Friday, November 24, 2006

Wasted Publicly Owned Homes

I’ve rather neglected this blog in recent weeks, but I’m back and I’m reenergized. Up till now much of the material in this blog has been about the 85% of the empty homes in this country that are privately owned. But there is something particularly galling about the other 15%. Property, provided for those in need, subsidized by us, left empty.

This month I have visited two of the worst examples. Houses owned by Liverpool Council in Newsham park and a string of empty homes and derelict land belonging to Transport for London along the North Circular Road in North London. What struck me was how numbers on a table tell you very little. Here in total were 85 empty homes (79 in London and 6 in Liverpool); a mere drop in the ocean of the 780,000 still empty in England. But the impacts were awful. Newsham Park, a beautiful Victorian open space in the heart of a great city, is scarred by the derelict shells of once grand houses that sit on its southern perimeter. Knee high in dumped rubbish, ravaged by vandals and looted of their architectural features they cause your spirits to drop. Walk across the park and almost identical houses stand proud having been maintained and restored by their owners. The difference, the only difference I could see, is that the properties in good condition are privately owned and the derelict buildings belong to the council.

In North London a mile stretch of residential road has been left on proverbial death row for 35 years while public authorities try to make their mind up whether to widen the road. The impact has been appalling, with continual uncertainty the public authorities have not thought it worthwhile to properly maintain the houses. Some are bricked up, some are boarded up and many have been demolished leaving large tracts of vacant land. But as in Liverpool, neglect has encouraged petty and not so petty crime. Residents report a never-ending supply of fly tipping, and vandalism. At least three of the houses have been set fire to one killing a squatter earlier this year. And there are reports that some of the occupied houses are used as brothels and drug factories.

Most public landlords do a good job, manage their properties well, and provide an invaluable service. But those who fail often do so spectacularly; not just neglecting their own property but dragging the whole neighbourhood down with them. Local residents often feel powerless to deal with what has happened to their area. But there is sometimes a ray of hope. I’ve mentioned PRODs before on this blog and earlier this year a local a campaign group has used one successfully to force a rethink over the houses in Newsham Park.

PRODs date back to legislation introduced in 1980 - the Local Government Planning and Land Act. But look through the act and you will see no mention of them. What you will find is a section setting up a register of unused and underused public land and a power for the secretary of State to dispose of any land or property on the register. Four years after its introduction the government was frustrated by the lack of property and land on the register. Public authorities it seems were keeping quiet about what they owned. So the Secretary of State Patrick Jenkin set up a scheme to enlist public help. The Scheme was the Public Request Ordering Disposal scheme or PROD for short. Report a publicly owned empty property and the secretary of state will review it and sell it if there was no good reason for keeping it empty.

The register finally took off and eventually became the National Land Use Database, and PRODs were quietly forgotten. Forgotten but not gone, the scheme and the powers still exists and as the case in Liverpool has shown can have a real impact in addressing what otherwise appear intractable problems of empty homes.
All this week and last week the You and Yours programme on BBC Radio 4 has been covering the issue and promoting PRODs as a solution to wasted publicly owned homes. If you know about publicly owned empty homes why not give them a PROD; here’s how.