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


Examination of Witness (Questions 300 - 313)

WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001

GEORGE COWCHER

  300. Do you also as a development agency keep track of how many homes are being constructed on brownfield land and how many on greenfield land?
  (Mr Cowcher) Yes, indeed we do and we are aware of our regional planning guidance and our requirement in the North East that 65 per cent of homes should be built on brownfield. We are always working in partnership with our local partners, both in terms of planning and in terms of housing to make sure that those opportunities for development on brownfield are maximised. Indeed, in some of our areas like Sunderland where we have large amounts of potential brownfield land, that is where we are putting together in partnership an arrangement where we can maximise the opportunity for that. We are also minded that housing is not a stand-alone activity and that housing has to sit alongside other forms of regeneration, in particular in ensuring that we have adequate land and premises available for employment purposes as well. Generally we are looking at mixed use schemes in our region. We are not looking to produce purely large single housing areas or indeed large employment areas. We are looking to see where there is a mixture of both which meets all other requirements in relation to pollution control and trying to minimise travel.

Mr Cummings

  301. What sort of strategy are you developing in relation to thousands of colliery houses which have been left since the demise of the mining industry? You tend to concentrate upon Newcastle, upon the larger conurbations, but there is an equally severe problem amongst the dozens and dozens of small mining settlements. Could you perhaps tell us which strategy you are adopting to tackle those problems?
  (Mr Cowcher) We do have a coalfield strategy that is being enacted within the North East.

  302. Would you like to tell the Committee about it?
  (Mr Cowcher) That is a strategy which is largely charged with physical regeneration. Particularly in areas like Durham, we had very large areas of physical degradation and total catastrophe for the local economy when these large collieries closed. The initial work which has been done to date has been largely on the physical regeneration of those areas—I am thinking in terms of Seaham, the work going on in the former Vane Tempest area.

  303. This inquiry is about empty homes. You are concentrating now upon those areas of land which have been cleared for redevelopment. Can we concentrate upon empty homes and what strategy you have adopted for the thousands of colliery houses which still remain in an absolutely appalling condition but which still house many thousands and thousands of former mining families?
  (Mr Cowcher) Certainly the first element of that strategy was to deal with the major physical problems which were left as a result of the contraction of the coal industry. What we are trying to do now is positively trying to get new employment opportunities into those areas. We are looking in terms of inward investment.

Chairman

  304. Are you saying that it is going to be inward investment into the area rather than dealing with the properties which is important?
  (Mr Cowcher) Indeed. We would see that as our primary focus as a regional development agency. We are attempting to regenerate those areas by making them more economically viable, by stimulating the economy. We are not generally having a direct effect on dealing with the physical manifestation of the empty homes.

Chris Grayling

  305. That is an important point. If you are driving towards economic growth and if the RDA's focus is towards increasing regional GDP, that by definition would suggest that the resource allocation would go more towards the investment side of things than towards housing and regeneration schemes. If that is the case, what are the consequences? It makes me think that perhaps what you are going to end up with is resource going into new estates rather than an attempt to revive those which have perhaps become run down.
  (Mr Cowcher) There has to be a balance and certainly that is what is happening in our region. There is little possibility in some of the geographical areas in the region, that we are going to see the new industries, the new investment, coming in as primary drivers for what we are trying to do. A great example of that is in County Durham where Nissan is located on the outside of Sunderland. That was a greenfield location for a major international car plant which is now the most productive car plant in the whole of the UK. That has had an amazing spin-off for that area. It was a greenfield development which started that off but which is actually having a great regenerating effect in terms of providing additional business and additional work in areas like Peterlee.

Mrs Dunwoody

  306. You are not going to find a major regeneration project the size of Nissan very often, are you?
  (Mr Cowcher) Indeed and the likelihood of that type of investment is decreasing. What we are doing at the moment is looking, particularly on the northern side of Newcastle with Newcastle Great Park, at another focus in terms of what we are doing with Newcastle University in attracting new industries to that area. That is one part of the equation but I would not say that is the only part of the equation because there are clearly more localised regeneration issues which need to be dealt with. We are spending a very large amount of money in the west end of Newcastle, which is an area where we have a particular problem with empty homes, at Newburn down on the River Tyne to create what is probably going to be the largest employment area in the whole of the city. Indeed the regional development agency will be moving its headquarters there as a signal that we need to—

  307. Those will be some of the jobs you are creating.
  (Mr Cowcher) Only 200 of them. We are hoping we shall have many more hundreds. It is a gesture of faith that we need to be in areas of the region which perhaps are suffering the greatest distress as a draw for others to come there and hopefully that will then have a regenerating effect on the western part of Newcastle, which is currently suffering.

Chris Grayling

  308. Do you think that wholesale demolition and clearances are needed in some of the areas which have become run down?
  (Mr Cowcher) This is a very, very tricky question. Even in the west end of Newcastle or parts of Middlesbrough where you have 20 or 30 per cent vacancy rates there is still a residual community and there needs to be some sensitivity to that. In many respects that community is incredibly brave and wanting to remain and wanting to see their area—

Chairman

  309. Are they incredibly brave wanting to remain? Is it not that they just have no chance to escape?
  (Mr Cowcher) There is an element of that, but in many of these areas also there is quite a will to remain in their area; they are very proud of their area, they have lots of historical and family roots associated with this area, they have invested a lot in it and they do want to try to fight for their area. The problem with wholesale demolition—and we have gone down this road before, particularly in the 1960s and early 1970s—is that you can destroy communities very easily in doing that. Demolition certainly is important: wholesale demolition, I worry greatly about.

Chris Grayling

  310. If you have a village which is deeply run down, which has large numbers of empty properties, where there is very little prospect of restoring that village as a viable economic centre and at the same time you are building new estates 40 or 50 miles away on green land for people to move to, is there a case for saying you will return that village to open countryside, you will accept that there has been a change in history and the future will be there rather than here, rather than trying to prop up something which is dying anyway?
  (Mr Cowcher) It is extremely difficult and very expensive to turn urban land into green fields; extremely expensive, extremely difficult to do. That would be my first point in relation to that. The second point I would make is the point which was made by your previous witness in terms of how you manage that process. As soon as you signal to a community that they have no future, then there is a further run down in relation to that community. It is not always possible to deal with that over night, in fact it is impossible to deal with overnight. It is a long-term progress and you tend to have what can be an even worse blight situation for eight or ten years on your hands. It has to be a balanced approach. You have to have areas of new investment because that is the only way in which you will attract that type of investment into a region like the North East. You have to have a positive approach in terms of how you are dealing with these residual problems. That is not to say we need to keep communities at their current size. I go back to County Durham, I go back to Seaham in particular, which has been greatly affected by colliery closures and by employment prospects. There has been an awful lot of work done in terms of physical regeneration in that area, both positive, to bring new investment in, but also in a rationalising factor as well. It has been done in a positive spirit in terms of remodelling Seaham, giving Seaham a new purpose in life and a new future. It has not been done on the basis of cutting, clearing and moving them off somewhere else.

Mr Cummings

  311. I fully support what you are saying about the new development but not the colliery housing. You ought to make it clear to the Committee that that has not been touched at all.
  (Mr Cowcher) No; I agree.

Christine Russell

  312. Do you think that regional planning guidance in the North East is robust enough to control the greenfield developments so you can meet your targets for brownfield development? Earlier you mentioned the abandoned homes in the west end of Newcastle. Do you have any evidence that empty properties can be a disincentive for inward investment in the North East? Finally, earlier in your evidence you mentioned how the RDAs are having to move away from the social agenda. If that is true, how are we going to marry together and improve the co-ordination of economic regeneration of housing development and regional planning guidance in the regions?
  (Mr Cowcher) RPG has been formulated in the region on a tripartite basis with the regional office having a major role, all of the planning authorities having a major role and the RDA also having a role in relation to that. We all have differing views of that so at the end of the day it is a compromise document. It is a very broad-brush document and there are elements of discretion within that guidance which have really been put in specifically to give flexibility. Of course that does also give opportunities for there to be not as much robustness as we might see. In summary, my answer to you is that we understand the reason there is perhaps not that robustness is because there are different parties to this, there are different calls in relation to that and also because it is covering a period of time. We are trying to foresee perhaps a number of scenarios for the future ahead. In terms of effect of empty homes on inward investment, clearly when we are trying to attract inward investment we are doing a selling job on behalf of our region. We are trying to heighten the positives of our particular region or our particular location. Having a whole series of empty homes would not be a positive, it would not be something I would want in any way to advocate or even showcase. Where we do have those which are physically very obvious, that is an inhibiting factor to attracting new inward investment.

Mrs Dunwoody

  313. What about putting up walls so they cannot be seen.
  (Mr Cowcher) We do our best to try to ameliorate the worst evidence, indeed that is why there may be a requirement for selective demolition to make sure we do remove those homes which are having a counter effect.

  Chairman: I shall have to cut you off at that point. Thank you very much indeed for your evidence.





 
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