Examination of Witnesses (Questions 235
WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001
235. Welcome to the Committee. May I ask you
to identify yourselves for the record?
(Mr Slagter) I am Mike Slagter and I work for Brighton
& Hove City Council.
(Councillor Jenks) Councillor Paul Jenks, Vice Chair
of the LGA Housing Executive.
(Councillor Bettison) Councillor Paul Bettison, Chairman
of the LGA Housing Executive.
(Mr Ireland) David Ireland from London Borough of
Hammersmith and Fulham.
Chairman: Does anyone want to say anything by
way of introduction or are you happy for us to go straight to
questions? Straight to questions. Fine.
236. A general question to begin with. We have
been round and looked at some areas of the country where there
is a real problem with negative equity in low demand areas. What
do you think can be done to overcome that problem in general terms?
(Councillor Jenks) What we see with empty properties
are very differing issues. In the part of the country I come from,
Southampton, you are going to find high values but still empty
properties and in the North of Englandwe generalise of
coursegenerally you are going to get a problem with very
low values and negative equity. One of the areas to look at is
a scheme such as the one Salford is operating, or attempting to
operate at the moment since it is in the very early stages. It
is called Home Swap. This essentially takes control of a property
in a low demand area, an area which is identified a falling through
the floor in terms of property values, and swaps the deeds with
a property on the outer circle, outlying edges of that to try
to stabilise the local market and stabilise the use of those properties.
That is in its early stages, but most of all the thing the LGA
has found is that we need flexibility. What may work for Manchester
may not work for Brighton and vice-versa, but even down to the
individual properties, by far the most successful empty property
strategies are those where firstly there is a designated empty
property officer within the authority and that officer has a very
flexible approach and a number of tools available to tackle each
property. You will find that some will belong to portfolio landlords
with a number of properties who for reasons best known to themselves
regard properties being empty as a better bet than having people
in them. With others, you will find the little old lady who has
inherited a property, scared witless about renting it out to anyone,
no idea how to get the property renovated and simply needs a bit
of advice rather than anything else.
237. A range of different measures.
(Councillor Jenks) Absolutely.
238. One particular issue we came across in
the North West which concerned us was that while there were properties
which were clearly lower demand areas and not very great value,
in some cases fairly undesirable landlords were buying them up,
putting in tenants on housing benefit and charging pretty high
rents for them. Manchester Council said to us that they had tried
to challenge some of these rent levels with the rent officer service
and had been unsuccessful. Is this a problem which local authorities
in general are experiencing? Are they challenging rents with the
rent officer service? Are they being successful with those challenges?
(Councillor Jenks) There is an issue with challenges
to rent officers that they are mixed, there is not a strong pattern
of success and it can be a particular problem. I believe later
in the day you will be hearing from Gateshead Council who will
talk to you about the need for a licensing scheme across the private
rented sector. That is certainly something which would receive
endorsement from the LGA. You have rightly identified not only
the issue of people charging quite high housing benefit rents
on properties in those low demand areas, but it is the whole package
of management of those properties which is leading to areas which
were previously a mixture of rent and owner occupation now causing
major social problems as well as the physical degeneration of
the area. The rent officer issue is one which certainly needs
more attention and local authorities should be encouraged to challenge
more often and look at why those challenges are not always successful.
239. You suggested that the Home Swap scheme
in Salford was working. We were lobbied quite hard when we were
up in Manchester that it was not that successful. One individual
pointed out to us that she had been trapped in a house with negative
equity for about six years. She was now being offered a move across
the road to another part of the estate where she was again going
to be trapped in a property. Any chance of moving to another part
of the country was totally gone as far as she was concerned.
(Councillor Jenks) It is an option, it is not a magic
wand. Like all of the options proposed, it will not work in all
cases, but if it works in some, then it is worth a go. I would
not like to comment on the detail of what you say because I believe
Salford will be giving you more information on the scheme at a