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.