Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Centre for Urban and Regional Studies, Birmingham University (EMP 47)


  This contribution to the evidence in relation to the current situation of empty housing in England is based on a substantial body of research carried out over the last three years at the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies at the University of Birmingham. This Research has developed as a response to the growing awareness of problems in relation to turnover and void properties in parts of the public and private sectors.

  The starting point for our contribution to the debate about these things is two fundamental observations.

    —  Firstly, the cross-tenure nature of problems of failing demand and high turnover suggests that we need to understand the contribution of processes which affect all tenures and the way in which these processes are the underlying factors in change. We have argued that the evidence shows a tendency for failing public sector and social rented housing to be associated with areas of failing private housing and that it is appropriate to see this pattern of failing housing markets in certain places as a major emerging feature of housing in England. There are a range of factors contributing to this.

    —  Secondly, and focusing more particularly upon the social rented sector, the higher rates of turnover and void properties in that sector have emerged after a decade and more of debate about Best Practice and improved management approaches towards allocations and void properties in the social rented sector. A succession of reports from the Audit Commission, professional bodies and others have identified management responses which will reduce the problems associated with void property. In spite of these changes we have seen the emergence of a more severe problem in some areas. While this does not deny that management initiatives have been and are still of importance, it casts doubt upon the view that these are sufficient or are the central issues in developing a strategy to deal with void properties in many areas. The analysis that we have carried out in the North and the Midlands suggests that, for the social rented sector, it is inappropriate to rely purely upon improved management approaches. Changing aspirations, different patterns of choice and opportunity and issues related to unpopular housing and obsolescence are also involved.

  The remainder of this evidence refers to studies that have been carried out at a regional and sub-regional or a city-wide level rather than studies which start from the neighbourhood or estate. While we can see a value in evidence which draws upon different kinds of data and addresses this problem at different levels, we are convinced that we need to develop strategies which acknowledge the importance of market changes and major social, economic and demographic influences as well as approaches that focus on the micro, estate level issues and local housing management. These two levels are not mutually exclusive and it is essential that we do not rely purely upon either.

  In the review paper completed for the Housing Corporation in 1998 we identified a number of factors which had contributed to higher rates of void property and to higher turnover. Different factors are important at regional, sub-regional, district and estate levels and both analysis and policy response should recognise this. Some factors associated with demographic and labour market changes mean that there is more volatility and mobility than in the past. At the same time changes in incomes and employment, in mortgage lending practice and in the system of housing subsidy have altered patterns of access and choice. More people have choices and choose to move than in the past. At the same time the preference for home ownership and higher expectations of achieving this are also affecting housing patterns. We have argued that it is important to see all of these factors as contributing to a change in the pattern of demand and as contributing to the levels of empty property. All parts of the country and all markets are being affected by this but the most severe impact on empty property is felt in areas where there is a substantial quantity of low quality accommodation for historical reasons and where there has been a significant decentralisation of population over the last thirty years. Where this is the case the least acceptable obsolete properties are being rejected and high levels of empty property emerge in these parts of the market where there is a monolithic supply of low quality accommodation and a consequent loss of neighbourhood reputation.

  In the context of increasing affluence and falling unemployment, social rented housing has increasingly become, and been seen to become, the sector of last resort and this has contributed to the loss of reputation and attractiveness. The portability of housing benefits means that many of those who in the past would have looked to council housing now have a wider range of choice within the rented sectors and find council housing to be less clearly the best quality provider. At the same time many of those only just above the housing benefit threshold can access owner-occupation. All of this fits with the evidence about increased churning in the lower council tax bands between different tenures and different properties. The market at this level is operating in a different way than was familiar throughout the post-war period where people moved house less frequently and obtaining a council house was regarded as achieving a satisfactory lifetime housing solution.

  Two other elements are particularly important in understanding changing patterns of housing demand.

    —  The first relates to neighbourhood facilities and management. The available evidence suggests that people's housing choices are considerably influenced by neighbourhood services and problems; by schools, leisure facilities, environmental factors, crime, safety and accessibility. Whatever the quality of housing or housing management, demand will be affected by a wider pattern of neighbourhood management and by a range of different organisations.

    —  Secondly, the opportunities available to people and the quality of services available in different places reflects the dominant pattern of planning in the post-war period. In this period there has been a consistent emphasis on the decentralisation of residential and economic activity from the congested urban centres. The major new development investment around Britain's towns and cities has been on the urban periphery, initially in new towns, and subsequently in private sector developments beyond the boundaries of the major cities. Investment in transport, schools and a range of other facilities has tended to follow the growth in population associated with new housing investment, Consequently, the quality and range of facilities in these areas has become strikingly different to that in the older urban centres. While some of the discussion about changing demand has focused on inter-regional migration and regions which are experiencing loss or growth of population, we would emphasise the importance of intra-regional migration and those sub-regions which are the major recipients of new investment and are the targets for demand. Decentralised planning strategies have contributed to the development of a pattern of differential migration within regions. This involves younger and higher income households, leaving older housing neighbourhoods and the centres of older urban areas and moving to the urban fringe where a variety of facilities are seen to be superior. It is important to acknowledge that the length of these processes means that household growth is now increasingly located outside many declining urban areas, and in some of these neighbourhoods the housing market is disconnected from the metropolitan area. As a consequence they are locked into a cycle of decline driven by demography. This is expanded more fully below.

  In the subsequent research that we have carried out, we have been particularly concerned to identify factors contributing to low and changing demand in the Midlands and the North of England. We have carried out substantial research studies involving mixed methodologies, focus groups, social surveys, the analysis of administrative records in the North and the Midlands. This research has strengthened the view that the driving influences on low demand and the factors contributing to high rates of turnover and void properties concern the changing nature of markets and the interaction between housing, employment, planning, demographic change and housing market restructuring.

  The survey work that we have carried out in the North-West of England and the West Midlands has drawn attention to the extent to which sub-regional housing markets are sometimes poorly connected.

    —  The evidence we have suggests that the housing markets operating on the urban fringe are largely self-sustaining: they generate the demand for housing locally from within. They are no longer major recipients of direct migration from the older, urban areas as was the case, for example, with new towns in the 1960s.

    —  At the same time the older urban areas are not major recipients of migration from outside the city and they are largely dependent upon locally-generated demand. However, because of the age composition of population within these older areas, there is insufficient demand being generated locally to sustain these inner urban housing markets. The elderly population, which is highly represented in these areas is contributing to a high generation of void properties. There is not sufficient local demand to meet this and the demand that comes in from outside is often of low income households and those seeking short-term accommodation.

  This situation is apparent in parts of the private sector and mixed tenure neighbourhoods and also applies in some council housing areas. It suggests that there is a fundamental structural problem related to the rate of vacancy generation and the demand for accommodation rather than a problem that is principally associated with management.

  Our research has drawn attention to the way in which failing housing markets in the private sector are developing. The evidence we have from Liverpool, for example, suggest that in areas of older housing where there is insufficient demand from new purchasers, an increased proportion of properties have been transferred to the private rented sector and an over-supply of rented housing emerges as a direct consequence of market failure. The response of the market failure is to deepen the problem. The economic rationality of this lies in the decision by owners of property to cease investing in the fabric of these properties and to make their economic judgements based purely upon the rental income stream.

  The effects of tenure transfers of this kind are to contribute further to the de-stabilisation of neighbourhoods and to make it more difficult to stabilise these areas. We are also aware of fluctuations in the nature of demand for housing from students which can contribute to this pattern.

  Our research, drawing heavily upon council tax data attempting to identify areas of private and mixed tenure housing which are most at risk of low demand, has emphasised problems in the older housing stock of pre-1919 dwellings, especially in areas where there is a dominance of this type of housing. It has led us to believe that issues of obsolescence are important in understanding changing demand and levels of void property. Our research in relation to the social rented sector has involved a similar assessment of areas at risk and this has begun to focus attention upon areas, which are dominated by one tenure and by flats and maisonettes.

  The conclusions emerging from this body of work emphasise the failure of markets and the scale of problems in the Midlands and the North. We do not believe that the evidence is of pockets of difficult to manage or difficult to let properties, but rather of large tracts of property associated with failing markets. If the scale and nature of the problem is perceived in this way, then the kinds of policy responses that are required are very much greater than those associated with difficult to manage housing. We need to envisage a more radical modernisation of housing markets and re-design of major areas of older towns and cities. The strategies adopted towards council and housing association housing would need to be ones that will ensure that such housing is competitive with the private rented sector and the bottom end of the owner-occupied sector. The quality targets set for social housing by government set out the basis for a re-thinking of social rented provision, but it is important to recognise the environment with which this operates and to contemplate significant demolition and new building that would be sufficient to bring the standard and attractiveness of social housing up to a competitive level.

  The appropriate policy responses in this environment involve a number of crucial elements:

    1.  There is a need to widen the spatial base of policy responses. While there are important estate and neighbourhood level interventions, it is insufficient to operate at this level and the familiar concern about moving problems around from estate to estate by insulating particular areas from particular problems arises. We need strategies that operate at a district and sub-regional level that address issues to do with failing housing markets. There is a need for partnership working between local authorities and between local authorities and and RSLs to achieve this.

    2.  There is a need to integrate housing and planning policies. The Regional Planning Guidance and Ten-Year Housing Plan should match and be consistent with one another.

    3.  We need new policy vehicles to deal with areas that are failing. We have suggested through the National Housing Federation that it would be appropriate to develop market renewal areas and housing management innovation areas to develop more proactive and longer-term sustained strategies for failing markets. It may be that the legislation in relation to renewal areas provides a vehicle for market renewal. However, there is a need for government to explicitly encourage and enable major interventions and innovation using renewal area powers.

    4.  There will need to be substantial funding to enable radical change in some areas and to enable planning to function in these areas. This will in particular relate to the demolition of empty and obsolete properties.

    5.  The process of renewal of markets will in some cases cause considerable disruption and have major adverse consequences for some residents and we need to develop sensitive and responsive plans for the areas concerned.

    6.  There is a need to capture new residents in failing markets and areas with high turnover. These are often areas which have exported population in the past and the development of attractive housing environments requires an investment in a variety of other facilities, including schools.

    7.  The operation of the housing benefit system and policies towards the development of rents in the social rented sector may require review in areas of failing demand. Questions arise about housing benefit in relation to the operation of the private rented sector. The general direction of policy on rents also raises questions for properties in low value areas. In our view it is necessary to develop policies in these areas that are more sensitive to the changing markets in the Midlands and the North.

September 2001


  Murie, A, Nevin, B and Leather, P (1998) "Changing Demand and Unpopular Housing", Working Paper No 4, Housing Corporation, London.

  Murie, A. et al (2001) "Birmingham Housing Market Study", CURS, University of Birmingham.

  Nevin, B, Lee, P, Goodson, L, Murie, A, Phillimore, J. (2001) "Changing Housing Markets and Urban Regeneration in the M62 Corridor". CURS, University of Birmingham.

  Nevin, B, Lee, P, Murie, A, Goodson, L, Phillimore, J (2001) "The West Midlands Housing Markets: changing demand, decentralisation and urban regeneration". CURS, University of Birmingham.

  Nevin, B, Hall, S, Lee, P, and Srbljanin, A (2001) "Stabilising the Population of Liverpool: employment markets and housing choice". Published by City of Liverpool Regeneration Portfolio, January.

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