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
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
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
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
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
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
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