Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Councillor Peter Mole, Gateshead Council (EMP 13)


  1.  Gateshead is situated on the south bank of the River Tyne. It is a metropolitan authority with a population of almost 200,000 and is characterised by central urban areas and outlying rural districts.

  2.  The housing stock within the Borough consists of 87,864 dwellings of which 3,198 are vacant. Empty homes are typically pepper-potted across the borough, however in areas of low demand abandonment of up to 50 per cent is evidenced.

  3.  Our evidence is based on our experience of the causes and effect of empty homes arising as a result of neighbourhood decline and the impact of irresponsible landlords and their tenants on that decline.

  4.   Abandonment is one of the clearest and most recognisable trademarks of areas suffering from decline. Our experience, however, is that it is not one of the primary indicators of neighbourhood decline but is an effect of a failing market.

  5.  We have witnessed a number of well-established communities, sometimes only a few terraces in size, with previously sustainable demand falling into decline rapidly. Such areas are often initially characterised by high levels of unemployment, poverty, fear of crime, poor quality housing stock, unpopular house types, low house prices, a decline in neighbourhood shops and services and new affordable house building locally. Economically mobile households migrate out of such areas and house prices fall as supply outstrips demand. It is not uncommon to see terraces with "For Sale" boards outside every other property. There is often little demand from owner-occupiers who choose to buy newer and better homes elsewhere, what demand there is comes from speculative landlords.

  6.  Irresponsible landlords investing in these areas have a significant impact. Their activity in areas has a destabilising effect. They fail to maintain their properties, which serves to increase the physical deterioration of the area and the general feeling of decay. There is little vetting of tenants and subsequent anti-social and criminal behaviour of tenants goes uncontrolled, causing distress for original residents and increasing the social tension in the neighbourhood. An area rapidly becomes stigmatised which further drives out original residents, often to the benefit of speculative landlords who continue to buy up vacated stock.

  7.  Owner-occupiers desperate to leave such areas have few choices, especially if they have negative equity. Many reluctantly sell their homes at seriously depressed prices to landlords; others try to let their properties but are clearly inexperienced in such matters; others simply hand the keys back to the lender for subsequent re-sale through auction or specialist agents, usually to speculative landlords and others choose to leave the area abandoning the property entirely and leaving it vacant.

  8.  Turnover is high in let dwellings and landlords who find it increasingly difficult to let their properties often resort to tenants who have been excluded from Social housing or other private accommodation, thereby increasing problems of disorder. As demand for rented accommodation also dries up, due to a combination of an area's reputation and an oversupply of rented accommodation, landlords have no option but to abandon their properties also.

  9.  The appearance of empty homes in these areas serves to accelerate decline rapidly. Empty homes add to the decay and dilapidation of an area. Boarded up properties act as magnets for vandalism, arson, fly-tipping and criminal activity, further blighting the area.

  10.  Our experience is that empty homes are a symptom of neighbourhood decline and, further to that serve to accelerate that very decline. A key factor in this is the activity of irresponsible landlords and their tenants who can exploit the market, taking advantage of Housing Benefit payment to often sub-standard housing, with no control or restrictions.

  11.  It is our contention that the introduction of a licensing scheme for private landlords will address a number of the problems outlined and will help prevent neighbourhood decline in the manner that we have experienced in some parts of Gateshead.

  12.  A licensing scheme will impose on landlords minimum standards of repair and management, to include the vetting of tenants and acting on receipt of complaints of disorder. No property would be available for letting without a licence and those operating without licence will be closed down. Such standards can be directly linked to the payment of housing benefit.

  13.  We believe that such a scheme will remove the possibility of landlords exploiting areas of decline for purely financial gain to the detriment of the community. By having an enforceable minimum standard the physical and social deterioration of areas that is directly attributable to irresponsible landlords, and which leads to empty homes, can be prevented.

  14.  Local Authorities have a range of powers to deal with house condition, however, despite their frequent use we conclude that the existing enforcement regime is failing to address the range of problems in these areas. Intervention for disrepair is reactive rather than proactive and landlords are often unwilling to take action against disruptive tenants. We believe that a register of approved landlords will not address the problems as it relies on the existing enforcement regime. Similarly our experience is that voluntary accreditation schemes only attract well-intentioned landlords.

  15.  By introducing mandatory licensing one of the factors evident in the decline of areas can be managed. This is one reason why we believe licensing should not be restricted to areas of low demand as has been proposed in the Housing Policy statement. In many areas speculative landlords actively maintain demand, early intervention is therefore necessary to prevent areas degenerating and suffering falling demand which subsequently leads to abandonment.

  16.  Gateshead Council has been leading a campaign advocating the introduction of a Licensing Scheme for private landlords. Nearly one hundred and thirty local authorities, housing and professional organisations and Members of Parliament have pledged their support to the campaign.

  17.  The Government is keen to see local authorities adopt a more strategic approach to housing issues and to give them greater flexibility to adopt policies that meet the needs of their communities. We recommend that the Government consider the introduction of a licensing scheme that can be applied to all private sector landlords, in areas of low and high demand. We believe that this will give local authorities effective tools to tackle problems of decline and abandonment as they see fit at local level.

September 2001

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