Friday, January 30, 2009

Empty MOD Homes - Still a Scandal

In the early 1990s empty homes owned by the military became a national scandal. Thousands of homes for service people were left empty causing public outrage at a time of record homelessness. To be fair to the military changing defence needs caused by the end of the cold war had caused many properties to become surplus. But the MOD proved ineffective in dealing with them. In one of the Empty Homes Agency’s first campaigns we said that surplus military homes should be used to house those in housing need. The government responded, and in 1996 they took a dramatic step that was supposed to end the problem once for all. They sold nearly 60,000 homes (the majority of the military’s housing stock) to a private company Annington Homes. In one fell swoop Annington homes became, and remains today the largest private landowner in the country. The government’s idea was that Annington would manage refurbish and gradually dispose of the homes onto the private market. With market forces introduced into the stock of housing, the thinking was vacancy rates would drop and the military’s housing stock would better match their housing needs.

Unfortunately the story did not end there. Figures uncovered by the Liberal Democrats today reveal that the military’s housing vacancy rate is as bad as ever. With an estimated 9000 empty homes the military’s vacancy rate is approximately 20%. Seven times the national average and around ten times the rate of an average housing association. The customary response from the MOD to accusations of high vacancy levels is that they are a special case. And indeed they are. The military needs a flexible housing stock to accommodate changing operational needs. Most people would agree that service people returning from a tour of duty abroad need a decent home to return to, and that means keeping a greater vacancy rate than other housing providers.

But what is so significant about these figures is that they don't reppresent pristine properties waiting to welcome new residents. A BBC’s investigation for the Today programme last year knocked the MOD’s argument right off its pedestal. Visiting a selection of empty military homes the BBC discovered that most were in no fit state to house anybody. Left totally unmanaged and, amazingly – unsecured, the homes fell into semi-dereliction. The Military's argument that they are mothballed awaiting a returning battalion from Iraq is rendered absurd and faintly insulting to service men and women. The one empty MOD property I saw last year that was in good condition (with windows open and heating on- presumably to stop condensation rather than heat the atmosphere and attract intruders) ended up a squat .

So what went wrong, and how come the Military still own so much residential property? It turns out that many of these homes are the very same ones that were sold to Annington homes in 1996. Discovering later that they didn’t have enough housing, the MOD leased back many of the homes it sold. Now, saddled with high rents and dilapidation clauses, leaving them empty now is even more wasteful to the MOD than it was in the early 1990s. Can anything be done? I think it can. There are housing providers that are perfectly suited to these circumstances. Shortlife housing providers are very good at making use of the most unpromising buildings. They can help with repairs and renovation and provide what these homes need most – occupants. If military needs change and the MOD need them back, shortlife housing agreements allow for them to be rapidly returned to the owner. The MOD gets residents and a management service to stop the properties from deteriorating, Neighbours loose an eyesore and source of anti social behaviour. Lots of people get homes to live in. We put this to Defence Estates last year and on the Today programme last February and they said that they would do it. So what’s happened in the last year? Nothing. They haven’t put any properties out to shortlife and their vacancy rate has gone up. Shame on them.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Posh Squats

I have been resisting the temptation to post anything about so-called posh squats up until now. They appear to be getting plenty of publicity without my help. Today, however, I have spoken to six journalists about them, including, if she will forgive me for bracketing her in such company, Vanessa Feltz. There is no doubt that this has become a big story.

It started in Brighton, then Upper Grovesnor Street, then Green Park and now Park Lane. Some of the poshest addresses in the UK have become squatted by what appears to be a new breed of lifestyle squatters. In total their number is tiny but the fact that they have infiltrated such prestigious neighbourhoods gives them access to the media in a quite phenomenal way. What amazes me is the uncritical way they have been reported. Both the Telegraph and the Mail managed to print articles on squatting without uttering the words scrounger, freeloader or sponger - unthinkable just a few weeks ago. The recession moves in mysterious ways!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Turning the Place Over

There was one place where culture and empty properties did meet in Liverpool. Artist Richard Wilson created what many called the most daring piece of public art in Britain – Turning the Place Over. It was installed in an empty building in a side street in Liverpool’s city centre. I remember stumbling upon it by accident last year without ever having heard about it before. For sheer surprise value I think it was the best way to see it. Sadly the motor has now been turned off, but it lives on in You Tube.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

The Liverpool Legacy

Liverpool’s year as European Capital of Culture ended last week, and there has been much discussion as to what sort of legacy it will leave. It has certainly made a change to have a positive spotlight on what for me is one of this country’s greatest cities.

With the enormous new “Liverpool One” shopping centre taking shape, a revitalised Pier Head and a new cruise liner dock their can be little doubt that the city centre is looking forward with confidence.

A mile or two away however and regeneration of Liverpool’s housing stock looks less rosy. Anfield contains a greater volume of empty homes than anywhere else in the UK. Liverpool’s housing regeneration was based on trying to attract the housing boom into areas of the city with depressed housing markets. Large volumes of homes were bought up and left vacant in the hope that they would appeal as large development sites to big housing developers. Unfortunately it hasn’t worked, and with the housing boom over there is nothing to attract.

Like many other towns and cities Liverpool has it’s fair share of vacant new flats too, but nowhere has the combination of overoptimistic housing developers, and regenerators left so much damage. The legacy of culture for this city is surely bright, but the housing legacy is in need of urgent attention. This superbly edited video speaks a thousand words.

Monday, January 05, 2009

Empty home owners prolonging the recession

I spent part of Christmas in my hometown of Ipswich. Being on holiday I was not on empty homes alert, but I could hardly miss this. When these waterfront homes were first planned a decade ago they were supposed to help turn the town from a working port into an executive service based economic hub. It hasn’t worked. The port has disappeared downstream, but the executives never really materialised. Like almost everywhere else in the UK the population of Ipswich is filled with ordinary people who need homes at ordinary prices. Instead what they’ve got is homes built for a hypothetical population at hypothetical prices. The reason they stay empty is because the owners have not yet accepted that the prices need to drop drastically. Only when they do, and only when people start buying them will we be able to say that housing market has bottomed out.

In the meantime the one thing that could knock some sense into this ludicrous situation is the council using its enforcement powers to force the owners to get then occupied. Councillor Harsant’s comments don’t lead me to think this is imminent. But there’s nothing to stop the council doing this and forcing the owners to accept the true market rental value. It may sound draconian, but to do otherwise is simply storing up a bigger financial hit for the owner later, and putting the prospect of housing market recovery ever further away.

Friday, January 02, 2009

A Happy Activist New Year

2008 was the year the housing industry’s chickens finally came home to roost; the year when people stopped buying shoddy homes thrown up by speculators, and when they said no to ever-rising prices.

But look what we are left with. A housing market so dysfunctional that despite record levels of housing need, we have the retched sight of nearly a million empty homes. And policy so out of touch;that perfectly good homes are being destroyed to make way for regeneration projects that will never happen. It’s time to think again about who controls our housing.

At heart I’m an optimist. What gives me faith is that the skills of finding and building homes lie deep in the DNA of our species. Just a few generations ago we all created our own homes. Much of the world still does. But here those skills are untapped as housing has been commoditised by housebuilders, speculators and governments. Between them they have let us down. Surely the lesson of this year is that we should never again let so few people make decisions about our housing at our expense again.

Now, with little prospect of profit, many speculators are turning their back on housing altogether. This leaves a gap, and I believe a unique opportunity for you to influence future decisions about housing in your area. What better place to start than vacant property that should be homes.

My hope is that in 2009 we all become housing activists. If we do, I think there is every chance that what emerges from the wreckage will be a housing market that serves people over profits and leaves a legacy we can have pride in for a generation.