Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Something Miraculous

In 1970 cars travelling along the A406 in North London would have been Ford Cortinas Hillman Minxs and Morris Minors. Presumably there were too many of them because it was in that year that the Department of Transport decided the road should be widened. In preparation they bought 600 houses on either side through compulsory purchase orders and blight orders… but then nothing. For almost forty years successive government departments and agencies dithered and prevaricated without managing to make any decisions on what, when, how, and even if road widening should take place. Nevertheless the occupants of the 600 houses were moved out and about 200 of the homes were demolished. The other 400 homes descended into an entirely self-created limbo state of vacancy, squatting, arson and dereliction.

This week something miraculous happened. Transport for London, the current owners of the homes, agreed to hand them over to Notting Hill Housing Trust, and the Homes and Communities Agency agreed to pay for their refurbishment. In three years time when the refurbishment is due to be complete, this absurd, painful, and appalling saga should finally be at an end.

Of course this miraculous event didn’t just drop out of the air. Many people have worked incredibly hard to make it happen. Particular credit should go to The Bowes and Telford Community Action group who have proved that communities really can make thing happen.
These houses have been a Bette Noir of the Empty Homes Agency for as long as we have been in existence. It was early last year that we persuaded the then newly selected candidate for London Mayor Boris Johnson to make a manifesto commitment to tackle this long-standing problem. He did, and he and his housing team should also take credit for the best news on this stretch of road for 39 years.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

I've Made a Rod For My Own Back - Defence Estates

Defence Estates remains the country’s biggest empty homes sinner. By it’s own figures it has more than 9,000 empty homes 17% of it’s stock. It has always been an impenetrable organisation to deal with. So I was fascinated it to see an interview with chief executive Vice Admiral Tim Lawrence (a.k.a. Mr Princess Anne) in Public Servant magazine this month (sorry no on-line edition) explaining how he is making the organisation leaner and greener.

Feeling the credit crunch bite Tim?
“My philosophy is to get on and spend the money I have now got and I will cope with the situation in the future if my budget is cut”

So no doubt you’re investing in environmental sustainability?
“If a contractor comes to me and says you can have the standard solution for X but if you want a sustainable solution it will cost 20% more I’ll tend to ask him to go and think again and move on to another contractor”

But you’ll be planning for zero carbon homes in 2016?
“I have difficulty with the concept of zero carbon”

So you’ll off set your carbon instead then?
“I’m not a huge fan of carbon offsetting”

Why the scepticism?
“We have to understand that not everybody accepts the climate science”

So the green agenda is a tough one to argue for in the MOD ?
“I don’t find a lot of opposition to initiatives for more sustainable solutions”

So what about those empty homes? 17% of your stock
“..hugely different to the average local authority housing stock”

But you’re committed to the target to reduce them to 10%?
“I’ve made a rod for my own back …I will be heading towards the target”

Thank you Vice Admiral!
(Questions summarised by me!)

Monday, September 21, 2009

Lib Dems back Homesteading

Last month I said that it was time to try homesteading again. Sarah Teather it seems agrees. The Lib Dem shadow housing minister in her conference speech today proposed "self start homes" rescuing empty homes in failed regeneration areas by making them available to people to renovate and live in themselves.

A truely edifying spending cut

Being a property anorak I couldn’t stop myself dragging my family around the Peckham House this weekend. It’s not empty, in fact it was full to bursting with visitors for the London open house weekend. Some of you may remember this remarkable house as one of the stars of the Grand Designs tv series. The extraordinary owners managed to create a house in the most unpromising site imaginable, with planning restrictions that would have lead most to think that there was no chance of being allowed to build anything. But not only did they gain permission, they built a house that is pure joy, for the price of a very ordinary flat.

It is that imaginative thinking and that tenacious determination that we need more of if more homes are going to be created out of empty properties. It is easy to see why it is difficult to return empty homes to use, and easy to see how it would be expensive to try, but with imagination and tenacity almost anything is possible. Today I have ben talking to two great examples of both. Urban Infill’s idea is to fill not just the voids in buildings, but the voids around and above them too. You might think of this as filling the missing teeth in the smile of a streetscape

For sheer tenacity look no further than Phoenix housing cooperative. I’ve written about them before, but their latest project in Bow East London shows how tenacity and hard work can overcome huge financial shortfalls. The four flats that they have asked me to open this Friday had been abandoned buy their owner because they were uneconomic to reuse. But for a sixth of the cost Phoenix have brought them back into use
More imagination and tenacity was called for by the Audit Commission last week. It concluded that councils had become too focussed on building new homes at the expense of reusing old ones. It said that by tackling just 5% of empty homes councils could save a staggering £500billion from their homelessness costs. A rather more edifying public spending cut than some have been suggesting over the last few days

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Taking the Market Out of Irish Housing

We think we’ve got a problem. I’m in Ireland for the national social housing conference and the mood is sombre. The housing market in Ireland overheated to a quite phenomenal degree, and is now in full-scale retreat. The damage it has caused is what I have been asked here to talk about. Estimates vary, but even the most conservative say that 200,000 surplus flats have been built. Added to Ireland’s already sizeable empty homes problem it means there could be anything up to 400,000 homes standing empty. The quite extraordinary plan to be unveiled by the housing minister here in a couple of hours, is for the state to effectively take them over. The government has set up NAMA The National Asset Management Authority. It plans to take on €90 billion of property on 20-year leases and let them to those in housing need. It’s an incredibly bold move. But there are plenty here who also think it’s insane. The opening session of this conference yesterday was entitled "taking the market out of housing" That appears to be exactly what they are planning.

Monday, September 14, 2009

The Housing Poverty Trap

It was all going so well. I was being shown around a semi derelict house by a housing association and the local council. It had been empty for twenty years and had recently emerged from behind a thicket of undergrowth that the council had just cleared. Not only could I now see the house, but I could see what was going to happen to it, the council had persuaded the owner to lease it to a housing association who would renovate it and deduct their costs off the rent for a couple of years.

For no cost to the owner and not much cost to the public purse, the house would once again become somebody’s home; and not only that, an affordable home for somebody in housing need. I was feeling good. Then the bombshell; it was just a short remark slipped into a question. “Of course we will have to choose somebody who won’t be seeking work.”
“ Won’t?!”
“ If they find work it will all unravel.”
“ Housing benefit pays far better than they will be able to afford if they get a job”
And there it was, the housing poverty trap. Promise to stay unemployed and you can have a nice roomy newly renovated house, think about getting a job and you’ll have to stay in crappy cheap temporary council housing.

What is happening to the empty house is wonderful, but system it is done within stinks.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Street Level Regeneration

The first week of September still has that back-to-school feel, even though it’s more than twenty years since I had any personal experience. It has at least been back to business this week with meetings with the housing minister and both shadow housing ministers. The word that seems to be on the tip of all of their tongues is localism, although strangely none actually dare utter it.

Type Localism into Google news and it will helpfully flash up a timeline chart showing the occurrence of the word over the last 130 years. Remarkably it was common parlance in the 1880s in New Zealand, but fell away for more than a centaury to suddenly spring back into use in the middle of this decade.

Localism, at its simplest, means political control at the lowest local level. This week Grant Shapps articulated how this concept would work for housing under a Conservative government. Those who had thought localism meant giving power back to councils were in for a shock. He meant more local than that. Indeed the phrase he used was “street level regeneration”

No doubt there will be different ideas of what that means. But this week I have visited a remarkable example in East London. Phoenix housing cooperative have taken on four flats that had effectively been abandoned by their housing association owner. Deemed too expensive to renovate they had been left empty for years. Using a team of local volunteers made up of unemployed and homeless young people supervised and trained by an experienced site manager, Phoenix have managed to get the flats back up to standard at a fifth of the price estimated by the housing association. In a couple of weeks they will become homes again to local people otherwise priced out of the housing market. It’s one remarkable little example, but this is street level regeneration, and if this is localism in action I’m all in favour.