Thursday, July 25, 2013

Why Pickles Has Suspended Welsh Streets Demolition

The Mayor and Liverpool City councillors are cursing Eric Pickles for suspending their decision to demolish the Welsh Streets. Pickles won’t care about their curses of course, the fact that this is the third time ministers have directly intervened in this decade long saga might say something about ministers commitment to localism, but it also says a lot about the way this case has been handled by the council too.

The council like to paint opposition to the Welsh Streets demolition as outside interference by heritage zealots, but they understate the case. No housing scheme in England has proved more controversial or more divisive, and few can have been as eye wateringly expensive. Whatever you might say about Pickles he is no heritage zealot. The truth is he has plenty of other reasons for questioning the decisions made in this case:

He may well feel that the scheme fails to meet housing need. Demolishing 439 houses and building perhaps as few as 153 is a huge loss of the city's housing capacity. A city with a growing population shouldn't be settling for less. Less housing means fewer homes for people. With household sizes in Liverpool getting smaller and housing association rents rising, demand for larger houses is in decline, small houses are what the city needs. Old terraces may be unfashionable but they provide good homes for people on modest incomes. Without them more people, unable to buy homes, become reliant on social housing.

Pickles may think the scheme fails to promote economic growth. A drop in housing capacity means local services and shops struggle, and people have to drive elsewhere to get the services they need. In a city that should be striving for growth this scheme is the opposite - managed decline.

He may wonder what the scheme has done to the community. Over the last ten years 1200 residents have been lured or driven away. The council may claim community support for demolition now, but the truth is after a decade of attrition there is hardly anybody left to oppose it now. 
He no doubt thinks the scheme is incredibly inefficient. When you add up all the public subsidy this scheme has absorbed over the last ten years it totals £35million. A sum of money that could have easily have paid outright for building twice as many new houses on some of the city’s many vacant plots of land, or a programme of refurbishing 1,000 of its empty homes.

Perhaps he will also pause for thought over what caused the problem this scheme seeks to fix. The Welsh Streets were never a wealthy part of the city, but they were home to a functioning community that was far from being in decline. The Welsh Street's demise was artificial, calculated and imposed from above. The last government's ruinous pathfinder programme paid councils vast amounts of money to buy up and demolish old houses.

Nowhere greeted this policy with more eagerness than Liverpool council. Even the minister in charge at the time, John Prescott thought the council's enthusiasm for demolition was obsessive. "They knocked the whole bloody lot down so you had bomb sites everywhere" he said. The huge scale of Liverpool's demolition programme was far beyond its capacity to deliver and the Welsh Streets are a victim and a legacy of that excess.

Much has changed in the decade since this scheme was first imposed on the Welsh Streets, but the scheme itself has remained rigidly unaltered. To the council’s credit it has, in recent months, sought some more imaginative solutions for dealing with empty homes, but it refused to consider them here.
Its unwillingness to compromise has left a scheme that, if unaltered, would manage the decline of a large community into a small social housing estate. With Pickles picking up the tab, there can be little wonder as to why he is questioning it. Liverpool Council and Plus Dane Housing Association should use this opportunity to fix this flawed scheme, not in order to placate Pickles, but because the people of Liverpool deserve no less. 

This artile was first published in the Liverpool Daily Post

Demolishing the Welsh Streets

Liverpool council’s planning committee decision to demolish most of the Welsh Streets and replace it with a far smaller number of larger suburban housing association homes is the latest chapter in the managed decline of one of Britain’s great cities

In its favour at least it is a decison. After virtually a decade of blight and systematic winding down there is now some clarity about how the council wants the empty Welsh Streets dealt with. It’s a relief that the council has been induced into retaining and repairing some of the houses including the well maintained occupied houses in Kelvin Grove and Ringo Starr’s birthplace in Madryn Street. Quite how the council even contemplated destroying this part of its heritage is beyond belief.
But the council approved plan is still controversial and divisive and the long process has strained the community.

Although some action is better than none, the plans are very far from ideal. Whilst new housing, particularly affordable housing should be welcomed, it has come at the expense of a big net loss of housing capacity to the city. A city with a growing population shouldn’t be settling for less. Less housing means fewer homes for people. It means local services and shops struggle to function, and people will have to drive elsewhere to get the services they need.

With household sizes in Liverpool getting smaller and housing association rents rising, demand for larger houses is in decline, small houses are what the city needs. Old terraces may be unfashionable but they provide good homes for people on modest incomes. Without them more people, unable to buy homes, become reliant on social housing

The vision of this scheme is suburbia in the city with car culture replacing local services, Mono-tenure Housing association ownership replacing diverse ownership.

Of course many people do want new homes, but why the council couldn’t have commissioned Plus Dane (the housing association who stand to develop the houses here) to build them on one of the city’s many vacant sites, instead of making them dependent on demolition is unclear.
The effect of this is to give the few remaining residents the false choice of supporting demolition and getting a new house or stay living in a ghost town.

To its credit, the council has in recent months sought some more imaginative solutions for dealing with empty homes, but it refused to consider them here. If the sad story of the Welsh Streets is destined to be a chapter in the ideology of managed decline, let’s hope it’s the last one.

Friday, May 03, 2013

My Article in this month's RICS magazine MODUS

Whatever else you might heave heard; this much is true; bringing empty homes into use won’t solve the housing supply crisis by itself.  But that’s no reason not do it. It’s equally clear that the current rate of house-building isn’t going to solve it either. So we need to think more broadly about increasing housing supply.
Today there are almost 350,000 long-term empty homes in Britain, (and that’s only the ones we know about). In fact, as a nation, if we could be just a little bit more efficient and make sure no home in Britain stayed empty for more than six months, an additional one million people could be housed before we built any more houses at all.

This isn’t a huge ask, and everybody concerned would better off as a result. Owners will benefit from better use of their property, councils will receive additional income and most importantly thousands of families will get a better place to live. With a new government grant scheme, and the National Empty Homes Loans Scheme about to be launched, there has perhaps never been a better time to make this happen.
So what needs to be done? Here are four simple steps:
Whenever property owners anticipate that their property will be vacant for more than 6 months they should make it available to people as short life housing or let it to property guardian companies. A large range of companies and housing cooperatives provide this service. The government should encourage this by offering incentives through the council tax system.
Property owners should take advantage of the grants and loans and get their empty stock renovated. Housing associations, councils and community groups should offer to help them with renovation and management.

Councils must provide help and encouragement to property owners and where necessary take enforcement action. This happens in many places, but still too many councils don’t give it enough priority.  They can’t afford it you might say. But they can. A proper plan for bringing homes into use is actually an income earning activity for councils in England and Wales through the New Homes Bonus.   If councils reinvest the new homes bonus income they receive for empty homes into measures to bring more homes into use, council’s impact will be transformed.

The government should show leadership and get publicly owned properties (including those owned councils and housing associations) into use. There have been improvements in the vacancy rate of publicly owned homes, but it still isn’t good enough. The problem is that there is little scrutiny on public landlords and no real power for local people to put pressure on them .The one right people have is the toothless Community Right to Reclaim Land. This should be beefed up so that the people have a right to buy or rent publicly owned homes that have been left empty for more than 6 months
These steps would cost little more than the money that has already been committed, and could create thousands more homes with no obvious downside. Of course this won’t solve the housing supply crisis by itself, but it’s not a bad place to start.

Friday, March 08, 2013

empty homes to drop to zero next year

The number of empty homes in England is set to drop to zero next year. This may sound improbable, but if you follow current projections of house building rates and household formations it must be true.

Government projections show the number of households in England growing to 27.5 million by 2033. In 2011, the year of the last census, the official statistics showed a surplus of 750,000 dwellings. In other words there were three quarters of a million more homes than households. This neatly coincides with the official number of empty homes that year.

But the population is growing fast and as we are often told, house-building rates are not keeping up. In fact if we were to assume that house building carried on at it’s current rate for next few years (and there is no obvious reason to think that anything else will happen) the surplus will reduce to 200,000 this year and disappear altogether in about November next year.  This scenario would have many effects including me being out of a job!

But this surely cannot be true. If it were, work would already be underway on every single empty building in England. A glance out of my window here towards the Heygate estate would indicate this is very definitely not the case.  In fact, although the numbers of empty homes are linked to housing demand, the effect is quite slow. Empty homes are what economists call an inelastic supply. This means where there is a high level of demand for homes the number of empty ones will reduce, but not by anything like enough to meet all of the demand.  The number of empty homes has indeed decreased in recent years, but never by more than 20,000 in a single year.

There is an old adage that all models are wrong, but some models are useful. As such, the apparent empty homes conundrum will probably be solved when we find out the government household projections were incorrect. If for example, the number of single person households turns to grow at half the rate that the projection indicates, the current housebuilding rate is just right and there will be no shortfall. 

This all goes to show that we shouldn’t get too bogged down in statistics. We all know that real people are facing real housing problems (most of them linked to housing being too expensive). It’s self evident that getting empty homes into use is a useful thing to do in these circumstances but won’t solve all of the problems. Its also certain that it won't work the other way either. I predict another significant drop in empty homes numbers this year, but I would bet my job on it not droppping to anything like zero next year.  

Wednesday, January 09, 2013

Where are they now? The abandoned backdrops to 80's videos

Empty buildings seemed to be a common backdrop for music videos in the 1980s. So I thought it would be interesting to look at a few and see what's happened to the buildings now.

The video for the Human League's Fascination was filmed on the empty streets of Plaistow in East London in 1983. The area was then under the control of the Docklands Development Corporation  a QUANGO tasked with regenerating London’s Docklands. The Victorian houses had been emptied out by the corporation prior to demolition.  As the video starts we see a map of the area with an orange blob indicating “You are Here” As the camera moves in it turns into an ariel view, and it becomes apparent that area covered by the blob really had been painted orange. In fact to make the video, a whole house (No.1 First Avenue), the immediate area of the streets, and an old Austin 1800 car parked outside really were covered in orange paint. The house along with the rest of the houses in the street were demolished a couple of weeks later. Some rather anonymous 1980s semis were built in their place and stand there today. Unfortunately the identikit semis couldn't fit in the triangular shape of the corner plot and so the site of No.1 remains vacant to this day.

Is there a better one than this? The Smiths (or rather Morrissey and a group of lookalikes) cycling through the New Barracks Estate in Salford in 1985. The estate is one of the earliest council estates in the country, built with private patronage in the early twentieth century. Even in its rather forlorn state in the 1980s you can see the quality of the architecture and the layout. The Salford Lads club which appears about half way through is still going strong, and the big houses in the magnificent Regent Square which we see towards the end of the video were renovated, some of the other boarded up houses were demolished and new houses are standing there now. OK I think this video was actually made for "Stop Me if You Think You've Heard this Before" But this song is even more sublime.

Not from the 1980s, but Coldplay's Every Teardrop is a Waterfall, was filmed in the vast abandoned Millennium mills building in West Silvertown in East London. This incredible 10 storey art-deco mill was once Splillers' biggest flour mill, but with the closure of the Royal Docks the mill closed in 1981. It has remained empty ever since. In the 1990s it was briefly considered as a site for a huge aquarium for the Zoological Society of London. As recently as 2009 it was going to be converted into 400 flats under an interesting Terry Farrell scheme. As far as I'm aware there are no current proposals on the table. The mills were also the location for the video for the Arctic Monkeys excellent single "Fluorescent Adult", which regrettably, I deem a bit violent for this blog.