (Mr Cowcher) It is difficult. Regional development agencies are not the planning authority and they are not the housing authority. Their remit is quite clear, certainly in terms of the changes under current government policy. The regional development agencies really have to address the whole question of wealth creation and moving towards improving wealth in areas and moving to some degree away from the social agenda. When the regional development agencies started out, we inherited a lot of programmes, particularly under the old SRB schemes. Many of those were directly related to deal with housing and associated matters. Our current programmes are moving to some degree away from that, but in the North East we have taken a very imaginative way of addressing how we deal with our forward direction in that we have decided to work very closely with our local regional partners, our four regional partners in the North East and we shall be devolving 75 per cent of our headroom budget directly to our local partners who are delivering that against a programme which they are putting forward and in some instances the physical regeneration of those areas is a very, very high priority.

  293. Who are those partners?
  (Mr Cowcher) Those partners in the North East are Northumberland County, Tyne-and-Wear, Durham and Tees Valley, which is basically the former Cleveland County and Darlington.

  294. What has the impact been of the removal of gap funding?
  (Mr Cowcher) At the moment we are not actually seeing terrific impact because at the moment we are dealing with a number of schemes which were actually approved when gap funding was available. We are seeing some very major regeneration schemes coming forward which is making use of those original powers.

Mrs Dunwoody

  295. That is just the fag end of things which were granted some time ago.
  (Mr Cowcher) Indeed. One of the concerns we have is that the loss of gap funding may well create problems for us in years to come. In terms of putting new programmes together, that is a great concern to us. Our calculation at the moment is that to bring forward brownfield land for housing costs twice as much as it does to bring forward greenfield land and there is a huge gap there and if gap funding powers are not available to us that will inhibit our ability to deliver.

  296. Are there any new projects in the pipeline, any alternatives which have come forward?
  (Mr Cowcher) We have a raft of projects in the pipeline and clearly we are working our way round at the moment to ensure that we can get the right finance to achieve those. The gap funding route was very helpful in that respect. Other measures are perhaps more convoluted.

  297. Have you found any alternatives?
  (Mr Cowcher) We are looking under a variety of programmes and looking perhaps particularly at Sunderland at the moment where we are looking at setting up urban regeneration companies which are able to lever in additional money. There are other programmes which are still running, where we are able to use some coalfield money, which is particularly relevant in County Durham which is able to fill this role. There is nothing with the same degree of flexibility as there was with the gap funding and gap funding mechanism that we had.

Helen Jackson

  298. Do you or your regional partners know how many houses are empty in your region?
  (Mr Cowcher) There are estimates in our region of how many there are.

  299. Could you put your finger on those estimates and say this is the problem, this is the scale of the empty homes problem we have?
  (Mr Cowcher) There is that empirical evidence which is collated for us by our local authority partners. We are able to see that there are particular areas in our region which are suffering as a result of this particular problem. You are going to take evidence from Gateshead Borough shortly and I am sure they could give more details about that.


 
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