Memorandum by Riverside Housing Association
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. THE REASONS
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
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 worksome of it minorwhich 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. IS THERE
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 waitedand
in some cases are still waiting after three yearsfor 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. WHAT WE
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
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. WHAT SPECIFIC
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.
Chief Executive, The Riverside Group