Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Sixth Report


APPENDIX

Extracts from letters received from the general public

Oldham Resident (Letter 30)

I put my house in Oldham up for sale. This was 15 months ago. The house is still empty and unsold. I have now reduced the price to the bare minimum [£23,950] I need to cover the mortgage payments, estate agents fees, etc.

The house is not the reason why I cannot sell. Everyone assures me that it is in excellent condition. The problem is the area the house is in and, in particular, the street itself. The street is a mixture of private properties and rented properties, the vast majority of which are Oldham Council properties. At present the street is in quite a bad state in general but the main problem are two derelict, boarded up and vandalised properties that belong to the Council. I have contacted the Council on a number of occasions about these properties and got precisely nowhere.

The frustration and anger that I feel about the fact that I cannot sell my house, that I have cared for and maintained over the years, because of the surrounding area, is huge. The whole thing is out of my control and I feel furious. This is not helping my health at all.

There are now five houses for sale on my street and none are proceeding with sales.

I hope this information leads to something being done.

Manchester Resident (Letter 16)

There are several empty properties in this area, one in my row. Unfortunately they are being offered at very low prices and so we fear that builders or private landlords will buy them and rent them out regardless.

I feel that all residents in the area should be able to ascertain who the landlords of these properties are so that any problems can be nipped in the bud.

You can spend endless amounts on regeneration but it only needs a couple of unsociable residents to drag the area down again.

Its not just the money that is needed, its for all concerned, tenants, landlords, owner occupiers, to accept responsibility for the condition and upkeep of their property.

Because we own our own home, we now feel trapped and cannot move on because the area is in decline. This is why we appreciate all your efforts to help people (and there are many like us) in this situation. Lots of younger people and families still have mortgages that are more than the value of their property. Someone has to help us reverse this situation.

Hartlepool Resident (Letter 10)

Could I bring to your attention the situation I've tried to cope with since February this year and the previous four years?

The opportunity arose for me to move, after 30 years in my terraced home. My house went up for sale only to hear time and time again, "The house is no problem - shame about the street."

Two years on the house remains empty, no company is willing to insure it. The area hits zero, available properties are snapped up for half their value and rented out to all kinds of undesirables. Yes, some landlords do get their share but it is the tenant who reaps the benefit.

Slum houses develop, affecting sales--options: tenant / empty house / sell at half price.

Against my better judgement I was persuaded to take a tenant, going through the right channels with an agent. [Describes processes and costs involved prior to being able to let house.]

After approximately one year, these "house-hoppers" moved on leaving debts, filth and devastation, knowing that they can once again "fleece the system". On request to neighbourhood services, my tenant was re-housed, all debts erased and put back on benefit and no doubt drugs after a fire in my home left me with nothing.

Burnley Resident (Letter 37)

As a member of a deprived community with a total of 120 houses, 40 of which are empty, I strongly feel that Burnley Council should have more money allocated to it to tackle this problem. Burnley has around 3,000 empty homes. Many people, especially the young, no longer want terraced houses. Some landlords cannot find tenants and their properties become more and more dilapidated and unfit for occupation.

There are so many empty houses that some tenants use this for their advantage and moonlight from one property to another. This creates havoc for the benefit office and makes them harder to trace for benefit fraud.

Some home owners have seen their property depreciate in value. Some are faced with having to live on streets which are 90 per cent empty. Every time there is a major school holiday, these empty houses are wrecked by children who cannot be prosecuted. Residents are frightened to report them to the Police for fear that their windows may be smashed too. We as a community have filled many skips and emptied backyards left by tenants and landlords who fly tip.

Money should also be allocated to community wardens so that they can help the community to clean these disgusting backyards. The Environmental Health should also be more funding to clear the green spaces of rubbish.

Many residents cannot park safely. Parking spaces could be made available after clearance of derelict houses.

We could all have improved quality of life. Children would have green spaces to play on if the houses were selected, for instance, every alternative row, so that once demolished, the space could be grassed over as a kick about area for the children.

Lotus in Cleveland Resident, Yorkshire (Letter 4)

I don't think urban degeneration is about very poor housing nor that it ever really was so. Degeneration and regeneration are mainly down to a matter of employment and lack of employment...

If people have work they spend money on local shops and services, they buy or improve their homes, they mainly keep their homes and families clean, tidy and well cared for. They enjoy their leisure time in ways which give other people work. They are far less likely to commit crime. In various other ways they contribute to the national economy. If they don't have work then most of these factors are reversed for quite a lot of people. Having little, some don't care what they or their family do to other people or property. Others try hard but with little success. Many lose heart, self-confidence and dignity.

We see towns the size of our own, with adjoining villages as ours has, where all the houses are lived in and well cared for, all the shops are open and busy, public places are in good repair and there are few or no signs of vandalism. A quick glance in employment agency or estate agent's windows show that these areas have residents who are in well paid work. That is the biggest difference between our town and theirs, together with the fact that our numerous For Sale signs often stay in place until they are so well worn that they need replacing, whereas many towns have signs which are soon not needed because the properties sell. Eighteen months ago we went through South Elmsall in West Yorkshire and saw good houses for sale at £5,000 or less and "Any Offer", mainly with home made posters to save agents' costs.

One like it [author's house] was recently advertised for about £55,000... Twelve miles away in Great Ayton our house would fetch about £125,000 and more in York. How much in the London suburbs I wonder?

Most people here who have no work can't afford to move away to take a job. If they own a home they probably can't sell it and if they sell the price would not buy a bed-sit in a place where there is plenty of work.

I fear your suggestion of people moving from over-crowded areas to use the empty homes would be a non-starter. Who would give up a decent income to come? We have lovely scenery but it doesn't pay the bills especially when we have one of the highest council taxes in the country. The only people prepared to move would probably be those who aren't working and that would just make our problems worse.

For urban regeneration to really happen we need regeneration of employment with real jobs that are reasonably secure. People in work who are not constantly afraid of sudden redundancy with little/no likelihood of another job will regenerate the towns and villages without the need for official regeneration schemes. A good economy brings good housing and facilities, residents spending money in local businesses keep people in work and bring in business rates to support public facilities. People with a good standard of living encourage their children to try to do well so they will live at these standards in the future. The now popular and extremely expensive loft-style apartments and newly built flats in former run down areas of Leeds have come about because there are well-paid jobs there; the city centre has been regenerated because people can afford to spend money.

If the Select Committee can arrange to create employment in urban (and rural) areas, the people will do the rest for themselves.

Leeds Resident (Letter 5)

We have several large council estates in the city which have become badly run down with large areas of empty homes, due to estates having the stigma of anti-social behaviour, criminal activity and a standard of living below the poverty line. The estates in question have had some investment but need more than this to make them more attractive as places to live. These estates need to be looked at more positively, where possible, by organisations such as the media. These estates need to look a lot cleaner, tidier, more presentable and a lot more modern. A lot more pride needs to be taken by people who live on them.

There is a mentality amongst people that they need to be on the mortgage ladder straight away, rather than take a cheaper council owned property, which could be a more sensible start.

It is very easy for private landlords to buy property cheaply at property auctions and then let it out with frankly no interest in the property, past the collection of rent. This means that property becomes, to a degree, run down and when you see several properties in the area similar to this, it discourages people from living in the area and sadly community spirit disappears.

If the privately owned properties become vacant, the landlord may not be bothered. He/she paid a pittance at the auction and probably made money back through rent payments from previous tenants and so may be prepared to leave the property empty until someone else comes round to rent in 6 or 12 months time.

If the property does not get let, the private landlords can send the property back to the auction, sell it and the vicious circle starts again.

Sunderland Resident (Letter 6)

The problem as far as I can see is not "rogue landlords" but bad tenants and local authority eviction policy. If the local authority can evict tenants for nuisance behaviour, then these individuals and families need to have somewhere to live. The local authority will not provide accommodation and so tenants who are evicted have no option but to seek housing in the private rented sector.

Needless to say the local authority allow the same so-called nuisance tenants to re-apply for and, in most cases, receive housing benefit to pay for private sector rented accommodation and so, the problem tenants are relocated.

These evictions from public housing to private housing are pushing the problems elsewhere, mostly at the tax payers' and homeowners' expense. The rents in the private sector are higher than most council or housing association rents and the biggest difficulty is paying this rent. These higher rent payments are not a big issue when most of the rent is covered by the cost of housing benefit. However, when your rent is being paid because of unemployment then there is no incentive to find work because you know that if your housing benefit is reduced or taken away, you will not be able to afford your housing costs and would eventually become homeless once again. (These rents are often more than a mortgage on a low cost property).

This is where the spiral of decline comes into effect, the more private rented accommodation that becomes available in an area. Where there is a higher percentage of families and individuals in an area who are surviving on very little income, with not much prospect of improvement, in effect trapped by the circumstances that they find themselves in, then local shops, small businesses and house prices will tend to suffer as there will gradually be less money circulating in the economy. The decline spirals faster as working families and homeowners sell starter homes and move out of the area as a natural progression. Those who remain have little chance of improving their circumstances, accumulating large debts, sinking into depression with little to motivate them, not having the money to invest in themselves or take pride in their homes, rented or owned.

Although the situation in Sunderland has resulted in some areas of private residential property being demolished and other areas of council rented property being stood empty, the local authority do not now control the housing stock as this has been sold to a private partnership.

Bolton Resident (Letter 38)

I know that the problem in this street is not an isolated case and it is about time that the government took the landlords of these properties to task. They buy up property, put in tenants who receive the rent from the DHSS and have no interest whatsoever in maintaining the properties and in consequence the properties are run down. This has a knock on effect on the other properties, devaluing them and leaving the tenants stranded in financial limbo.

Due to the lack of maintenance of the properties the area deteriorates and becomes a haven for all types of criminal activity, people who have held on then sell their properties at bottom market price, just to get out of the area. I know that you are aware of this situation and I hope that some action will be taken against these unscrupulous landlords and help people such as my wife and myself who are victims of this situation.

Darlington Resident (Letter 39)

We are owner occupiers of a semi-detached property and the adjoining semi is an unoccupied private house. The property has been unoccupied for about 7 years and still has items of furniture inside. The owner still lives in Darlington and pays occasional visits to the property but as you can see from the attached photographs, nothing much gets done.

The empty property degrades the whole road and in particular considerably reduces the value of our property. Numerous prospective purchasers have called at our home asking for details of who owns it. I understand several offers have been made. It seems to attract groups of schoolboys/youths who come into the back garden and derelict garage. The garage, complete with car, was set on fire some time ago.

We have raised this matter with the Council and our MP but were given to understand that as the property is privately owned the law does not provide for any action to be taken to make the owner sell.

East Manchester Resident (Letter 14)

I live in the East Manchester Regeneration Area.

I paid £28,000 for my house in 1991 and have since installed central heating and a new kitchen, amongst other repairs and improvements, costing approximately £5,000 in total. My outstanding mortgage is £24,000 and similar properties were selling for £5,000 a year ago. I dread to think how much they are worth now as the area continues to go downhill. There are rumours of compulsory purchase in the future.

I am extremely concerned that I will be made homeless (I do not consider re-housing by the local authority to be a suitable alternative home) and left with a very large debt as I approach my 50s. My attempts to improve my job prospects and pension position seem futile in this context. I have decided to spend nothing on the upkeep of my property and am considering leaving it as yet another empty house. It seems grossly unfair that of all those involved (bank, surveyors, city council, national government) I should be left to bear the brunt of this.

Birmingham Handsworth Resident (Letter 33)

[Draws the Committee's attention to "Housing Market Change and Urban Regeneration: Achieving Sustainable Neighbourhoods in North West Birmingham", Centre for Urban and Regional Studies, University of Birmingham, Nevin, Goodson, Lee, Phillimore (2001).]

I am sure that your Committee would be as interested as we are in the findings, confirming our experience on the ground that "the void rate within the SRB6 area is uniformly higher than for the city as a whole" with a total of mainly private void properties "representing almost 9 per cent of all properties"

The report suggests "imbalance between (housing) supply and long term effective demand is compounded by the role of the area as a reception centre for the homeless, those in transition and people newly arrived in the city" adding that "over time, in relative terms, these groups will make up an increasing proportion of the demand for the area in the absence of an effective housing strategy which seeks to rationalise and restructure provision."

The report supplements this diagnosis with focus group feedback from residents including wishes:

  • for "the removal or refurbishment of derelict buildings before any more new build on derelict land" and "no more in fill new build (since) North West Birmingham is already too dense."
  • for the "addition of more managed green space"
  • "to see derelict properties removed or renovated and replaced with new houses or community facilities."
  • for "improvement grants rather than wholescale clearance"
  • for no more "building on green space, regardless of its existing use"
  • for "new build on derelict (eg brown field) (to) be built with more generous space standards both internally and externally and constructed out of good quality materials"
  • for "reconverting larger properties" since "the policies of the RSLs who expanded within the area during the 1970s were to convert larger houses into self-contained flats" - these flats having "over a period of time become subject to high rates of tenancy turnover which are having a destabilising influence on some neighbourhoods."
  • for a "programme of reinstalling a proportion of these properties for family use in neighbourhoods which have a sustainable future because this would both help to stabilise the residential market and provide for the needs of larger families."

It is possible that your Committee by investigating our problem of Empty Homes could reveal opportunities for regeneration, if only volume builders and their partners could turn from the problem of new build on green field sites to the reclaiming of the wasted asset represented by these void and derelict houses.

Ashton Under Lyne Resident (Letter 3)

They [author's parents] live in a row of terraced houses in Moss Side, Manchester. I think that the best way of describing the problem of degeneration would be to describe what has happened in their street in recent times. I am sure what has happened there is fairly typical of problems in elsewhere in inner urban areas.

There are at least three empty properties neighbouring my parents home that have been a magnet for burglars, vandals, arsonists and other criminals. The house next door was occupied by an old lady for about 50 years but after her death was sold quickly for £17,000 cash a few years ago to an Iraqi gentleman. He never lived in the property and never rented it either. Apparently it was sold again this year (at least once) for just £3,500. The Iraqi gentleman is thought to have returned to Iraq. The intermediate owners never lived in the property and it remains empty. Next to this is another property, which was worth £42,000 ten years ago but is now virtually worthless due to vandalism etc. This house was repossessed earlier in the year. At the back of my parents property is a third property which is empty and presently burnt out.

We have lost count of the number of times these properties have been burgled, vandalised etc. I believe in some cases it was intermediate owners who did some of the damage. I think a certain group of people buy properties in run down areas via auctions and other means at rock bottom prices then remove anything of value for second hand sale. Items such as fireplaces, radiators, cupboards, piping and anything else is removed by owners and their associates as well as local youths having a go at the property. The "owners" may even be the ones who set fire to property and claim on the insurance...

My parents have reported the various incidents on numerous occasions to the police, local authority and other agencies. The real sticking point seems to be that little can be done by the police and the local authority when it is a privately owned property. If it was a council property then there would not be a problem securing the property with new locks and boarded up windows etc. Thus the properties were left open for several months and this attracted all sorts of characters. Eventually the property did get boarded up but this was torn down the next day. It was boarded up a second time. Apparently the cost of this work gets passed on to the police, which is maybe why they are reluctant to take action. They were unable to trace the real owners as well.

The sight of boarded up houses inevitably brings down the value of other houses in the street and there are several houses that have been on the market for several years. They seldom get any viewing and any offers become progressively lower. I estimate that at the present rate of decline, my parents property will soon be worth as little as £700--the price they paid 43 years ago when they bought it.

The other problem is of course youths. The youths know the police can do very little and so they take advantage. I am sure much crime committed by youths goes unreported as most people know that the police cannot do much until they are 16 years of age. For some youths an empty property is like an open invitation to steal.

A further problem I feel is the rate of turnover in the low-cost, private homes. When I was a lad growing up in the area, I knew everyone's name in the street. When I left Moss Side nine years ago I hardly knew anyone in the street. Today when I visit my parents, I don't know anyone else. We need solutions that will encourage people to remain in an area for a lifetime.

In your letter in the newspaper you ask how many empty homes there are. I have seen a figure of 800,000 nationally quoted several times. You also ask how far the problem is spreading. I believe it is a greater problem than most people involved in housing issues probably realise. There are certain areas that have a reputation for empty homes such as Ordsall in Salford and parts of Newcastle but these are perhaps the most extreme cases. I travel quite a bit across the Greater Manchester conurbation and across the country. It is clear to me that the problem is more apparent in the deprived northern areas and is spreading rapidly in these areas. East Manchester has declined rapidly--Openshaw has the lowest house prices anywhere in the country.

You also ask if people could be encouraged to move from overcrowded areas to use the empty homes. I think that could be part of the solution. For instance, areas of Oldham have severe overcrowding due to large, Asian families. Quite often the empty homes are in areas of high ethnicity. It must be frustrating for these families to know that houses are lying empty and there is nothing they can do about it. The empty properties reduce the value of their property and therefore make it harder for them to buy a larger and more suitable home for their eldest offspring.

I think the law needs to be much stronger on the issue of empty homes. More power and maybe special funds need to be given to the police to enable them to make properties secure and prevent repeated burglaries. Perhaps where houses have little value and the ownership cannot be traced, the ownership of a property could be automatically traced to the local authority or a Registered Social Landlord after a period of say 18 months of being empty. The Council Tax register could be useful in identifying such properties. New tenants could be placed in properties before the property becomes a target for vandalism etc...

It seems an incredible waste that some local authorities have adopted the last straw approach to areas of empty homes and decided to knock whole streets down. I am sure the key is a major crackdown on crime in these areas rather than demolition...

Burnley Resident (Letter 40)

Although the Council decide to dismiss a lot of the issues that are relevant, they are completely accurate in deciding to demolish all streets that they have up to now marked for demolition. There is no possibility that people could be persuaded to come and live in the empty houses for many reasons which I will list:

  • a wave of anarchy, the children run wild, strip the empty houses for wood to light bonfires every night, or set light to the houses themselves just for the thrill of it. As all the roof attics are open to each other, it makes an inherent structural weakness.
  • there is no organisation (Council or housing association) that owns a block and can renovate and sell or rent under conditions--preventing druggies from moving in and creating havoc and wrecking them... Owned by Rachman-style landlords who get £60-£70 a week for them even if they are only worth £2,000-£3,000 as quoted recently; and not reinvesting as they should to keep properties in reasonable condition...

My area is not a block of shelters to use when profitable and discard when not. It is a community of people going out to work, trying hard to improve their homes and their lives. The Council or the Select Committee should... make laws that insist on these properties being remediated as soon as possible or what is the point of planning new estates if you haven't sorted out what is there now?

Both these derelict buildings are opposite an historic and very beautiful church. In this age of increasing crime how can a regeneration area be one that is nurturing all the subversive elements of society?

Any scheme of successful development should have the 3 'p's: policy (the why), planning (the how) and procedure (the when). It is perfectly feasible that the task is too much for Burnley Council to organise and an outsider from London should be included in the financial and structural sides to it. Even though this is one small spot on the map, each area should hold some importance for whatever reason. Burnley has a very good college and outsiders come to study here. The adage of two steps forward and one back will become a diminishing return. In Manchester, the Council gives land away free to property developers to include demolition as well. Why not in some areas in Burnley that are not under the redevelopment scheme?

Copy of a letter to Salford Council (Letter 42)

I have lived at the above address since September 1990 and when we first bought this property at a price of £29,995, the street and area was lovely and it was a pleasure to live there.

Total payments: 11 years x 12 months: 121 x £270 - roughly already invested £33,000.

Plus further investment on double glazing, central heating, upkeep and decor of £10,000.

In September, offered £8,000, leaves negative equity of £17,000.

As you are well aware this area has rapidly declined over the last 6-8 years and in this time as a family we have suffered a break-in, vandalism to our car and home, nuisance neighbours, noise, filth and endless other things normal people should not have to put up with...

The position that we are in now, is that we are at the moment in Zone 3 of your proposed plans and are roughly looking at about another 2-5 years of having to stay at Gilbert Street under duress, strain and by no means, choice. The value of our property is now probably between £1,000 and £10,000 roughly, so even if we could sell it, which is highly unlikely, we are financially going to suffer a great loss.

Along with this loss we are being penalised for the area in which we live. For example, we currently pay £50 month house insurance (building and contents) and £50 a month car insurance for a house which is worth the above and a car which is probably worth about £1,000, a great comparison as you can imagine...

As a family we also now feel that we are over-crowded in a two-up, two-down terrace house but unfortunately for us, we are trapped in this situation because we cannot sell it...

We are now in a no win situation in which we try and stick it out and are hopefully reimbursed with legal and moving fees, or either hand the keys back into the building society and walk away from it, losing everything we have ever worked for an end up homeless with two small children...

You have now moved any council tenants out of the street, adding that one of those tenants was a nuisance neighbour... they were given a brand new house to move into. Also recently you have purchased the property next door to me from a private landlord who caused you endless problems. It seems to me that the only way to get out of the street is to be a pest or cause a riot.

The area is now nothing but a health hazard in which you expect me and my family to live and keep smiling. The only information that you give people is that 'we are working on it, we are waiting for more funding, it will take time.' Time is something that we as a family have not now got, our children are growing up fast and are suffering greatly because of the area their mum and dad have chosen to live in...

At the moment you are offering home-swaps to people like myself. Who in their right mind would want to stay in this area? I would walk away tomorrow if you could offer me a reasonable sum for my home or maybe a house-swap in another area, of my choice, but I know this will never happen. You expect us as a family to stay there for up to the next 10 years, for which I feel my home will be a danger to my family and also unlivable due to its rapidly declining surroundings.

Burnley Resident (Letter 43)

As a member of CARR [Caring Accrington Road Residents], I am fully aware of the money already allocated for demolition from the SRB6 fund for the Burnley area but I do feel that more money should be injected for demolition.

In Burnley there are an average of 3,000 properties that are empty and boarded up, most of which are terraced houses. My small area consists of 120 properties and roughly 60 are empty, derelict and boarded up. I am a young woman living on my own and own my own property.

About 2 ½ years ago I bought my home, when this was a reasonable area, but more and more people are moving out of the area and now there is an extensive quantity of properties boarded up. The repercussions of this are that the area is becoming more and more dilapidated and the value of properties, mainly for home owners, is decreasing by the minute. Then of course the knock on effect is that the owner occupiers in the Trinity area are not able to move due to not being able to sell their existing home.

There is no revenue coming in from these derelict monstrosities but yet I and many others pay our Council Tax and for what, I ask?

I pay nearly £600 a year to feel unsafe in my area, to look at empty, boarded up properties and fearing for the safety of young children as they vandalise houses and commit arson.

It is a well known fact that persons buy property off the internet for a pittance and think they have made an investment. Once the property is bought, it is left standing exactly how it was bought. What investment is that for the community that I and many others live in?

I do understand that this problem is very widespread and that it is expensive and very hard to tackle. Maybe if Councillors and MPs listened to the deprived communities and up and coming generations more, I feel that it would be much easier to tackle the problem and also much more cost-effective and help shape our young generation's future.

Liverpool Resident (Letter 44)

I saw on the television news, an item on the Select Committee touring the country to see at first hand the problems associated with too many houses of the wrong type and the consequent decreasing property values in parts of the country.

I live in the part of Anfield which is close to the Liverpool Football Club, an area which is experiencing major deprivation and declining house prices. I believe that the deprivation is caused by the following factors:

  • The proposed redevelopment or relocation of the football ground. This has been under discussion for over three years and there is still no formal proposal on the table as far as the residents are concerned. The authorities appear paralysed, unable to make a decision which should result in a redevelopment plan for the area.

  • The disproportionate number of people with social problems who are being housed in rented accommodation in the area. This brings many additional problems to the area.

  • A relatively high unemployment rate and the lack of quality jobs coming into the Liverpool area. I understand that 3 per cent of the population leaves for the southeast every year. Given the very different problems in both regions this appears to be at least undesirable and at worst poor overall planning.

  • A lack of imaginative planning for the area. The suggested plans that I have seen are based on the existing major roads which are clearly inadequate for the existing requirements and poorly thought through redevelopment plans for housing. A small development which has just been completed has no off road parking despite this being an issue on the developer's proposals. The redevelopment or refurbishment which does take place appears to be piecemeal and to no overall plan. Recently planning permission has been given for the refurbishment of old three storey properties into single bedroom flats, despite the local resident's request for the properties to be demolished. This is probably the third refurbishment in 10 years and residents believe that it will lead to the return of drug dealers and a further influx of people with social problems. The information given to residents is that Liverpool has too much of this type of property already. Are lessons not learned from the previous regeneration work undertaken in a specific area? It appears that more money is simply to be poured down the same drain.

This must leave a very poor impression on the number of visitors which the football attracts to the area and can only have a negative effect on people's image of Liverpool.

  • An under-resourced police force. The local police are 50 per cent under-resourced when all types of absence are taken into account.

Many residents who own their own homes are greatly discouraged as they see the value of their property continually reduced, in some cases by as much as 50 per cent.

Delamere and Toxteth Residents, Openshaw, Manchester (Letter 13)

Most of the property in the area north of Ashton Old Road (Toxteth Street area) is terraced housing with a majority of private landlords. The main problems arise out of the neglect and the lack of commitment to the area by allowing the properties to deteriorate to very poor standards and the lack of commitment to regulation of the tenants placed in these properties.

Ten years ago a house on one of the streets in the area was sold for £32,000. This was a mid-terraced property and had been modernised inside. Today the owners of the same property would be lucky to realise half that value. The drop in the value of the property had been directly affected by the rise in the number of crimes and the problems related to theft burglary and violent crimes. This has caused a large number of honest and hardworking people to leave the area due to the rise of such attacks.

It is felt by a large number of the population that until we have some legislation to regulate the activities of private landlords and make them accept responsibility for the problems that they are creating we will have very little chance of achieving the regeneration that is so desperately needed...

We would also like to see the regulation of the landlords so that they would not be allowed to rent out property in the area unless they had signed up to and were actively supporting a vetting and management procedure, prior to letting out the property. This we feel should be linked to the benefit payments through Housing Benefit and benefit could be delayed or even withdrawn until they actively co-operated in taking responsibility for their property and their residents in the area. We feel that unless guidelines were in place to regulate this aspect of the process then it would be easy for them to pay lip service to such an agreement without taking an active role, or assuming any responsibility.

Darwen Resident, Lancashire (Letter 25)

Darwen the town that I have lived in all my life, and my parents before me, was a mill town and being a mill town, housing was provided by the mill owner. Houses were built close to the mills so that when the hooters went off, a different one for each mill, people knew that it was time to go to work. Now these mills no longer exist and people have a choice as to where they live, so they moved further into the countryside, abandoning their old houses for more fashionable and modern accommodation. I am sure that becoming a more affluent society, in which people are able to afford cars and roads are wider, encouraged people to move away from the works and tied cottage-type housing.

Abandoned property became a source of cheap accommodation for, at first, Afro-Caribbeans and later Italians and other ethnic communities who went into these and other properties, such as council estates. In some cases these properties were used as they should have been as a stepping stone to better things and as people got jobs and become more affluent they moved on, then came the Asian community and others like asylum seekers now.

Council estates in and around Darwen and Blackburn are now not being used for the purpose for which they were constructed. Many people living in these estates are in the poverty trap and Asians living in council properties are twice as badly off as white people, as there is less chance of them getting employment. White people living on council estates are on low income, with only one parent working on minimum wages or one parent families, and all claiming housing benefit. Rented accommodation is being lived in long term and the tenants are not prepared to look after the property that they are renting so it falls into disrepair. To repair all council property in Blackburn and Darwen would cost £20 million...

Manchester Resident (Letter 19)

I live in an urban regeneration area which includes a large percentage of houses owned by private landlords and housing associations. My neighbours and I have found that the houses owned by private landlords become a target for vandals, drug users etc when left empty, causing much misery for the decent people in the area. Sometimes the properties are so badly damaged, demolition is the only answer.

Landlords we find, do not update their properties. There does not seem to be any legislation that requires the owners to keep their properties habitable. Tenants are no longer vetted. Just about anyone can rent these houses. Social Services pay the rent to the landlord has no worries. As a result of this we have in this area a floating population of people who have no interest in becoming decent law-abiding citizens and putting something back into the community.

The housing association homes fare no better. Tenants it seems no longer need references to rent property. As long as the rent is paid they don't really care.

I am afraid that until landlords are made to take responsibility for their property and tenants, this urban decay will grow like a cancer throughout the area.

Manchester Resident (Letter 21)

Harpurhey, Moston and Blackley are losing a lot of green space to private building - many of the properties are still unsold and many more remain to be built. This area has a considerable number of empty council and private homes, many in disrepair. These properties eventually get boarded up, set on fire and boarded up again.

Easington Colliery Resident, County Durham (Letter 7)

It is not always the houses that are the problem but the people that the private landlords inflict on us. But, of course, when an area is run down with derelict homes, decent people start to move out. One way forward would be to have a licence scheme payable to the local council. No licence then no Council Tax or Housing Benefit or DSS rent can be paid on the property.

Many older houses need to be cleared, certainly in the district of Easington. We have an aging population, more aged miners homes and decent family homes with gardens are needed. Look at the improvements that have been made on the once notorious Sherburn Road Estate in Durham.

Also concentrated effort must be made to not only to tackle crime but to give young people a chance to find work.

I wonder if the government has the determination and courage to pull down old run-down properties and build decent houses (with CCTV to tackle nuisance problems)?

Private home owners should have the same protections as council house tenants, no more no less.

Burn Valley North Residents Association, Hartlepool (Letter 8)

There has been a steady decline of the area over the last few years, much of which can be attributed to poorly managed property, the bulk buying of houses at ridiculously low prices by private organisations and renting those homes with little (if any) vetting of prospective tenants. Consequently ordinary, hard-working people fund themselves living next door to drug addicts and neighbours displaying various anti-social behaviours such as late night partying in the streets, littering, unruly children, verbal abuse, intimidation and even threats of physical violence.

Not only is this reducing quality of life for private homeowners it also has the knock on effect of dramatically falling house prices. As a result, any home owners find themselves in a position of negative equity unable to sell their property at the proper market value and thus some are accepting any offer from "Rachman-type" landlords or property speculators to escape.

In theory the Government's aims and proposals in the Housing Green Paper to support 'vulnerable' or 'socially excluded' members of society sound very laudable. Unfortunately, providing 'quality of choice across a range of housing ... regardless of where they live' is improving conditions for the disadvantaged but having the opposite effect on the private homeowners. We are feeling vulnerable and excluded.

Members of the Burn Valley North Residents Association would like to know how the Government proposes to ensure a 'decent home for all?'

Oldham Resident (Letter 11)

On a more general note there is a widespread cynicism in this community about "regeneration". This centres around concerns that a lot of money is being spent on surveys/consultants, that there are few visible signs of regeneration after 12 months, that money always get spent in the same areas and that consultants and others do not genuinely consult because the decisions about how and where the money will be spent have already been made. I don't necessarily share these views and hope real improvements will be made in this area as a result of SRB6.

Hathershaw and Clarksfield, Oldham (Letter 27)

These are in the main terraced houses, built between 1870 and 1900, two or three bedrooms, improved with grants in the 1960s. Many have central heating and double glazing. The introduction of Poll Tax and the availability of new build, budget houses made these houses unattractive to first time buyers. Steep stairs make them unsuitable for the very elderly and Oldham is well-supplied with rented property for the elderly.

Although in these areas they have private, walled backyards, there is no parking space apart from on the street...

Private landlords have purchased many of the vacant houses. Oldham MBC has empty council houses, but private landlords are prepared to house people evicted for rent arrears or unsatisfactory behaviour. There is a transient population of an "under-class" whose anti-social behaviour results in more vacant houses.

Parked cars make proper mechanical street sweeping impossible and the littler becomes compacted, making the properties even more unattractive.

Since the introduction of targeting of resources through Housing Action Areas et al, these properties have now had access to improvement or repair grants. The "worst first" approach has meant the average improvement grant in, say Glodwick has been £35K. The properties in Hathershaw could have been improved to the same standard for say £15K.

City Challenge, SRB and Estate Action monies have not been available to these areas and there has been little work on the infrastructure or the environment. The work that has been done has been piecemeal often resulting in one problem solved creating another; eg, traffic-calming measures resulting in a lack of a bus service.

Until the 1950s Hathershaw was surrounded by labour-intensive cotton mills, whose mainly women workers contributed to a thriving shopping area on Ashton. The closure of the mills brought about the gradual decline in the number and variety of shops. Elderly people without cars became increasingly isolated. The local Health Centre was transferred to Westwood.

Hathershaw is sandwiched between Fitton Hill, Oldham's largest white housing estate (demonised in the Darcus Howe "White Tribes" C4 programme) and Glodwick, now a by-word for race riots.

So naturally, the fall in house prices, residential abandonment and the general decline in the area is blamed on "the Asians". There is a tale, generally accepted in the white community that an Asian Oldhamer will make an offer well below your asking price and inform you that a "cartel" exists and no one else will make a higher offer.

Yet the two-bedroomed houses are too small for the average Oldham Asian extended family.

On the whole, it is estate agents who "set prices". There are outside influences such as school catchment areas. "Overlooking Alexandra Park" would have put up the price of a house, until Alexandra Park became a media byword for racial violence.

There may be an "Asian cartel" system, there is certainly a mind-set by local estate agents' employees. The purchase of houses for improvement by Housing Associations may be "skewing" house prices. An impartial, professional investigation into the matter... would be useful.

Burnley Resident (Letter 12)

May I suggest that the most obvious failure to the regeneration of any given urban area must be the failure of the authority of law, whether perceived or actual. Those who consider themselves most threatened are those with the most to lose, those who have accumulated a little wealth from their endeavours and wish to invest in their homes and property all of which come under threat from thieves and vandals when the power of the law to deter unlawful behaviour is lost.

The perception of home as a place of safety is the fundamental need to be secure from both the elements and the physical dangers around us that makes the home a basic requirement of a civilised society, the protection of the law is therefore essential to reassure the resident of any given area that they are protected by the society they live in. It is when this protection is lost that those who have accumulated a little wealth see the threat as too great to be acceptable and move from the area.

The eventual result as we see all too often is an area of dereliction that only the brave or the desperate are prepared to tolerate. We must prevent this downward spiral from beginning by proper and vigorous application of the basic rule of law and not tolerate the mindless vandalism and petty pilfering that is the start of the slippery slope into the slum scenario. Sadly it only takes a small minority to drag down an entire neighbourhood and therefore I believe it is the people who must be challenged in the first instance not the properties, although they must be a close second.

At the lower end of the market, terraced properties are an efficient low cost housing option, the majority have only two exterior walls and therefore benefit from the insulation of their neighbours. Aesthetically the rows of terraced houses are part of our industrial heritage and with this in mind, some control should be exercised when redevelopment is proposed. These areas could be made attractive to many, being as they are close to most services and amenities and in the case of my neighbourhood we are minutes away from a Motorway junction and little more than ten minutes walk from the town centre shops or two or three more minutes from a bus stop. All this, however, is of small value if on your return home, your property and possessions have been stolen or vandalised.

We now come on to the problem of the population within an already depressed area, those now living in these areas, in the main are at best low-paid, working in low-tech manual employment, or are living on benefit in one form or another, with little or no job prospects and no qualifications. Others are pensioners who have lived in the area all their lives and would not wish to leave no matter how difficult and oppressive their surroundings have become.

These are the problems facing the area in which I live at present and the more I consider the problem, the more obvious the answer is—law and order.

There is no need to formulate new legislation, every rule and law is already there, all that is requires is the enforcement of the law. It should not be necessary to board up all the windows and doors of empty properties to prevent vandalism and arson, the law along with responsible citizens should be sufficient. If you can achieve a sense of security in the minds of the law-abiding members of the community, then they will have the confidence to invest their time and efforts to improve their own environment and help in their own policing, but it is for governments and councils to show the way. To clear the areas and disperse the population, is to sow the seeds of decay elsewhere.

In the case of my local area, the Council are at present failing to put forward a clear policy for the future and are instead prevaricating on which properties are to be demolished and which will be refurbished, in fact it appears to me that no clear policy has been established by anyone. This indecision is in itself contributing to the rapid decline of all the properties throughout the area...

Your suggestion to fill the empty homes with people from overcrowded areas, I view with suspicion. Who would volunteer? The brave or the desperate. It is self-evident that anyone from outside the area would arrive jobless and exacerbate the employment situation here. We must improve the areas to make them attractive to people seeking a home, not those desperate to escape a ghetto.

In conclusion, may I suggest that the millions spent throughout these areas would be of more benefit to all concerned, if used to provide effective security which would encourage landlords, tenants and home owners alike, to improve their own properties.

Cheadle Resident (Letter 35)

I am very much a home loving person and live in an area of Greater Manchester with widespread private ownership and rising house prices. It really grieves me to see, even in this area, houses standing empty for so long that they are starting to fall down.

Yet I have also been on the "other side of the fence". On several occasions I have been the personal representative of a householder who has died and it has taken me many months to bring the property into the sort of state where it could be put on the market. Or again, it has taken me a period of months to overcome the emotional trauma of disposing of a house that has been in the family for several generations.

I wonder if we could institute some kind of process whereby the local council serves a notice on an empty house at, say, six month intervals. If it fails to get a satisfactory reply to, say, three of them, it should initiate a compulsory purchase order. At a time when I was responsible for empty homes in this area, Stockport Corporation did not levy rates on empty property so they would know automatically when a property went empty. I do not know what happens here now, or in other areas, but the electoral register might be another source of information.

As I typed this up, I remembered a house just a few door down the road from where I live. The owner occupier became elderly and reclusive and the house began to decay noticeably. Luckily a relative turned up a few months ago and turned things around. But situations like that can be really difficult because of the implications for personal liberty.

Newcastle Upon Tyne Resident (Letter 23)

I have observed in the north east perfectly good housing demolished purely because of the use of security shutters. The majority of law abiding folk associate security shutters with lawless sink estates and simply will not consider buying or renting a property in close proximity to a shuttered house.

Security shutters give the impression that the authorities have given up on an area, the vandals regards these properties as their personal playgrounds, out comes the spray paint, the exodus of law abiding folk begins, the housing stock becomes impossible to sell/rent and demolition soon follows.

It is my humble opinion that instead of boarding up houses, they should fit net curtains and lace netting, increase police patrols or employ night watchmen until the housing is occupied again. I truly believe this will prove more cost effective in the future.

Manchester Resident (Letter 34)

The area I live in could be made more pleasant. The main problem is that the council mixes too many age groups together. We have just moved out of a cul-de-sac because the Council was putting families in that just didn't match with families that had been there 10 years or more. The younger generation come into the area with private landlords, they then register with the Council. By the time they get their council house they have wrecked the two-up two-down terraced house, which then can't be re-let because of the state its in.

A good example of this is Sandal St off Vanley St in Miles Platting. From where I live now I can count at least 25 empty houses that have been left empty by the council. I know they need a bit of money spending on them but they shouldn't have been allowed to get into this state in the first place. There must be a waiting list and someone must be eligible for this accommodation.

Hull Resident (Letter 31)

We believe local government and the Department of the Environment, through the Housing Associations are to blame for the vast majority of empty homes. Pre-1988, the balance between the private and council sectors was maintained at a reasonable level, however then is was decided by the then government that local authorities could give away land to housing associations and at the same time investment was restricted in local authority housing stock and the private sector.

The housing associations were allowed to charge a rent which was not capped, unlike local authority and private sector rents. Most of the properties which were built by housing associations were funded by central government so we suddenly found that housing associations had increased their portfolios by several thousand units.

Most of the properties were and are still let to the over 55s within the population on housing benefit, which resulted in the balance of the estates becoming younger. We believe this had a knock on effect with because of people moving out because the balance was upset.

We also have the problem where housing associations are not subject to rent controls nor registration controls, as we have in Hull. This is the single most important factor that causes empty homes in both the private and public sector.


 
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