Examination of Witness (Questions 261
WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001
261. Welcome to the Committee. May I ask you
to introduce yourself for the record?
(Mr Wenban-Smith) I am Alan Wenban-Smith.
262. Do you want to say anything to us or are
you happy to go straight to questions?
(Mr Wenban-Smith) May I just make a couple
of points by way of introduction? The first point is that although
a lot of attention is paid in the regional planning business to
the numbers game, it is important to bear in mind that the treatment
of vacancy is not a big issue in that respect; somewhere between
five and ten per cent of the numbers may be attributable to different
ways of doing it. It is worth remembering though that all that
five or ten per cent will come through the other end as an additional
greenfield requirement, so though it is not large it does have
that significance. The other point which is rather more important
and has had less attention on the whole is that levels of vacancy
in some areas and in some regions are far too high and they are
symptomatic of a much wider social malaise. That is important,
first of all because it is a warning that some areas are on the
slide and unless something is done effectively, there is the risk
of great swathes of housing being taken out of use and indeed
thousands of lives being ruined in the process. These are the
areas which will need a very wide range of measures. Housing is
not the only issue, there are all sorts of other questions to
do with jobs, access, environment. Some regions of the UKNorth
West, North East, Yorkshire and Humberside in particularhave
areas with large amounts of this problem. This is a national regional
issue and not just something which can be dealt with within the
region. Arising out of that it is very important that the planning
system grapples with the issue of management of the housing situation
as a totality from now on and does not just focus on an endpoint
some years down the track.
263. In your written evidence, paragraph 4.14,
you say, "The key point for present purposes is that if too
much greenfield land is released by the planning system the effect
will be to undermine urban regeneration". Does that conflict
with what you have just said to us?
(Mr Wenban-Smith) I hope not. There are two ways in
which too much greenfield land being released impacts upon vacancy
and on regeneration. The first is that attention by the building
industry is diverted; they would much rather be doing easy things,
which is not too surprising. The other is that as far as home
owners and tenants are concerned, it is quite clear that their
attention will be attracted by safer options. It is completely
understandable. There are lots of things there that they cannot
change. They simply have to take the situation as it stands and
take the choices available within it. This is a public responsibility.
There needs to be a real effort to take seriously the need to
change the conditions under which people have to make those choices,
both builders and occupiers.
264. Has building on greenfield sites over the
last 20 years caused the problem of empty homes?
(Mr Wenban-Smith) Yes, I think it has. Certainly in
some areas, I am thinking of the North East particularly, which
I have some experience of professionally, large quantities of
housing built in Cramlington New Town and on land to the north
west of the city, directly led to the sorts of problems you see
in the west end of Newcastle where swathes have been effectively
abandoned. It is not just as simple as people moving from point
A to point B it is simply that the choices presented along the
line because of that over-provision have not been the choices
which should have been presented, which would have put much more
stress on making the west end of Newcastle a very much more attractive
place with less need therefore to build housing at Cramlington
and on the land in the North West.
265. Is the solution to the whole issue of empty
homes to prevent building on greenfield sites?
(Mr Wenban-Smith) No; no, it is not the whole solution.
It will only be part of the solution if it is put alongside real
energetic urban renaissance effort covering the whole range of
public services, housing, jobs, access, the entire works.
266. Do you think local authorities are still
approving new greenfield housing developments without sufficient
regard to the number of empty homes around and the availability
of brownfield sites, not merely in their area but in surrounding
areas in the sub-region?
(Mr Wenban-Smith) Yes, that is undoubtedly the case.
I was representing CPRE in the North West and I gather you have
had the opportunity of visiting there. It is very clear that there
are areas which almost perversely it seems to me had large problems
of low demand and those same places were proposing very large
increases in housing provisions. Asked to explain this, they explained
it in terms of needing to regenerate their area. They did not
seem to have followed through to "What happens to all the
low demand housing you already have?". They really stopped
at that point and had not really thought through what the implication
of that was. It seemed to me it was very much moving a problem
from one place to another and making it a good deal worse in the
267. Do you think government regional offices
are doing enough to provide guidance and trying to get an overview?
(Mr Wenban-Smith) I hesitate to suggest more guidance
from government regional offices; it would be a case of the blind
leading the blind I suspect. To my mind the important bit here
would be to put some real capacity, capability, into regional
planning. At the moment regional planning guidance tends to be
produced by voluntary collaborative effort of local authorities
and very often, unless there is very clear technical and political
leadership, that tends to be a horse trading process producing
lowest common denominator solutions and not actually addressing
the issues. Until there is real technical capacity and real political
leadership together, those two things are interdependent because
politiciansI probably do not need to tell youare
not going to devote serious time, effort and career prospects
to things where there is not an adequate level of support and
issues are not being clearly articulated. We are not going to
make progress on this issue without some form of regional capability
there. I would not go so far as to say that regional government
is necessary. That would be a long time down the track, but there
has to be much more significant regional capability. I do not
think government offices are the right place for that at the moment.
268. If government offices are not the right
place for it at a regional level, how do you do it? My constituency
is in a very green area around Sheffield and there is constant,
constant pressure from the housing developers because of the market
to build wherever and whenever they can. Where a site in question
is already in public ownership, and I can think of one which was
in Health ownership and where considerable pressure was put on
the local authority to agree 500 houses, despite many, many people
asking for a brownfield site to be found nearer to Sheffield,
the pressure is intolerable. Who should have the power, which
needs to be quite considerable to resist that pressure, particularly
when it is coming from a public sector land owner and not a private
sector land owner?
(Mr Wenban-Smith) Indeed and that illustrates the
reason why I think the government office is not necessarily the
right place. In such instances it is often the case, and I suspect
somewhere at the bottom of your example, that there is a need
to generate money into a PFI for a new hospital.
269. Sort of thing.
(Mr Wenban-Smith) I am just guessing here. Clearly
that is one bit of government which stands to benefit from the
highest value use on the redundant site. I have come across exactly
the same situation all over. It is not particular to your area.
I am involved in a very similar one in the West Midlands. Often
the decision making is skewed by virtue of that. It is important
that the locus for that kind of decision is regional and that
means that the local authority and the other regional stakeholders
need to be party to that kind of decision. It may be that the
right trade-off is that in order to raise the money to build a
new hospital, say, some compromise, some trade-off is required
on some of the other things you hold dear. That is a regional
decision, it seems to me. It is not something which has a proper
locus somewhere else, particularly not where the decision may
well be contaminated by public expenditure considerations, which
come in very often.
270. Your memorandum to the Committee shows
how the vacancy rate has been used in the calculation of the net
requirement for dwellings in both the Yorkshire and Humber and
West Midlands RPGs. Can you tell the Committee how much difference
a change in the vacancy rate does make to the net requirement
for new dwellings in a region?
(Mr Wenban-Smith) In the case of Yorkshire and Humberside
it made a difference of around 10,000 as a result of saying they
ought to go for a target of three per cent rather than the current
four per cent. Out of a total requirement of 240,000 that is about
four per cent. It does not make a huge difference. In the North
West it made a much bigger difference because you are starting
with a much larger base of housing, about 3.5 million dwellings
in the North West. There, not only were they not making an allowance
for reducing the vacancy rate, which at the beginning of the plan
period was 4.3 per cent, they were actually for some reason which
I have never been able to get to the bottom of, proposing to allow
for additional vacancy of 15,000. That actually adds up to seven
per cent of the overall requirement. It is not a huge difference
but it is a significant difference in the sense that all that
extra feeds through and at the end of day means more greenfield
land must be identified to meet it.
271. So it is far from being an exact science.
(Mr Wenban-Smith) Nothing talking about what is going
to happen in 20 years' time is a science, exact or otherwise.
It is necessarily a "best guess" of what might happen.
That is a very important point to make. A lot of this numbers
game is done on the basis that this is science; it is not science,
it is forecasting which is a different thing altogether. I have
devoted a lot of my several meetings with this Committee to stressing
the need to deal with planning from today onwards and not always
looking at 20 years down the track, because one tends to take
one's eye off the ball.
272. How does the calculation of the number
of dwellings needed in a region take account of the differences
within the existing housing stock, for example obsolete houses?
(Mr Wenban-Smith) The figures in the regional planning
guidance are about the net addition to the stock needed to meet
the needs of additional households, whether that is people migrating
in or whether it is simply the same number of people splitting
themselves into separate households. If you want to get at how
many new houses have to be built, you have to add to that the
number of the existing stock which needs to be replaced. Trying
to predict how many of the existing stock will fall off the edge
and need to be replaced is not something you can do anything more
than make a fairly broad estimate of. It is important, taking
regions like the North West, where there is a lot of houses which
are potentially obsolescent in that way
273. How would you define obsolete houses?
(Mr Wenban-Smith) I did not say "obsolete"
I said "obsolescent", which is an important difference.
274. I said "obsolete".
(Mr Wenban-Smith) No house cannot be rescued. It is
a question of what it costs and what you have at the end of it
and whether that balance is sensible or not. In Birmingham 20
years ago we were doing revitalisation and some of the properties
we were revitalising because we were doing it on a worst-first
basis were costing £20,000 a go and the property which resulted
from that work was worth £10,000. Clearly you have to ask
whether it is sensible. I am sorry, I cannot answer your question
directly on how you define an obsolete house because it is obsolete
relative to what you could do with it and what it would cost you
to do that and whether anybody wanted the result. It is not a
simple question at all. It is part of the managing from now on
agenda which to my mind is absolutely critical if we are going
to make urban renaissance a reality. We have to have broad quantitative
view of the future, but we really have to focus on what we do
today, tomorrow and the day after to the stuff we have.
275. The Panel in the North West argued that
vacancy rates are a "contextual indicator" that are
not directly influenced by RPG. Do you agree and could you perhaps
elaborate upon the "contextual indicator"?
(Mr Wenban-Smith) I think that is a cop-out. It is
a very narrow view of regional planning guidance. It says essentially
that all that regional planning guidance is there for is to provide
a view about how many new houses and where they should go. Everything
else is subsidiary and not really about it. I think that even
on that very narrow view of planning the view you have mentioned
is perverse because there is an effect on vacancy, according to
how much greenfield land you provide, even if it is an indirect
one, but it is real nevertheless. The real answer is that regional
planning guidance, according to government guidelines, and I agree
with this, should be about spatial strategy. It is not just about
colouring bits of land different colours, it is about the whole
panoply of public policy. To take the approach the North West
has represents a refusal to take that wider responsibility. It
is also influenced by a desire to massage up the figures so there
is something for the planners to do. I have the strong impression
that unless you have some numbers to play with, you may well find
you have already over-committed yourself and you may as well pack
up your planning department for the next few years. This may be
cynical of me.
276. So you think the row they had in the South
East about the extra number of houses was a good row for planners,
kept them in work.
(Mr Wenban-Smith) Keeping planners in work is not
necessarily a good thing in itself, but the row in the South East
was very, very important in terms of focusing attention and getting
some of these very difficult issues into the public arena and
getting some serious debate around them, simply because the numbers
which were coming out were so huge and their implications so mind
blowingI remember coming to this Committee and talking
about another two Birminghams and a Southampton for good measure.
That was what was being talked about in the South East. When you
put it in that sort of context, it gets to be beggaring belief.
Having gone through that process, that has been educational.
277. Should the North West not have said absolutely
no new building and got a similar row going and got people's minds
concentrated on the empty properties?
(Mr Wenban-Smith) It might well have got people's
minds concentrated. A realistic view to my mind would have been
something well below the sort of figures they were putting forward.
They were putting forward figures which were based not only on
high vacancy rates continuing, but also on a very rapid increase
to national average levels of economic prosperity. That in total
seemed to be quite unrealistic and indeed possibly damaging to
the future prospects of the North West. That argument is a necessary
argument to have. I am not sure I would have started it from the
point the North West chose to start it.
278. The Committee have been told that current
experience in the South East where vacancy rates are now below
three per cent reinforce the DTLR's statement in their memorandum
to the Committee that transactional vacancies amount to two per
cent of the housing stock at any one time. If that is the case,
do you believe that the current national target level for vacancy
rates should be reduced to reflect that particular statement from
(Mr Wenban-Smith) I made the point in my evidence
that there is a transactional rate of vacancy. I do not think
that is an irreducible rate, I have to say, because a rate of
three per cent, which is the current national target, implies,
if properties turn over by about ten per cent a year, which is
a broad average, that the gaps between occupation are on average
of the order of four months. That is quite a long gap to have
as an average and I cannot believe it is beyond the wit of man
to find some way of reducing that. The vacancy rate tends to be
highest in the private sector and that is to do with conveyancing
and buy/sell chains and all the rest. There may be ways of actually
279. Is it not quite difficult if someone dies
in a house to have got the estate wound up and the house sold
in four months?
(Mr Wenban-Smith) I am just saying that is an average.
I do not know what the proportion of transactions which involve
that kind of process is, but I would not have thought it was a
majority. Certainly there are circumstances in which a long gap
is understandable. I am not sure that the legal processes around
winding up an estate or indeed carrying out ordinary conveyancing
are immutable and could not be altered by taking thought. That
is the only point I am making. I am not an expert on that and
I would hesitate to go any further than I have.