Examination of Witness (Questions 20-35)|
WEDNESDAY 24 OCTOBER 2001
20. Do you think the fact that a number of local
authorities and housing associations are bringing in tougher penalty
agreements and putting in clauses which probably did not exist
in old agreements, to impose on the tenants a condition, you know,
"you behave yourself"; in your experience, is this resulting
in a number of the worst neighbours from hell, if I could call
them that, moving in to the private rented sector?
(Mr Cowans) There is evidence that is happening. There
is also evidence that the most difficult people, with the most
chaotic lifestyles, just move between public sector landlords,
so they move between local authorities, they move between RSLs,
and in areas of oversupply it is pretty easy to do; and the processes
of handling that are not as well developed as they ought to be.
The fundamental question, which remains to be asked and answered,
is what on earth do we do with the most problematical people,
where do they live; do we abandon them completely? There was an
interesting experimental study and a project in Dundee, which
actually took Dutch models of handling anti-social behaviour,
which was never replicated anywhere in the UK, and we ought to
look at that in a bit more detail.
21. Could you just perhaps tell us, briefly,
(Mr Cowans) Yes. It is a small project in Dundee,
it is still running, to my knowledge, and the local authority
was having problems where it was evicting people, who exhibited
recidivist anti-social behaviour, and they just did not know what
to do with them any more. So they made it a condition that these
particular families had to move into a secure unit, this is a
very, very difficult issue, and they had to go through a process
of, it is difficult to know what to call it really, re-education,
skills in budgeting, parenting, and all of this sort of stuff.
But it is a huge issue about what on earth does one do with recidivist
anti-social behaviour perpetrators when they do not actually necessarily
break the law, as such.
Chairman: They just break everyone's hearts,
22. Dave, it is a long time since we first met
across a table like this. Can I just pick up on the anti-social
behaviour orders that you mentioned. They were seen as something
that was really going to sort out some of these problems and be
of great benefit to housing managers and to the police; the police
in my area are saying that, in practice, they find them too cumbersome
and too mechanistic and want to see them changed. I think everyone
agrees the principle is right, but in practice they are not really
delivering. How do you find it, do you think there ought to be
some changes, have you got any suggestions?
(Mr Cowans) I think that is true, that they are cumbersome,
they are difficult to deal with. It is very difficult when you
get to a court, whatever process you use, whether it is anti-social
behaviour orders, or grounds in the Housing Acts, or whatever,
the rules of evidence are so complicated that it is relatively
easy for the defence lawyer to actually stop the process, which
is fine in rule of law, and, of course, no-one wants to see an
injustice take place, but, when you go back to that community
and explain that, you can imagine the response you get. What happens
is then the people who actually glue the community together start
to move out and decline sets in. So it is a very complicated and
difficult area. My own view is that we ought to make greater use
of probationary tenancies, but there are weaknesses there, because
what happens if someone fulfils their probation and then goes
on to practice anti-social behaviour. We have got to do a lot
more work on this; but I still think we ought to study more what
we do about the recidivist anti-social perpetrator, because, often,
in my experience, it is the recidivists who are causing the problem;
they have caused problems elsewhere, some people get moved down
the street, and communities do not understand that, and you can
see their point really.
23. Why do you think so many housing regeneration
programmes have failed, in the sense that the areas that they
have been attempting to regenerate remain often the top candidate
for the next regeneration programme that comes along?
(Mr Cowans) That is a central question. My own view
is that there was an overemphasis on housing. Estate Action was
a good example of that; it was well meaning and it did put resources
into the most difficult estates, but it almost completely emphasised
housing. The tenure changes that took place were peripheral, they
were small, and there was no real attempt to tackle the underlying
causes of neighbourhood decline, such as anti-social behaviour,
employment, training, and a lot of that is being dealt with now.
The problem I think is that the housing baby has been thrown out
with the regeneration bath water, in a sense, because many New
Deal for Communities in former SRB areas almost have no housing
component at all; and trying to get that balance back is crucial.
There are also some areas where the various tools are tenure specific.
There is a set of policy tools for the private rented sector and
the lower-value home ownership market, there is a set of tools
for Registered Social Landlords, and there is a set of tools for
existing local authority stock, rarely do the three meet, really.
24. Can I press you, because have you any experience
or examples of an area that is justifying special social measures,
because of multiple poverty, deprivation and housing, as being
one of those, that actually, through special measures, becomes
successful in the sense that it no longer qualifies for any further
(Mr Cowans) We give one example, of Viking Lea, in
Sheffield, which, when we took it from the local authority, was
50 per cent vacant, and through a series of special measures it
now is 5 per cent vacant. So if we are just looking at this from
an empty homes perspective, that is a reasonable result.
25. But it still needs input?
(Mr Cowans) There are very, very few examples, in
my experience, of special measures that then have been lifted
because the area has been radically turned around, without it
being very large-scale, and the tenure mix has been radically
shifted, which tends to suggest large-scale demolition. I have
seen that in various places; Broomhall, in Sheffield, was the
most extreme case, because the problem was removed completely
by demolition .
26. Is it therefore possible that another special
measure, the Housing Market Renewal Fund, might not be as successful
as finding answers to deprivation, poverty and poor housing, that
are more closely built in to mainstream local government or Government
(Mr Cowans) I think, if the housing renewal package
was to work it would have to be strongly built into ongoing revenue
services, and I think it is one of the mistakes of regeneration,
that special measures tend to be on top of what already happens
and not sufficiently connected to routine services. So housing
market renewal would have to be part of the planning of the local
authority and all the other agencies about how they were going
to continue managing it. That is why I think 20 years is probably
The problem with 20 years is, it sounds like for ever, and to
a degree it is, and it would be difficult to have a programme
where at the end of 20 years you then said, well, did it work
or not; so you would have to have some very clear milestones.
I think the other thing I would say is that large geographical
areas are actually multiples of tiny neighbourhoods, and if we
took every tiny neighbourhood as an individual unit and slowly
changed it over time you would be able to see a gradual improvement
of the area. Because many of these areas actually can be made
worse by current regeneration activities; the classic is if you
have a regeneration programme that happens in a disadvantaged
area, the first thing people do who get a job is move. So actually
all that regeneration does is decapitate the leadership of that
community endlessly, and actually it gets more and more and more
disadvantaged; whereas if we had that Housing Market Renewal programme
linked into job creation and entrepreneurial job creation, that
actually gave people housing choices that meant they could continue
to live in the area, but better their housing circumstances, that
would strengthen the neighbourhood.
27. Very quickly on that, the impact then of
developments like the Merseyside Docklands, the Salford Docklands,
and London Docklands, where you bring professional housing into
an area of deprivation, what impact does that have on the surrounding
community, in your judgement?
(Mr Cowans) If you just put a high-income silo in
the middle of a very disadvantaged area that does not help much
really. So the issue of mixed tenure housing has to be addressed
in a much more pepper-potted way; it is a very old form of housing,
centuries old, that people live together in different income groups.
What tends to happen is, if you get the new yuppie flats in the
middle of Liverpool's Riverside surrounded by a wire fence, that
does not do a lot really, because those people tend to jump over
the local economy to service their needs. So just doing that does
not help. But tying that sort of housing programme into local
employment programmes, actually trying to spatially integrate
different forms of tenure, can have a massive impact, it can drive
local shops, it can drive the survival of shops that would have
gone under ordinarily, it can drive economic opportunities for
people who would not have got them, okay, they might be low grade,
they might be cleaning, but they will be there; and it traps more
of that money in the inner city, whereas it probably would have
gone to the outer suburbs. So there is lots of evidence where
that does happen.
28. Where has that been done well?
(Mr Cowans) I think it has been done well in bits
of Manchester and Birmingham; but the problem is that you have
to build a market in the city centre. I think it is done well
in parts of London, just because it has always been done like
that, by the way. In parts of Manchester areas of high-value housing
are starting to creep out into the outer core of the city, because
that is what will happen, people will seize on the inner core
housing opportunities first, and then as demand increases it increases
development opportunities which become more attractive outside
the inner core. So it works quite well in parts of Manchester.
I do not think it works particularly well in Liverpool yet, because
of the severity of the problems and the very strong concentration
of low-value housing.
29. In areas of really severe economic decline
and fall in demand, like perhaps the areas you have mentioned,
what are your views on large-scale clearance?
(Mr Cowans) I think in some places it is inevitable
and necessary, but it has to be managed in a way that we do not
just repeat all the social costs that we saw in clearance programmes
in the fifties and sixties. So smaller, bite-sized, community
clearance within an overall, large-scale plan, moving those communities
together to new provision, planning the new provision first, because
often the new provision comes after the clearance, which disperses
local communities, and having a whole series of opportunities
for people who own their home not to lose out, so relocation grants,
and things like that.
30. Yes, I was going to ask you about the funding.
Have you got any examples from your own portfolio that you could
give us, and perhaps if you could just elaborate a little bit
more on how you put the funding package together to do it, in
(Mr Cowans) It will depend, to be honest, on the nature
of the community as it is; if those people were almost exclusively
social tenants you would have one set of funding, which would
be home loss, disturbance, all the classic stuff really, but the
real problem is getting the new provision in place before the
31. And what is that new provision?
(Mr Cowans) It is new housing for those people who
need it. So, for instance, when I worked for Leicester, the City
Council was demolishing old, pre-cast concrete properties, "Boot-houses",
for those of you who are into this, and new provision came first;
and then those people who were in phase one of the clearance got
to design the homes they were moving into. But that is very expensive,
and it takes a long time. If we just clear 2,000, 3,000 properties
at a time, we will destroy those communities, and that will be
a real tragedy.
32. How does Places for People decide where
(Mr Cowans) We have a detailed analysis of local economies,
we look at where we are already strong and where we are not, and
we look at where we can add most value. We also tend to go for
the larger schemes, because, to be honest, building 11 properties
on the end of a street, anybody can do that, whereas we have strength
to do the bigger schemes. And we also, now, only do mixed tenure,
we will not just do big estates of affordable housing, because
all the evidence is people do not want that. Over 75 per cent
of people in recent surveys said they would prefer to live in
a mixed-tenure neighbourhood than in a mono-tenure, affordable
housing neighbourhood, and all the evidence is that people outside
of that neighbourhood have a better perception of it if it is
33. What requirements do your funders have,
(Mr Cowans) They have views about covenants, they
want to get their money back and they want to get a return, they
have views about our overall economic strength, and they will
have views about things like rent arrears and vacant properties.
Coming back to the Chairman's point about is there a pressure
about filling vacancies, well, yes, there is, and they also have
a view about whether they think we are a worthy investment, and
on the whole, because we meet 35 lenders every year, they think
we are, because we demonstrate a lot of thought about what we
do and where we are going in the market.
34. Is there any difference between the criteria
the private funders want and the criteria the Housing Corporation
(Mr Cowans) Yes, there is. We have gone through two
bond issues, and the assessment from the underwriter about a bond
issue is far more rigorous than anything the Housing Corporation
35. Should the Housing Corporation be more vigorous
(Mr Cowans) It depends what you mean by vigorous.
I think they could have a stronger view about the financial strength
of smaller organisations, I think there is definitely an issue
there. There have been lots of examples of smaller organisations
that have breached covenants, that have missed bullet repayments
on loans, that were not far short of in difficulty such as West
Hampstead, Bristol Churches, but, having said that, the sector
has a very good record, no-one has ever gone bust, and no-one
has ever defaulted on a loan, which is not true in most other
parts of the economy.
Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very
much for your evidence.
3 Note by witness: A reasonable timescale for
a housing market renewal area. Back