Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Riverside Housing Association (EMP 41)



  1.1  Established in 1928, Riverside Housing Association is one of the country's largest Registered Social Landlords (RSLs). It is now part of The Riverside Group, and operates in Merseyside, the North West and the Midlands, in 26 local authority areas. We work in partnership with tenants, local authorities and other agencies to achieve our vision to be a leading regeneration agency delivering quality homes and thriving communities.

  1.2  Our contribution to this Inquiry is based on our history of actively involving tenants in the operation of our business, and our long experience of working with communities. Our stock is broadly based and varied, comprising 20,000 general needs homes, 2,000 sheltered properties, 1,300 bedspaces of supported housing, a Private Finance Initiative (PFI) scheme of 145 homes and 700 Low Cost Home Ownership properties. We are in active negotiations with tenants and their Local Authorities on the transfer of a further 14,000 properties to The Riverside Group.

  1.3  We traditionally worked in the old General Improvement Areas (GIAs) and Housing Renewal Areas (HAAs), being one if the associations funded under the Shelter SNAP project after the Cathy Come Home television series in 1968. We consequently own and manage over 9,000 properties which are Victorian terraced houses and large properties converted into flats, now designated as Houses in Multi-Occupation (HMOs). In their day these were popular accommodation. That day has now passed and our older properties are now concentrated in areas of low housing demand, which are in the core areas of inner cities and towns, principally Liverpool, Birkenhead, St Helens, Bootle and Leicester. We currently have 1,344 properties empty out of our rented stock of 20,700, or nearly seven per cent. 980 (five per cent) are properties which are being held empty, most awaiting consent from the Housing Corporation to demolish or dispose of the properties. The rest are part of the programme of major repairs. Some of those properties are concentrated in small areas and their impact on a neighbourhood is significant.

  1.4  We are committed to the neighbourhoods where we have worked for so many years. We do not believe that we can walk away, disposing wholesale of our housing stock and abandoning the responsibilities and duties that we owe to the people who have been our tenants and their neighbours for so long. But neither can we continue to offer housing in unpopular areas, which we cannot maintain at economic cost in a condition which is acceptable to our customers.

  1.5  This response to your Inquiry is based on the tensions we experience day to day in managing housing stock, much of which is surrounded by empty properties. Some of this stock is our own, but other empty homes belong to other housing associations, and much is privately owned and may be rented or abandoned owner-occupied properties. This cobweb of ownership makes any concerted action difficulty, and requires the active participation of Local Authorities.

  1.6  Our response focuses on areas where we fell we can best make a contribution, and does not attempt to answer each of your expressed areas of main interest.


  2.1  The fundamental reason we have empty homes is that, of those people looking for accommodation in our areas, they do not choose our properties. Many of the properties that have served well over the last 30 years are now obsolete and the neighbourhoods in which they are located have become unpopular.

  2.2  In particular, there are fewer people looking for accommodation in Merseyside nowadays because:

    —  there is a general issue with depopulation in Merseyside.

    —  there are so many low priced properties in Merseyside it is often cheaper to buy than to rent for those who are working.

  Among those who are looking for accommodation, there are fewer people looking for our accommodation, because:

    —  Our properties tend to be small, long re-improved older terraced properties in inner city locations, due for their second major improvement programme in 30 years. Many were only improved to a 30 year life in the late 70s and early 80s. They have served their purpose, but housing standards have moved on considerably.

    —  There is so much choice of accommodation, not only amongst RSLs and councils, but also people who are renting our their own homes as they move up the housing ladder.

  2.3  Areas can suddenly become unpopular, and once we get a few empty properties then the rate of decline in demand is rapid. A cycle of high turnover, short length of tenancy, poor tenancy standards, increasing tenant damage of property adds to the existing problems of small older accommodation in need of re-improvement to contemporary standards. It creates additional costs for us as the landlord to relet properties, to carry out additional day to day repairs, and make the fundamental decision about whether the useful economic life of these properties has ended. They cost so much to maintain to a decent standard and yet remain so unpopular and difficult to let, whatever we do.

  2.4  We also have to consider the impact on the areas where we have work. If we let unpopular properties we get high turnover, and neighbours become unsettled about the number of people moving in and out. If we leave a property empty without any security it increases the risks of break-ins and burglary in the area. If we secure the property with high visibility steel shuttering, then we effectively advertise to the world that this is an area with no strong local neighbours able to watch over properties. And whatever we do the result is always increasing destabalisation of a formerly well established area.

  2.5  The high level of deprivation amongst our tenants means that there are few spare resources in the neighbourhoods. Add this to high turnover and the high cost of maintaining even the status quo and it means that any drop in standards on properties is not easily recovered and the area can rapidly degenerate. This then becomes a whole neighbourhood issue, rather than a tenant and landlord problem.

  2.6  We have been actively marketing our properties using a new choice based lettings system since April this year, and we believe that properties are now turning over faster and the number of empty homes is reducing slightly. However this does nothing to resolve our problems with disrepair and the long term voids. Changing housing management practices can help a little but is not the long term or only solution. Housing Management must not be made the scapegoat by being made to carry the blame for the 30 years when we replaced too few properties.

  2.7  Many owner-occupiers in these areas are people on low incomes, some of them pensioners, who also need help to repair and improve their older homes. Riverside undertakes Care and Repair work, and we often meet people who simply cannot resource the work—some of it minor—which would make so much difference to their homes. Private sector renewal programmes made a significant difference in these neighbourhoods and this resource has just disappeared.


  3.1  When we first identified the growing problem of disrepair in our housing stock in the 1990s, we established an initial programme of major repair work to our stock, to a value of £50 million over five years. Before this programme completed it was obvious we had a much more serious problem. With considerable difficulty, we funded this work independently after a number of years of trying to make the case to the Housing Corporation for major repairs funding.

  3.2  What became evident during those years of negotiation with the Housing Corporation was that we had identified a major problem of disrepair in housing association accommodation in Merseyside. There was no way that the Housing Corporation would be able to meet the demands made from Riverside and other associations, despite the original terms of Housing Association Grant (HAG) explicitly stating that major repairs grant would subsequently be made available.

  3.3  We are now carrying out a stock condition survey of 20 per cent of our stock each year to identify in full the extent of disrepair in our stock. 30 per cent of our annual rental income is allocated to reinstating the condition of the stock, but we are concerned about how effective this expenditure will be when it is not so much the properties but the neighbourhoods which require refurbishment. We plan to continue to fund this work, but we don't believe that this alone will solve the problem of empty homes. It means a very tight balancing of our resources between this work and other tenant focused work.

  3.4  It would be immensely helpful if Government and Local Authorities could agree policies which allow the authorities to use more freely and flexibly the compulsory purchase order powers that already exist, and extend them to create new powers to deal with obsolescence. We can only improve small terraced houses to a better standard, but we can not increase the size of the home nor provide car parking or amenity space. We will never be able to meet accessibility or affordable warmth standards in full. In some areas we are the major landlord and if we could assembly a site by demolishing all the existing homes in an area, then we could replace out of date homes with a smaller number of modern higher quality homes more in keeping with the twenty first century standards we offer elsewhere. However, being the major landlord does not mean we are the only landlord, and often there are a number of ownerships, possibly of long-term existing owner occupiers, or short term owner occupiers with negative equity problems, and private landlords with low quality but possibly profitable housing stock. If they choose not to sell, or hold out for absurdly high values out of keeping with the market, then we cannot assemble a site.

  3.5  We are keen to progress plans to redevelop in areas where we know we can never improve existing homes to an adequate contemporary standard, but we require consent to dispose from the Housing Corporation on properties which we plan to demolish and redevelop. There have been many occasions where we have waited—and in some cases are still waiting after three years—for consent, which is withheld until such time as the Local Authority resolves its plans for the future development of the area. This is entirely sensible for an overall approach, but our houses remain empty and aggravate the neighbourhood problems while the comprehensive plans are formulated. Any scheme of lower density housing, with landscaping and the introduction of mixed tenures into an existing area, could do much to resolve specific local difficulties. Such a scheme could easily be slotted into a subsequent comprehensive neighbourhood scheme and does not need to wait until the entire local strategy is finalised. A time limit on how long the Housing Corporation can deliberate on consent to dispose would be helpful.

  3.6  Amending the existing grant system and the allocation processes to encourage associations to redevelop older properties where appropriate would be beneficial. If the Housing Corporation were able to acknowledge the extent of damage that is caused to neighbourhoods by insufficient funding of major repairs work, by allocating more resources in the north to re-improving the stock, the problem of empty homes in the north would be much alleviated. At present, while this is technically possible, it does not happen because Government targets for capital investment in housing are based on the provision of extra homes.

  3.7  The most successful change in Government policy that could help with the problems of empty homes in the north has no obvious link with housing. Greater prosperity would mean fewer empty homes. If several government offices and agencies were to relocate to the north of England it would help to bring employment to and enhance prosperity in our region. A genuine national economic policy reflecting regional diversity and needs, and a transport policy improving links between the North West and London, is an essential pre-requisite to ensuring that current regeneration programmes are sustainable. Creating higher demand for housing would go a long way towards resolving the problems of high levels of deprivation, which are closely linked.


  4.1  Riverside is actively assessing all the neighbourhoods where we work. We have considered our asset management seriously, and identified those areas where we believe we are throwing away good money after bad. But we are also considering the areas as a whole, looking at what community investments we have made, what the pattern of day to day repairs spending is like in these areas, how many offers we have to make before we offer a property and it is accepted. This is not simply a question of the economic cost of repairing empty properties, it is the issue of neighbourhood sustainability, in which we play a larger role.

  4.2  Riverside allocates 4 per cent of our annual rental income to community investment schemes in an attempt to help to sustain the local neighbourhoods. We try and focus that money into areas which we think have a long term future, and would ideally like to spend more on this work. This work requires extensive intelligence gathering and partnering with Local Authorities and local communities. Concerted action on sustainable neighbourhoods will help to identify investment priorities and determine which properties we should continue to fund and bring back into letting.


  5.1  We were one of a number of housing authorities and associations in the North of England along the M62 corridor, who commissioned research from CURS, the research school at the University of Birmingham, to investigate the impact of changing housing markets on local housing demand. Liverpool City Council had previously commissioned research from CURS which established that there was not simply a problem with a large number of hard to let properties in Liverpool, but a structural change in housing markets which was beyond the ability of any one agency to resolve. The argument is that in many inner city areas in the North there are whole areas of housing for which there is rapidly reducing demand because there is an oversupply of small accommodation and a growing demand for larger accommodation which does not exist. This argument holds good across housing tenure, applying to owner occupied markets as well as all rented sectors. As an example of failing markets, we have offered some accommodation for auction over three times and still failed to find a buyer.

  5.2  We are pressing Government for recognition of this wider problem and making the case for funding through a "Housing Market Renewal Fund", money which could be used to assist with the clearance and redevelopment of new houses. This is an issue peculiar to the North at present, since there is a shortage of accommodation in London and the South, but it is a function of empty homes, low demand and the quality of accommodation.

  5.3  Planned action on wider regeneration initiatives will be the only reasonable answer to the problems of empty homes. Large scale demolition of worn out housing and systematic replacement with contemporary accommodation will only be truly effective if there is a vibrant community which occupies those homes, which is why economic regeneration is integral to the issue of empty homes.


  6.1  Empty Homes is a living problem for Riverside Housing Association, working as we do in local neighbourhoods where we have often been a landlord for thirty years or more. We have a commitment to our tenants and their neighbours to do our best, but we have been forced to withdraw property from letting where it is neither economic nor desirable for the remaining tenants for us to continue letting. Often no tenants in a home can be a better choice than tenants with no desire to live in the neighbourhood, because they aggravate the problems already experienced.

  6.2  If Government policy in respect of Compulsory Purchase Orders, major repairs funding and time-limiting Housing Corporation decisions for disposal could be strengthened, this would do much to improve local difficulties with empty homes.

  6.3  Our fundamental problem is that of area decline. We can deal with most of the problems of disrepair in our stock through appropriate business planning. We cannot deal with problems of wholesale housing market restructuring, which is a regional and local government issue. It requires concerted action and funding which will drive the agenda forward.

Deborah Shackleton

Chief Executive, The Riverside Group

September 2001

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