Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Why SAVE Britains Heritage and Empty Homes Agency are wrong in opposing demolition

I have updated the artcile at the foot with a letter of reply from the EHA and my response.

Last year (2011) I led the campaign for exit funding from Government after they axed with immediate effect ongoing Housing Market Renewal (Pathfinders) schemes leaving them half way through.

Many areas had rows of abandoned homes boarded up with only a percentage in council ownership leaving a permanent unresolvable blight.

Following the campaign, then Housing Minister relented but, having caved in to the anti demolition lobby indicated that HMR transitional relief (exit finding) could only be used for relieving trapped homeowners.

Some authorities have engaged in demolition but their position is that the demolitions were funded through other funding.

The bottom line is demolition is crucial. Stock reduction is the only option. These are areas of depopulation left with more homes than families. Where the types of homes consumers want, modern, energy efficient in more aspirational neighbourhoods are in short supply exacerbating the oversupply.

It is a false argument to suggest that those on housing waiting lists are in desperate need for these homes and that there is hidden demand. Those on waiting lists are in need of subsidised housing, unable to afford the PRS. It is difficult to see how retro fitting expensive older housing can be done to match a subsidised rent let alone a sale price those on waiting list could afford. There is also the issue of a growing housing benefit bill.

The realities of these problems procludes private sector investment. It relies on gap funding and an acceptancfe that housing benefit or/and tax credits will fund the rent.

There is another answer to stock reduction. One of my local authority's Hyndburn is knocking two terraced properties into one. An answer. A good answer.

The lack of public space is another reality, another reason why demolition is required to afford communities public places, green spaces, open spaces. My authority must demolish to creat open space and has demolished in order to create more desirable modern neighbourhoods with a diverse offer of housing.

Demolition also allows better redesign, modern build, more personal space in an era of private motor vehicles, often families second biggest investment.

Demolition is key to regenerating poor areas. In my experience those that oppose demolition are adrift from the reality in many of these areas. Its time the debate moved from the fine dining tables of Central London to the chip shops of the north.

We all want to save older housing but for the people who have to suffer the consequences of this decision, it won't be guacamole for a long time.

A letter to Graham Jones MP

Dear Graham,

I’ve just seen your latest blog post, and seeing as you were good enough to mention us, I thought it deserved a reply. If I can summarise you make three points:
  1. “It’s a false argument to suggest that those on housing waiting lists are in desperate need of these homes”
  2. Your constituency has declining population and therefore demolishing houses is necessary.
  3. That guacamole eating southerners like me are dictating national policy.

Perhaps I can start with the first point and refer you to the latest published housing statistics for Hyndburn  (source: )

Empty homes: 2565 (the 2nd highest rate in England)
Families on the housing register: 4001
Families housed by council: 96
New homes completed: 0
New homes granted planning permission:0
New homes built by the council:0
New homes built by Housing Associations: 0
New affordable homes built by others: 0
New affordable homes granted planning permission:0

Of course statistics never tell the whole story, and you may well have some more recent (as yet unpublished) data; but it’s pretty hard to support your claims based on this evidence. There clearly is a great deal of housing need, and much as you and I would like these people to be housed in nice new houses, there’s no evidence of any being built or about to be built. Your suggestion of knocking two houses into one is a good one, but I fail to see how demolishing houses in these circumstances helps anybody when there is so little building in prospect.

Your second point is that homes need to be demolished because there is a declining population. I accept this is the case in a few areas, (although the population of Lancashire is projected to rise over the next 20 years) but can you honestly say that none of these houses were decanted?  Can you also be sure that uncertainty over possible demolition did not cause people to move out? . I know if the council kept threatening to bulldoze my house I’d look to move to somewhere where they’d leave me alone. This is important, because if you can’t be certain of these points then it's equally likely that demolition plans have helped create the problem you now cite.

I am of course flattered by your implication that my colleagues and I are driving national policy. As it happens I’m not a southerner, I just happen to live here because (like you) I have a job here. But your invitation to have a debate in a chip shop in the north is perhaps your best idea here. I will however be careful to avoid the Peter Mandelson faux pas and remember that the green slimey stuff is mushy peas not guacamole.

A response to letter form David Ireland - By Graham Jones

So there are 4,001 people awaiting a home in Hyndburn and 2,565 empties suggesting their is a housing under supply.

Lets deconstruct this point step by step.

There are 4,001 families who cannot afford to enter the housing market. Either purchase or rental. Unable to afford to enter a cheap rental market as Hyndburn has some fo the cheapest property in the UK.

Clearly these rental properties in the PRS are empty because they have rents that are higher than the 4,001 can afford if we accept the argument that those on the housing waiting list are desperate for these properties.

PRS properties where it has be said the stock condition is poor. Where energy efficiency is poor. Where landlords are opposing electrical safety safety certificates. Where 40% have category 1 or category 2 hazards. Houses that even if they could afford they wouldn't want to live in.

So the argument is clear; the taxpayer must not only foot a huge housing benefit bill so the 4,001 can afford the rent and afford to maintain a property but also the taxpayer grants to bring them up to standard or we accept we condemn people to live in poor housing without refurbishment.

The reality is the empty rental market occupies the lowest demand areas in high concentrations so the policy pursued by the Empty Homes Agency (of which I am a dissenting member) I presume is to create deprived ghettos of people on housing benefit?

This all presumes they want to move to a deprived area, live in a squalor and, the Treasury wants to waste an extra £2million pounds a week in Hyndburn on  rent/Housing Benefit.

Government forecasts predicted that £35 billion would be spent subsidising private rents between 2011 and 2015, meaning the taxpayer will pay £12 billion more on supporting low-income households renting in the private sector than in the preceding four-year period.

And the EHA appear to be also calling on the Treasury to fund a £mega-million sum for refurbishment to bring these homes up to decency standards. At low impact refurbishment of just £10,000 property would cost Hyndburn a further £25 million (corrected).

Ironically HMR did this and was roundly criticised by the EHA amongst others.

Such a £mega-million expenditure would constitute a scandalous waste of scarce housing funding. It would also create a policy whereby the government would subsidise private landlords and inflate the housing market with the consequence of rising rents and rising sale prices.

Most significantly it presumes that all these people are homeless or hidden homeless. A total of 4,001 people all of whom want/need two up two down that lie empty. The EHA homes case just lacks any thought, any experience or knowledge.

The reality is the vast majority of the 4,001 people on the waiting list want to transfer home ownership; from their current tenure PRS to social housing. They are not homeless or hidden homeless. I know. They fill up my surgery.

Some adjustment to the housing market through rent controls and improved stock condition may result in a few families being able to afford to move into empty properties. And that's if they want to purchase (not rent) these homes, in these areas.

The other elephant in the corner is aspiration. People don't want 17,000 terraced homes in Hyndburn. The market is saying so. They aspire to new build and family homes. And for every new home built, there is at least another additional empty property at the bottom of the market as the population contracts. It has contracted by 800 people in the last decade.  Accepting there are two people per house, that equate to 400 more empty properties and that is on top of any new build.

Teh figures in teh reply I have received show how self defeating the EHA's own argument is. There have been zero new build and that doesn't make Hyndburn an attractive place to aspirational familes.

Save Britain's heritage lobby are engaging in fantasy housing politics. Reality is absent. Their arguments fail to recognise the consequences of their inward looking vision; unwanted housing, deprived neighbourhoods, sink areas, 100 year old housing in poor condition threatening the health of their tenants, a lack of recreational space and schools that are anything but diverse. And the 'Save Britain's terraces' lobby want to pay in gold bars for their shangri-la. What a waste.

The problem with these two organisations is all they want to do is save empty houses with absolute disregard of any other factors.

Hyndburn Councils response is right. Stock consolidation, two into ones and demolition. And of course two into one's require costly gap funding in a era of austerity.