Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council (EMP 37)


  For an authority like Sandwell MBC, which lies at the heart of the West Midlands conurbation, empty homes, and the causes of empty homes, are of major strategic significance. They are just one of the outcomes of low demand and are a symptom of market decline either on a very localised basis or more broadly in a sub-regional context.

  At a national policy level, greater attention needs to be paid to the causal factors that lead to high levels of empty properties in local neighbourhoods. Dealing with empty properties as they occur in a reactive way, whilst very laudable, is not addressing the causal factors. A reactive approach may in some circumstances be enough to arrest the decline of an area, but in other circumstances it may just be addressing symptoms of urban problems and not the market decline that causes the problems.

  Research carried out in the North West and in the West Midlands by the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies, highlights that some areas are predisposed to the sort of market decline which will lead to urban degeneration eg the monolithic provision of large areas of social housing or concentrations of obsolete pre 1919 owner occupied/privately rented properties, eg where traditional and major sources of employment have been lost, eg where significant levels of anti-social behaviour prevail. Areas of Sandwell and neighbouring authorities, have been identified as slipping into market decline, a consequence of which is empty homes. The decline is driven by a complex range of factors which includes:

    —  aspirations/expectations—residents have clear aspirations to move on from deprived areas which no longer fulfil their expectations. In the pre 1919 owner occupied and privately rented housing stock, black and minority ethnic communities predominate. They are disproportionately affected by high levels of deprivation and have to live in these localities out of necessity. Under different circumstances, many would wish to move on, and when opportunities arise, many do. Evidence exists in the North West and the West Midlands of new housing schemes built next to older housing areas which have begun to spiral into decline because of demand for the new houses. Empty homes have been just one of the symptoms of this decline.

    —  location and standard of housing—small, badly designed, and poorly located homes are increasingly unpopular where other housing choices exist. In the pre 1919 owner occupied and privately rented stock, high repair and maintenance costs and deteriorating conditions are another motivation for moving on.

  Preventative action is needed to tackle decline early enough to bring about the regeneration of areas in an orderly and planned fashion. In contrast to the South-East, where the healthy housing market is predictable and can be largely left to its own devices, unstable markets elsewhere can be chaotic and turbulent and require a degree of intervention. The nature and extent of preventative action needed will vary given the circumstances of an area. In its extreme, where hard evidence exists of the beginning of decline, substantial clearance and redevelopment may be the most appropriate course of action to restructure the housing market, create choices and stimulate demand. To anticipate the need for action, many local authorities and their partner organisations will need to develop a far more sophisticated understanding of their housing markets, their dynamics and the interplay between housing, economic, social and educational factors.

  Sandwell MBC, in partnership with neighbours Birmingham City Council and other key agencies are pioneering new approaches to tackling declining markets. A submission is shortly to be made by both authorities regarding joint proposals for a Market Renewal Area spanning the boundary between the two authorities. The Market Renewal Area concept is centred upon preventative action, and one of the inevitable consequences will be a substantial reduction in empty homes. Research is being commissioned now to identify the delivery vehicles for the approach, and this is likely to include the continued development of a Housing Regeneration Company here in Sandwell.

  Current funding mechanisms do not enable the types of long term, strategic interventions which are needed to restructure housing markets. Furthermore, current legislation regarding private sector housing renewal needs further reform beyond those changes already proposed by DTLR, to enable unpopular and obsolete pre-1919 properties to be tackled. Additional changes are needed at a national level to give clear recognition to the significance of housing conditions in the owner occupied and private rented sector. The Government clearly has a strategy for addressing public sector stock condition issues, as expressed through the "decent homes" standard and targets, but there is no equivalent strategy for the owner occupied and privately rented sector. If the rationale behind that is that this sector can look after itself, then it is fundamentally flawed. One only has to look at the recent CML research report "Half the Poor: Home owners with Low Incomes" to understand the inability of many homeowners outside of areas like the South-East to help themselves.

  The lack of a robust Government strategy for owner occupied and privately rented homes will have adverse consequences, one of which will be empty homes. The Government's Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy is likely to be ineffective in this sector, as the floor targets which drive the strategy only relate to public sector housing. In Sandwell, there are major issues to be addressed in both the public and private sector stock, yet the Governments concern only seems to be with the former. Without a holistic approach from Government across all tenures, local authorities will be constrained in their efforts to regenerate areas. The single capital pot may also lead to the further marginalisation nationally of private sector housing renewal in the absence of a Government strategy.

David Shiner

Sandwell MBC

Urban Improvement Service

September 2001

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