Friday, November 18, 2011

Why are councils knocking down council houses when there is a shortage of affordable housng?

Sounds barmy doesn't it.  But Nottingham city council have identified nearly 1000, and Birmingham over 1200 homes that they have lined up for demolition. If all councils demolish at the same rate it will mean 60,000 affordable homes are to be demolished across England, with only vague plans that some of them will ever be replaced.
Perhaps even more scandalously it turns out that most of these homes are occupied. The tenants will be evicted and presumabaly put into temporary accommodation.

What could possibly justify this huge upheaval of people and such a big loss of affordable homes? The shocking answer is -  accounting reasons!

The government has decided to allocate it's own housing debt  to councils as part of the scrapping of the HRA subsidy system. Essentially all councils with council homes take a pro-rata share of the government's £23billion housing debt in exchange for keeping rental income on their housing stock. The driver for this was partly councils'  unhappiness with the current system, but surely also a desire from Treasury to remove a huge debt off the public deficit.
The unintended consequence is that councils are seeking to avoid the debt by demolishing houses. Each council house they own will attract around £12,000 of debt.Get rid of a 1000 houses and you avoid £12m debt.

Housing minister Grant Shapps was on You and Yours on Radio 4 with me yesterday sounding reassuring. Although he didn't deny that councils will demolish homes to avoid debt, he said that there was unlikely to be an overall increase in demolitions from this measure.   Hmmm... I'm not convinced. This looks like the policy people missed the consequence of thier policy. I don't like Nottingham and Birmingham's oppurtunism and cynicism, but have no doubt who is really repsonsible for this disastrous policy. Treasury.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Want to know where all the empty homes are? You can't

Imagine for a moment that there is a map of the whole country that shows where every empty home is, how long it has been empty, and who owns it. Imagine too that it is published on-line by the government, it is continually updated and is free to use. Wouldn’t that be amazing for organisations that refurb homes and create affordable housing?

Putting aside the privacy issues for a moment, who should be allowed to use this map? Should it be freely available to everybody?

If not, who?

Imagine no longer. The map actually exists as I described. It’s called the Empty Homes GIS Toolkit and is published by the Homes and Communities Agency. They, in conjunction with Ordnance Survey, who actually own the maps, decided, probably wisely, that access should be restricted. Unless you have signed something called the Public Sector Mapping Agreement you aren’t allowed to see the map.

Who is allowed to sign this agreement? Not, me, and not you, unless you work for what is considered to be a public sector body. This leaves the rather bizarre situation that:

Housing Associations
Housing cooperatives
Housing Charities
Universities …are banned from seeing the map

But Government departments, and local councils, and others including
Royal National Lifeboats
Mountain rescue services
Cancer registries
Areas of Outstanding National Beauty … are allowed full access

Now let's come back to those privacy issues. You wouldn’t want details of empty houses being broadcast to everybody would you? So the line has to be drawn somewhere. That somewhere appears to be between government and non- government organisations. The implication being only government organisations can be trusted with keeping information about property secure.  But a quick look at the list of signatories shows that the UK’s biggest broadcaster, the BBC has full access to the map.

So here is a goldmine of information that could be invaluable to housing associations and other affordable housing providers and help get empty homes back into use. That is hampered by a set of rules that prevent those that could use it actually seeing it. If ever there was a case of nonsensical bureaucratic rules that needed changing it is surely this.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Football wrings the last drops of money from thier communities

From London to Liverpool England’s richest football clubs are wringing the last few drops of money out of their communities by boarding up properties and homes for future developments.

Football is, or at least was, the working mans sport. The great clubs of this country were founded in the gritty working class areas of our towns and cities. The founder members of  the Football league from Blackburn , to Stoke, to Everton were set up where the men lived who worked in the heavy furnaces of Britain’s industrial heartlands.

Life was hard, but for ninety minutes on a Saturday afternoon working men could go and cheer and jeer their team a few minutes walk from where they lived. It created communities and identities for areas that frankly looked pretty much the same. Perhaps in the back of many football supporters’ minds was the remote possibility that they, their son or grandson could one day become a player for the club too. Occasionally it happened; Stanley Matthews was born around the corner from the Victoria ground where he became a legend for Stoke City, Bobby Moore was born just up the road from West Ham in Barking, and Paul Gascoigne was born over the river from Newcastle in Gateshead.

But many things have changed. Football has become a mega business. The Premier league (where Blackburn, Stoke and Everton still play) has become the biggest revenue-generating league in the world. Broadcasting matches to vast worldwide audiences and recruiting vastly paid players from every corner of the globe.

The working class man might well ask what this has all got to do with him and his hometown anymore. First the heavy industry disappeared, then the club moved away from their grimy inner city homes to smart corporate stadiums on the city ring road.  Finally the once remote chance of his son playing for the team disappeared altogether.

The final insult is the dismissive way some of the reaming inner city clubs are landbanking property around their grounds. This week housing minister Grant Shapps criticised Liverpool council and football club for the delay in redeveloping Anfield stadium.  This extraordinary saga has been dragging on for the best part of fifteen years. In the late 1990s Liverpool FC’s neighbours Everton asked the council if they could build a new stadium in the nearby Victorian municipal park; Stanley Park. Not surprisingly the council said no. But in a breathtaking act of cheek Liverpool FC then made the same request but with the added threat that if they didn’t get what they wanted they would move away from Liverpool altogether. Fearing that they would loose vast income from the club the council capitulated. Planning permission was given in 2008, but a change of ownership of the club meant the proposal was put on hold where it still sits. Meanwhile the club keeping its options open had acquired houses around its existing Anfield ground. All of the houses on Kemlyn road were demolished in the early 1990s to make way for a new stand. Homes in nearby Skerries and Lothair Roads were bought up and boarded up. To the club’s credit the Skerries road houses were eventually renovated and sold, but today virtually every house in Lothair road remains empty and boarded up waiting in case the club change their mind again and decide to expand their current stadium.

In London many houses on Tottenham high road stand empty and boarded up following August’s riots and arson. But fifteen have been empty for much longer. They form the frontage of the road behind which Tottenham Hotspur’s White Hart Lane ground sits. The properties were bought by the club for an apparently aborted plan to build a public piazza in front of the ground. These weren’t just any old buildings they included Georgian and Victorian houses many of which are listed buildings. The demolition of buildings like these would in normal circumstances be prohibited, but taking a leaf out of Liverpool’s book the club threatened to walk away altogether if it didn’t get what it wanted. Plans were mooted that the club would move into Wembley stadium and a bid was submitted to set up home on the site of the Olympic stadium.

As the country searches for answers as to why the inner cities erupted into disorder and violence in August, some of the football clubs that once defined these areas might pause for thought.  Have their actions and search for wealth added to the sense of purpose and stability of the areas they represent?  Or have they exploited them and threatened to walk away if they don’t get what they want? The streets of vacant property surrounding football grounds suggest the latter.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Councillor Richard Kemp and Why Houses Must Go.

Grant Shapps has again stepped in to delay the demolition of the Welsh Streets in Liverpool.  This saga has been dragging on now for seven  years. So long in fact that you would be forgiven if you'd forgotten what the point of the demolition was in the first place. So here is Councillor Richard Kemp to explain. Councillor Kemp is the leader of the Liberal Democrats in local government and vice chair of the LGA, a councillor on Liverpool City council and vice chair of a housing association. He is by all accounts a highly respected figure in local government and housing circles. But he has, as one Liverpool resident put it to me last week, “got blood on his hands.” This is of course metaphorical blood. But the polarisation of opinion on housing in Liverpool runs so deep that it would make little difference if it were real blood. Cllr Kemp has not only instigated many of the housing clearance programmes in Liverpool he is actively in favour of continuing the policy of demolishing houses and the Welsh Streets is his next target. In a recent blog post he explains why.

It (housing market renewal demolition) was predicated on a fact – Liverpool has too many two up two down Victorian properties for which there would not be a market to the current extent even if they were modernised.

A worrying start. This isn't a fact, it's an opinion, and one that doesn't stand up to much scrutiny. In areas where homes were modernised such as Chimney Pot Park in Salford the demand has been huge.

Anyway he goes on : We actually went and asked a vital group of people a simple question in 1998, “Why did you move out of Liverpool?” The answer was complex but compelling. They were moving because our services were crap and the housing did not meet their aspirations. They wanted to live in 3 bed roomed detached and semi-detached homes in a nice clean area with a good school. We didn’t provide any of these things.

The comment about crap services is refreshingly honest, but the rest is bizarre. Is this not how cities are supposed to work? People move to the best housing they can afford. They aspire to better housing, and if they can afford it they later move out to semis in the suburbs. The fact people did so in Liverpool is entirely normal. This is not to say that the Welsh Streets were without problems, but it hardly justifys knocking them down.  Had the Welsh streets had been left alone another generation of people would have followed. But the Welsh streets were not left alone. Instead the council consulted residents on whether they should be demolished. Cllr Kemp explains:

They (residents of the Welsh streets) overwhelmingly supported limited demolition. In the Welsh Streets for example after a 3 year consultation process 68% of local residents voted for a demolition programme and only 15% voted against. That’s democracy in action.

Note the word “limited” The consultation actually showed 338 against and only 97 in favour of the near total demolition of the Welsh Streets that is now proposed. It certainly isn’t democracy in action. But what would replace the demolished houses? Kemp explains:

In their place we would create demographically balanced housing with different types of accommodation and different tenures for different people at different times of their life. In other words we would build housing inside which communities could form and neighbourhoods would flourish.

Yet virtually no housing has been built to replace any of the houses that have been demolished in Liverpool. There are no plans for replacement houses in the Welsh streets. No subsidy to pay for new affordable housing. So what was it all for?

In Liverpool 8 if you brought up your children well, gave them a good education there was almost an inevitability that they would move out and take your grand children with them. In other words we had housing policies which by accident or design broke up families and communities because we allowed no flexibility of provision.

So the answer is to demolish the houses and move everybody out guaranteeing the community would be broken up?
Kemp's explanation shows the very strange thinking that led to this bizarre policy. On the one hand diagnosing real social problems and yet prescribing answers that only make things worse. Anyway  it all ought to be academic now. Not only has the government stepped in to try and stop the demolition, they have withdrawn the funding that paid for the whole programme. This might sound bleak, but there is an answer, It's one I have already proposed to the council, and one I will explain in my next post.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Budget and how the housing sector got it wrong

The budget will no doubt grab headlines for the Chancellor’s neat little fiddle to petrol prices, but I’m more interested in what’s behind some similar footwork on new homes.

The budget introduces First Buy a £250million programme that it is claimed will help first time buyers buy homes. It does this by an equity share scheme that builds up enough capital to create a 25% deposit for a first time buyer. The cost is met partly by the government (10%) , partly by the housebuilder (10%) and partly by the buyer (5%). In this way a first time buyer who can only afford a deposit of 5% of the purchase price of a house can satisfy the lender’s requirement for a 25% deposit.

Commenting on this today, the housing sector is full of medical analogies. Richard Capie of the CIH on the Today programme this morning described it as “an adrenalin shot in the arm for the housebuilding industry which is still in intensive care.“ 

This to me illustrates what is wrong. The housing sector has confused itself with the housebuilding industry. Every housing problem that is raised whether it be homelessness, overcrowding, poor living conditions or affordability the sector’s answer is “ we need to build more houses” Except the housing sector doesn’t actually build any homes. The housebuilding industry does. From the housebuilders point of view this is no doubt great news. They have had their business elevated to a moral necessity by organisations with the public goodwill of Shelter and the credibility of the CIH.

But few people stop to ask two important questions. Why is housebuilding so low?  and if it were to magically accelerate would it really solve all the country’s housing problems?
The answer to the first is easy. Housebuilders aren’t building, because few people are buying. Housebuilding is just a business operating in a market. Right now what it produces is judged by the market to be too expensive, and by lenders to be too risky (because lenders judge houses to be overpriced) .What would any other business do? Obviously drop its prices. But the housebuilding industry sees itself as a special case, and the housing sector reinforces this belief. Instead they think it is the duty of the state to construct new ways for people to afford homes at high prices, and also its duty to take the risk of the inevitable house price drop away from lenders.

The answer to the second question is harder to answer. Let’s just say that a million new homes are built this year (ten times what is predicted). Would it solve lots of housing problems? Given that as I discussed a couple of weeks ago there is no overall housing shortage in this country, who would buy them and who would live in them? As the vast majority of the homes would be for private sale, it is fair to say they wouldn’t be bought by people in housing need. Perhaps there would be a trickle down effect. Perhaps the oversupply of houses would cause overall house prices to drop. All these things are possible. But we would inevitably end up with far more vacant homes (probably about a million more). I think it’s highly likely that homelessness, overcrowding, and poor living conditions would be largely unaffected, but arguably housing affordability might be improved.

So what’s really behind Firstbuy? The package is available to first time buyers who buy new homes. I don’t have figures, but the vast majority of first time buyers buy second hand houses. First Buy is therefore simply a form of subsidy to help the housebuilding industry. Campbell Robb said today “Today’s announcement will help less than one per cent of people struggling to get on the housing ladder, leaving them more likely to win the lottery than be helped through this small-scale scheme.” He may well moan about it now, but by lobbying on behalf of housebuilders for so long the housing sector can hardly complain when the government takes them at their word.

Monday, March 21, 2011

For Sale Stan Laurel's House

The modest childhood homes of two of Britain’s best-known entertainers lie empty. But their fate appears very different.

And here’s Liverpool council on Ringo star’s empty childhood house "Ringo Starr’s house has no historical significance demolition is the only option.”

It’s interesting to see that Durham council believe that the Laurel connection will lead to greater demand and a greater sale price for the house. We’ll see whether they’re right when the house goes under the auctioneer’s hammer next week.  If they are right, and I’m sure they will be, it will be interesting to see whether Liverpool will seek to learn the lesson, I suspect they won’t.

Friday, March 18, 2011

More Homes Fewer Empty Buildings

Policy Exchange is a think tank that is occasionally brilliant but sometimes bonkers. Who can forget their Cities Unlimited report from two years ago which advocated abandoning northern cities. It achieved the remarkable feat of uniting David Cameron and John Prescott in condemnation. Between them they described it as “barmy”, “the most insulting and ignorant policy I've ever heard” ,“Insane and complete rubbish

But their latest report "More Homes Fewer Empty Buildings"  for me falls into the brilliant category. In fact it is one of those ideas that is so simple you wonder why nobody has come up with it before.  Allow people to convert empty commercial space into homes without the need for planning permission.  At the moment changing the use of a building into a home requires "change of use" planning permission. Not only is applying for this a bit of a bureaucratic obstacle course, the chance of success is low. Council planning departments are keen to protect employment spaces. A reasonable an important function you might think. But they make no distinction between operating sites that are actually employing people and vacant ones that employ nobody and have little prospect of ever employing anybody again. The truth is the planning system cannot protect employment, that is a function of the economy, it tries to do so by protecting sites, but it is poor proxy that has knock on effects causing redundant offices and rows of boarded up shops. As the report points out, even in the most economically active part of the UK, the South East of England, commercial vacancy rates are running at 17%. The same part of the country that demand and need for housing outstrips supply most dramatically.

As the report says  "We have a significant housing shortage at the same time that a large number of commercial properties are vacant or partly so. Not only is this a prime cause of urban blight, but the shortage of housing, combined with the current low rate of new house building, places a huge and potentially unsustainable burden on young people an family life."
The answer is elegantly simple. Commercial buildings that have been empty for more than a year should be allowed to convert into housing without change of use planning permission.

Friday, February 25, 2011

5 big housing lies and why the public doesn't buy the housing crisis

Earlier this month I was honoured to be a guest of the CIH president at his annual dinner. This huge annual event takes place in the Natural History Museum in London. Tables of the great and good of the housing industry were assembled around the Brontosaurus skeleton and under the gaze of Charles Darwin’s statue. This is always a helpful prompt to speakers enabling them to make self-deprecating jokes about how old they are how their views have had to evolve.

This year the speakers were in fiery form. There was a general theme that public and the media were not taking the housing crisis seriously enough. “Wake up and listen to the profession about the country’s housing crisis” We were told. The messages followed the common orthodoxy of our profession. You’ve no doubt heard them too There are record levels of housing need, record levels of homelessness, a record under-supply of housing,  the backlog in supply is increasing every year. The system is creaking at its seems, This is a time bomb set to explode, we must argue passionately for our industry. It was entirely honourable, but to me, strangely unmoving.

Last year I, along with 5 million others read the entertaining economics book Superfreakanomics. In it the authors; Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner take a deliberately mischievous look at how things really work. They take the cold facts and come up with unorthodox conclusions. One example considers how the law affects prostitution. They argue that the greater the law cracks down, the more profitable and the more widespread prostitution become. The argument works like this. If the police arrest prostitutes they reduce the supply. The remaining prostitutes can therefore raise their price, making it more lucrative attracting more women to become prostitutes. In other words the orthodoxy of how to deal with prostitution is not only incorrect it's counter productive.

Now I don’t for one moment doubt the genuine belief and commitment of people in the housing industry expressed with such zeal by the CIH president and other speakers at the dinner, but I did wonder what Levitt and Dubner might make of it all. In the absence of persuading them to take a look I decided to try myself. I looked up the data and was slightly surprised to see that almost all of the facts and truths expressed by our industry on a daily basis turn out to be … well untrue. Here they are with references:

Truth 1: There is an undersupply of housing: Untrue, in 2008 there were 22,398,000 dwellings and 21,731,000 households in England a surplus of 667,000 dwellings

Truth 2: There is a growing shortfall in housing; Untrue, the growth in the number of dwellings in the UK has outpaced the growth in households every year since 1971

Truth 3: There are 5 million people in housing need waiting for social housing; Untrue, there are 1.76 million households on council housing registers in England which equates to about 5 million people. But these aren’t waiting lists, many of the households that are on them are in housing need, but others are not, anybody can register and some register in several council areas. Housing registers are a measure of demand for social housing. They are not a measure of housing need.

Truth 4: Homelessness is increasing: Untrue. Last year 40,000 households were accepted as being homeless by local authorities, 25% down on the previous year and a third of the number in 2003/4

Truth 5: Social housing is in decline: Untrue- there has not only been an increase in social housing every year, but since 2003/4 the rate of increase has gone up every year. Last year 33,120 new socially rented homes were added to the stock.

Is this the reason that the country hasn’t woken up to the housing crisis?

This is not to say there isn't a housing crisis. Many people in this country live in completely unsatisfactory housing conditions. The housing system doesn’t work on all sorts of levels for people. I also acknowledge that although the indicators I have discussed show positive progress, it doesn't mean that progress can be sustained into the future with less public money. But surely what this says is that the housing industry is a success, it's making things better for people. Yes there's a lot more that needs to be done, but if we are going to get people at large to see housing as an issue of national importance we need to break out of the cosy consensus and stop pretending things are worse than they really are. What the industry is saying may not just be incorrect, it might also be counter productive. We shouldn't expect people to believe us if what we say isn't true.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Earning money the right way - a suggestion for councils

” We want to make money out of it” ,  “We should have the money not them” , “We can’t afford to make loans”  this was Councillor Mark Howell of South Cambridgeshire District council on the radio this morning. He and I were both guests on the very glamorous  BBC radio Cambridgeshire breakfast show. Howell was there to talk about his council’s plan to get rid of the council tax discount it currently offers to owners of empty homes. An idea I fully support; the discount is a nonsense and does nothing to encourage landlords to make good use of their property. But Howell’s tone was dispiriting; apparently fixated on the money but seemingly uninterested in what the money could help the council achieve. I know councils are in really difficult times now. As a director of a small charity, believe me I know what it’s like to not know where the money is going to come from. But really!  Howell and many others in local government, who I have heard make similar points over the last couple of weeks could do better than this. The purpose of councils lies in what they can do for their communities not how much money they can make.

Empty homes is in fact an area where the government is actually investing more money. £100 million new targeted funding, and rewards for homes returned to use through the New Homes Bonus. Councils need to be thinking about how they can use these funds creatively to really make a difference.

Here are three ideas. Bear in mind that properties returned to use will earn the council between £7,000 and £11,000 in New Homes Bonus rewards over a six year period. In addition the council would also start receiving council tax from the reoccupied property. 

Kent County council operate a loan scheme for owners of empty property. It costs Kent about £2,700 in lost interest and administration for each home returned to use through the scheme.  Other councils from around the country could set up a similar scheme or even ask to join Kent's.

There are homes that are currently not economically viable to bring back to use, even though there are lots of low income people who want to live in them. The council could make a small grant of say £5,000 available to the owner on condition that the property were let to somebody in housing need.

There are 40,000 odd empty council owned houses in England. The council could sell these at discount on condition that the purchaser lived in it as their sole home and renovated it to an agreed condition. 

Of course all three of these ideas cost money, but crucially they all earn more than they cost. The more things like this the council does,  the more it will earn and the more homes will be created for its community. If councils want to make money surely this is a better way to do it.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

New Homes Bonus - it might just work

There had been speculation that when the figures came out they would show that less than 100,000 new homes were built in England last year, but when it happened last Friday the government was spared that particular humiliation. 102,570 houses were built in 2010. It’s still the lowest number since 1923. Of course housebuilding reacts slowly to changes of policy, and the government is still safely in the territory of being able to blame it all on their predecessors. Last week they announced details of their New Homes Bonus scheme. This looks like it’s going to be the centrepiece of their housing supply policy, and if there are not more homes as a result of this; the government will have nobody else to blame.

The idea is simple, for each new home the council gets paid a reward equivalent to the council tax paid on the homes for six years, they get another bonus of £350 a year as well if the house is affordable. Not everybody is happy with this, Sean Spiers, director of CPRE said it’s bribery and it's possibly illegal. But legal or not, bribing councils is a well-proven way for governments to get what they want.

When the idea for New Homes Bonus first emerged early last year I must admit I had my reservations too.  Governments have been struggling for years with how to deal with the poor supply of housing in the UK. They’ve have generally concluded that way to resolve it is to try and persuade housebuilders to build more houses. Unfortunately it hasn’t worked out largely because the diagnosis was wrong. It’s not more new houses the country needs, it’s more low cost houses and they aren’t very profitable for the housebuilders to build. Instead incentives and pressure to build resulted in more houses but houses that people didn’t need or want.

But may be, just may be, New Homes Bonus might work. The reason for my optimism is it seems to be genuinely focussed on the problem, not just trying to push a chosen solution. Here’s how it works:
The council gets a bonus each year calculated on the net increase in homes. Homes can mean newly built houses, or empty properties returned to use. But if there isn’t really a demand or need for homes or the homes that get built are rubbish and nobody wants to live in them, the benefit is pretty short lived. If there is an increase in vacancy levels the number of newly emptied homes are discounted off the total of new homes. So for example a borough sees 1,000 new homes built during the year, but vacancy levels go up by 800, will only get rewarded for 200 new homes.

The long-term impact of this should be to change local authorities' view of housing supply. Hopefully the'll concluded that it'll be no use getting homes built if nobody lives in them. And hopefully they'll see it’ll be doubly beneficial to get empty homes into use (they’ll get a reward for each one and won’t loose potential reward on new build homes). And also it won’t matter who brings empty homes into use. This system doesn’t reward council activity; it rewards the outcome. Hopefully this will mean that councils will start to encourage people to do up empty properties rather than thinking that it only counts if they do it all themselves.
In other words the outcome of the New Homes Bonus should be to encourage inhabited homes, not simply housebuilding. So when this system is judged in a few years time, how will we know whether it has worked? One sign of success would be that it doesn’t matter anymore what the housebuilding rate is. It’s how many homes get occupied.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

It's empty homes, not spare rooms, that can solve our housing crisis

George Monbiot wrote an intruiging article in the Guardian last week claiming that underoccupation was the big housing problem that really needed to be resolved. The Guardian have been good enough to publish my response today. Here it is in full: 

George Monbiot describes under-occupation of housing as our second housing crisis, after the shortfall in supply, and calls for a fight  “It needs to be researched, debated, fought over. It needs to turn political” he says.  (let’s take the housing fight to owners with empty spare rooms – Guardian 4th January) his idea might fit with an ideology that it’s all the middle class’s fault, but the real opportunities for better use of housing lie in using empty buildings not spare rooms. 

Monbiot’s contention is that “ a better distribution of housing we have already built” could help ease the housing crisis. He goes on to explain that the reason you’ve never heard about this before is a political conspiracy to keep it from us.  “You’ll seldom hear a squeak about it in the press, in parliament, in government departments or even in the voluntary sector. Given its political sensitivity, perhaps that’s not surprising” he says.

But in all this talk of wasted space Monbit fails to mention that across the UK there are close to a million empty homes, and enough abandoned commercial buildings that could be readily converted into half a million new dwellings. In our view these have far greater potential to create homes than filling up spare rooms in under-occupied homes. There is detailed evidence to show that numbers of empty homes have increased over recent years. Under-occupation has too, but not to the extent Monbiot claims. Relying on one figure in a report on energy use, Monbiot says that “between 2003 and 2008 there was a 45% increase in the number of under-occupied homes in England” But the English House Condition Survey (p16) shows an increase from 31% in 1995/6 to 37% in 2008/9.

Of the UK’s million empty homes, about half are long-term vacant with no plans for reoccupation. Amazingly thousands of them are boarded up in preparation for demolition with no replacements planned. We think that small incentives for renovation and reoccupation, and a reversal of some of the demolition programmes are the most cost effective way of providing new housing. Surveys have shown that on average, empty homes need only £10,000 of investment to get them occupied again, compared to £90,000 of subsidy to get a new social home built. It’s greener too. Research we carried out recently showed that the refurbishment of derelict buildings creates far lower carbon emissions than building new homes.

But the main reason we should concentrate our energy on getting empty buildings and not empty rooms into use is that empty homes are tangible and there is track record in creating homes from them. Dealing with under-occupation is a naked promise.
Neither the problem, nor the outcome of tackling it, are as great as they first appear. Underocuupation is calculated using the government’s “bedroom standard” this notionally “allocates” bedrooms to people in each household.  Couples and single people over 21 get a bedroom; younger people notionally share two to a room. If after this hypothetical family rearranging, there are two or more bedrooms left the home is deemed to be under-occupied.  So a family of four living in a four-bedroom house would be under-occupying, even if it consisted of a couple sharing a bedroom and two children each with their own bedroom plus a spare bedroom.

To most people living in this situation I doubt it feels like a problem that needs fixing. And it is hard to think of a policy, short of coercion, that would persuade them to take in lodgers. Living next to an empty home on the other hand is a different matter. Unmanaged and often out of control they can quickly become magnets for fly tipping, vandalism and occasionally arson. In some areas of the country vacancy has become a vicious circle causing neighbourhoods to empty out as they decline.

So investment in bringing empty homes into use is not only a very cost effective way of creating more homes, it helps regenerate neighbourhoods too. We are pleased to see that the government has made some funding available, and is considering giving incentives to communities for bringing homes back into use. However the funding is only enough to refurbish three thousand empty homes nationally. To really create a flow of new homes it needs to be aligned to incentives for owners such as targeted reductions in VAT on refurbishment costs and an end to the barmy idea of giving council tax discounts for houses left empty. With these changes not only would many owners bring their empty homes into use, the rationale for demolishing empty houses would be replaced with a cogency to reuse them. 

When so few houses are being built it is tempting to think that if everybody could just budge up a bit we could fit millions of households into peoples homes and solve the housing crisis. It’s probably true that ideas Monbiot suggests would have some marginal benefit, but we believe far greater rewards will arise from investing the same energy and resources into getting more empty homes back into use and helping solve the real housing crisis.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Middle England and the Law against Squatting

There are a few phrases in the language of middle England, the mere mention of which causes the red mist to fall. European integration is one such phrase, benefit claimant another, softly softly policing yet another but if you want one to really annoy people the word “squatter” really sends middle England completely potty. It implies everything it stands against: something for nothing, scroungers jumping the queue getting things for free that they haven’t worked for. So just imagine if all of these phrases can be thrown together into one story. It happened today in the Daily Telegraph . A Latvian travels 1,500 miles to squat in a mansion in London because he’s heard how soft this country is on squatters. He did himself no favours by saying, “I’m going to stay round here. It’s great, it’s free and I don’t have to pay rent like a normal person.”
Saying "I knew before I came that people live in squats and have legal protection. It’s easy here.” wasn’t great, or particualrly accurate, either.

The BBC are onto the story now and I’ve just been interviewd for the evening news. The question that this has raised for them is, should squatting be banned?  Reading the Telegraph you might quite reasonably answer yes. But look at it another way. The law already provides a very simple easy way for property owners to remove squatters. All you have to do, as the owner, is go to court, as the owner has done in this case, and you are virtually guarrenteed to get an order that tells the squatters to go. You can choose to give them a month or 24 hours notice. After that, if the squatters stay they are breaking the law. So what needs changing? should the state really take away the responsibility from the property owner and ask the police to deal with it instead? If you think that a property owner should take responsibility for securing their own empty property and be responsible for managing it, the law should stay exactly as it is.

As for that word, middle England may be interested to know the word squatter has the same origin as a word they will be much more comfortable with: cottage. Both derive from Cotter, an ancient word meaning a subsistence farmer.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

What's so Special About This House

What’s so special about this house?  Not much you might think it's an ordinary work-a-day terraced house much like millions of others across England. Empty of course, but thousands are. Whether this house is special or not is a matter of hot debate. But regardless, something is odd. This ordinary little house is causing so much interest that Ladbrokes have opened a book over its future.

In case you haven’t seen the news over the last week this is 9 Madryn Street in the Welsh Streets Liverpool L8.  It is special because for a short while seventy years ago it was the home of Ringo Starr the least celebrated member of the most celebrated band in history. And the reason Ladbrokes are taking an interest is because the house has the misfortune to sit within an area of four hundred houses that are due for demolition.  Or at least they were until housing minister Grant Shapps dramatically intervened last week.

The Welsh Streets are built on a ladder pattern in inner south Liverpool. The roads apparently take their names from place names in Wales (although I’ve never heard of anywhere called Madryn) For most of their history they provided decent homes for people and as recently as 2005 were more or less fully occupied. There were problems, this has never been a wealthy area and a hundred years of wear and tear take their toll. Thirty years ago the Toxteth riots took place a few hundred yards away, and investment was promised. In fact it was another twenty years before Liverpool Council started consulting on the future of these roads. The Government had just introduced its Housing Market Renewal Programme and here it seemed was the source of the funding and the vehicle for renewal. The 2005 consultation focused on one question-  should the houses be demolished?. As these interviews with residents ,by the ever brilliant Ciara Leeming, show, some people thought so and some were against. The council’s paperwork, which I have in front of me, shows roughly a third in favour of demolition and two thirds against. In Madryn Street itself the split was 35 against and 1 in favour of demolition. But inexplicably the council decided to press on with the demolition option and claim that a majority were in favour.  

As is so often the way with housing regeneration it takes years for decisions to be turned into action. Like an unwanted nag in the knackers yard the Welsh Streets were left to haemorrhage residents until today just two or three people remain. Last September, five years on from the demolition decision, I took what I thought would be my last sight of the houses. The bulldozers were set to roll in October. But they never came. 

A last minute, and highly effective campaign from local campaign groups, SAVE Britain’s Heritage , and Beatles fans appears to given the houses at least a temporary reprieve. SAVE asked English Heritage to list 9 Madryn Street, as it had done for the birthplaces of the other Beatles. It declined. Apparently poor Ringo isn’t famous enough. It recalls the time when in their Beatles pomp a journalist asked John Lennon whether Ringo was the best drummer in he world. “He’s not even the best drummer in the Beatles” he quipped.  Not to be beaten, SAVE issued a PROD a little known legal tool to request the secretary of state intervene to investigate why publicly owned homes are being left empty. The Secretary of State is Eric Pickles, but it was his housing minister Grant Shapps, never one to shy away from a populist cause, who responded. Commenting on the proposed demolition of 9 Madryn Street he said “It’s for the nation to make a decision”. Presumably meaning localism is on hold while I decide on behalf of the nation. 'Many people consider the birthplace of the drummer in the world's most famous band to be a culturally important building,' he added, presumably meaning I’ve already decided. And in case you were in any doubt he went on to say: “There are some concerns about the way the whole demolition programme is working .. this might not be the right way forward.”

So to go back to my original question; what’s so special about this house?  The answer is, it may have brought an end to the whole “demolition first” way the country tackles housing regeneration. And very welcome that is too. Of course poor Ringo, who famously ran down his place of birth on the Jonathan Ross show a couple of years ago has had nothing to say about it. He’s just been the populist peg on which this whole debate has been hung. But his role is not over. The next debate has to be how can we get these houses back into use. What better way of advertising them to potential residents than using the Beatles connection again, so I’m afraid your work is not yet done Ringo.