Examination of Witnesses (Questions 60-71)|
WEDNESDAY 24 OCTOBER 2001
60. Is the problem of empty homes getting worse,
in fact, getting more concentrated; and if the problem is changing
why exactly is it changing?
(Ms Mitchell) I am sure everyone will want to make
some contribution, but the figures show, the overall figure is
more or less the same in the last few years, although there has
been a general decline, but the problem is increasing in areas
of the north.
61. It is continued failure of demand, is it?
(Ms Mitchell) Yes; issues of low demand, unpopular
housing, `hard to let' properties.
62. Is that primarily an employment issue?
(Ms Mitchell) I suppose the feedback we continually
get is that empty homes in these areas are not empty due to bricks
and mortar, it is not about the housing.
63. It is the state of the properties?
(Ms Mitchell) Yes, it is about all the other issues,
and those have to be addressed. And I listened to the previous
speaker; that is clear, that, although sometimes there are types
of tenure that are less popular, the issue is not of bricks and
mortar it is all the other issues.
64. A cynic like me would suggest that when
the Empty Homes Agency was created it was to solve the problem;
so have you failed?
(Ms Mitchell) I suppose, if you look at the rise in
issues of low demand and unpopular housing, the decline of certain
areas, the social, economic problems, the Empty Homes Agency is
not quite able to address those. I think what we have done is
raise awareness, and we have continually lobbied for certain issues,
such as the VAT issue, and obviously we are trying now to respond
to the increase in problems of low demand and unpopular housing.
65. Can I just begin by saying that in some
parts of the country really the collapse of demand is so severe
that an empty homes strategy of the sort you are trying to propose
really is dealing with the symptoms, it is a finger in the dyke
job, when really we ought to be looking at the whole reasons why
the housing demand has collapsed and see what can be done about
that, or whether there is a much more radical strategy needed.
Would you accept that?
(Ms May) Sorry, could you rephrase the question?
66. Really in some parts of the country there
has been a complete collapse of housing demand, so looking round
how you can fill one home, two homes and a few dozen homes is
not really going to work, you have got to look at the causes of
the whole problem rather than trying to deal with the symptoms?
(Ms May) Exactly. That is why a national overview
is needed, and there are very different problems in the north
from the south, very different, which is exactly why a national
overview is needed; then an empty property strategy at local authority
level can then address, they will learn by example, for a start,
so they will have an overview of their community, and then be
able to get on board. There are so many resources available within
a local authority that are wasted because people do not work together,
and rather than having five or six council offices work on bringing
one or two properties back into use, you could have five or six
working together to bring ten times as many back into use.
67. Can I just pick up on two possible scenarios;
one is these areas where demand has declined. Are you accepting
there implicitly that part of the strategy probably will be substantial
demolition? But, secondly, also, in some areas, quite a bit like
Sheffield, where I come from, where, yes, there is a desire to
stop increasing building into the green areas round the City,
and the sequential test of PPG3 will be helpful, but that does
not mean to say that the status quo within the City then
will hold, because there are some properties now which people
are saying are no longer adequate, they want better quality homes.
So you might have to have a programme of demolition and rebuilding
in the urban areas even if you cannot build out into the green
spaces; do you accept that sort of approach as part of the strategy
(Ms May) To a certain extent, yes. I think that, rather
than just clearance, selective demolition is a good way. We visited
Burnley yesterday, in Lancashire, and they have actually got a
project, Burnley Wood is a relatively small area of low-demand
houses; they have already reduced the supply of housing by demolition
and it has not worked and it is creeping back. And if you went
to visit, you can just walk up the hill and see gradually, the
streets, more and more houses becoming empty; but some people
are still investing heavily in their properties, some people,
the core of the community is still there, they are still staying,
there are a few `For Sale' boards up. So it is really selectively
demolishing. Rubbish clearance; the rubbish clearance there is
absolutely atrocious, there were two yards piled high with rotting
rubbish and flies, and children play there. Now if they demolished,
say, one row of the houses that back to each other, then they
have their yards behind and then a big central alleyway, if they
demolished one row, created gardens, had in their effective empty
property strategy, if they had a corporate one, cleared the rubbish,
made the area just generally a nicer place to live, that is going
to be far more effective than just demolishing the next row, and
then when the next row becomes empty the next row. So demolition
is good if it is done selectively and it is done carefully and
it is done with a corporate strategy in mind, but so many of the
local authority services are failing there. So housing and whether
or not the houses are just becoming empty because people have
not got jobs is not necessarily the issue. I would not have said
that the problem of empty homes is actually getting worse. And,
just coming back to the previous point, the Empty Homes Agency,
I would say, has been a success, we are here now, and ten years
ago Bob Lawrence started off on his own; so that is good. The
low demand figures seem to be on the increase for social housing,
but that is because local authorities have just transferred, in
the last year or so, 30,000 of their own low-demand stock over
to RSLs, so RSLs are getting the flak for that one. So it is not
necessarily getting worse, but I think it will do and it can get
frustrated if we see regeneration policies not working simply
because you demolished the whole lot.
68. I am just curious as to your view on the
proportion of the blame you would apply to local authorities for
empty homes, because, from what we have heard today, where demand
is falling part of the problem is the attitude of the local authority,
and, from what you have said, it strikes me that the better local
authorities seem to have tackled the problem in a more proactive
and creative manner, whereas the worse ones are the areas in which
people do not wish to live. So do you not think perhaps the Government
should be considerably tougher on the local authorities that are
failing, instead of trying to blame the private sector perhaps?
(Ms Mitchell) That is part of the reason we are calling
for there to be a statutory power to have an empty property strategy.
(Ms May) It is just that places like Burnley and places
of low demand, no, you cannot solve the problem by just coming
down on them like a ton of bricks, pardon the pun.
69. I am very familiar with Burnley, I was there
in 1997. But the point is that in Burnley in particular the local
authority does not seem to do anything about it, and that was
the constant complaint of the people who lived there.
(Ms May) Because they are frustrated because of the
lack of funding, because people just actually do not know. At
the moment it is fashionable for a local authority to employ an
empty property officer, they can tick a little box on the HIP
form and they feel they have done their job. That empty property
officer goes in with no qualifications, quite often, in housing
or any other related field, some people are even taking on estate
agents to be an empty property officer. A local authority at the
moment has not got a clue of what they need or want their empty
property officer to do, or even what their empty property officer
70. But is it really a question though of the
local authority managing its housing, or ought it really to be
the Government actually trying to find ways of encouraging people
to move from the South East to some of these areas, where there
are some very good houses which are basically going to have to
be pulled down because there is no demand?
(Ms May) It is a combination of the two. There are
mobility schemes in operation at the moment, they are being done
very quietly, it would be good if they could be done with Government
support and backing, but it would be no good to encourage people
from the South East to move up to the low-demand areas in the
north and then for them to be managed badly, or for them to just
move out again. So it is a combination of the two.
71. What are those schemes, do you know what
(Ms Mitchell) One is LAWN; there is a scheme called
LAWN, whereby London authorities have linked up with a number
of northern authorities and RSLs to place homeless households
in London in properties in the north.
(Ms May) And also Brighton Housing Trust, they operate
one. So there are ones springing up, but my concern is that they
are being done despite Government work on empty homes, rather
than as an addition to or with the support of. And low demand
is an underfunded community with a failing infrastructure, and
it needs funding and commitment for the whole lot, not just for
the housing element, or to rebuild the houses or redecorate.
Chairman: On that note, can I thank you very
much for your evidence. Thank you very much.