Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 261 - 279)




  261. Welcome to the Committee. May I ask you to introduce yourself for the record?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) I am Alan Wenban-Smith.

  262. Do you want to say anything to us or are you happy to go straight to questions?

  (Mr Wenban-Smith) May I just make a couple of points by way of introduction? The first point is that although a lot of attention is paid in the regional planning business to the numbers game, it is important to bear in mind that the treatment of vacancy is not a big issue in that respect; somewhere between five and ten per cent of the numbers may be attributable to different ways of doing it. It is worth remembering though that all that five or ten per cent will come through the other end as an additional greenfield requirement, so though it is not large it does have that significance. The other point which is rather more important and has had less attention on the whole is that levels of vacancy in some areas and in some regions are far too high and they are symptomatic of a much wider social malaise. That is important, first of all because it is a warning that some areas are on the slide and unless something is done effectively, there is the risk of great swathes of housing being taken out of use and indeed thousands of lives being ruined in the process. These are the areas which will need a very wide range of measures. Housing is not the only issue, there are all sorts of other questions to do with jobs, access, environment. Some regions of the UK—North West, North East, Yorkshire and Humberside in particular—have areas with large amounts of this problem. This is a national regional issue and not just something which can be dealt with within the region. Arising out of that it is very important that the planning system grapples with the issue of management of the housing situation as a totality from now on and does not just focus on an endpoint some years down the track.

Mrs Ellman

  263. In your written evidence, paragraph 4.14, you say, "The key point for present purposes is that if too much greenfield land is released by the planning system the effect will be to undermine urban regeneration". Does that conflict with what you have just said to us?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) I hope not. There are two ways in which too much greenfield land being released impacts upon vacancy and on regeneration. The first is that attention by the building industry is diverted; they would much rather be doing easy things, which is not too surprising. The other is that as far as home owners and tenants are concerned, it is quite clear that their attention will be attracted by safer options. It is completely understandable. There are lots of things there that they cannot change. They simply have to take the situation as it stands and take the choices available within it. This is a public responsibility. There needs to be a real effort to take seriously the need to change the conditions under which people have to make those choices, both builders and occupiers.

  264. Has building on greenfield sites over the last 20 years caused the problem of empty homes?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) Yes, I think it has. Certainly in some areas, I am thinking of the North East particularly, which I have some experience of professionally, large quantities of housing built in Cramlington New Town and on land to the north west of the city, directly led to the sorts of problems you see in the west end of Newcastle where swathes have been effectively abandoned. It is not just as simple as people moving from point A to point B it is simply that the choices presented along the line because of that over-provision have not been the choices which should have been presented, which would have put much more stress on making the west end of Newcastle a very much more attractive place with less need therefore to build housing at Cramlington and on the land in the North West.

  265. Is the solution to the whole issue of empty homes to prevent building on greenfield sites?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) No; no, it is not the whole solution. It will only be part of the solution if it is put alongside real energetic urban renaissance effort covering the whole range of public services, housing, jobs, access, the entire works.

Mr Betts

  266. Do you think local authorities are still approving new greenfield housing developments without sufficient regard to the number of empty homes around and the availability of brownfield sites, not merely in their area but in surrounding areas in the sub-region?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) Yes, that is undoubtedly the case. I was representing CPRE in the North West and I gather you have had the opportunity of visiting there. It is very clear that there are areas which almost perversely it seems to me had large problems of low demand and those same places were proposing very large increases in housing provisions. Asked to explain this, they explained it in terms of needing to regenerate their area. They did not seem to have followed through to "What happens to all the low demand housing you already have?". They really stopped at that point and had not really thought through what the implication of that was. It seemed to me it was very much moving a problem from one place to another and making it a good deal worse in the process.

  267. Do you think government regional offices are doing enough to provide guidance and trying to get an overview?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) I hesitate to suggest more guidance from government regional offices; it would be a case of the blind leading the blind I suspect. To my mind the important bit here would be to put some real capacity, capability, into regional planning. At the moment regional planning guidance tends to be produced by voluntary collaborative effort of local authorities and very often, unless there is very clear technical and political leadership, that tends to be a horse trading process producing lowest common denominator solutions and not actually addressing the issues. Until there is real technical capacity and real political leadership together, those two things are interdependent because politicians—I probably do not need to tell you—are not going to devote serious time, effort and career prospects to things where there is not an adequate level of support and issues are not being clearly articulated. We are not going to make progress on this issue without some form of regional capability there. I would not go so far as to say that regional government is necessary. That would be a long time down the track, but there has to be much more significant regional capability. I do not think government offices are the right place for that at the moment.

Helen Jackson

  268. If government offices are not the right place for it at a regional level, how do you do it? My constituency is in a very green area around Sheffield and there is constant, constant pressure from the housing developers because of the market to build wherever and whenever they can. Where a site in question is already in public ownership, and I can think of one which was in Health ownership and where considerable pressure was put on the local authority to agree 500 houses, despite many, many people asking for a brownfield site to be found nearer to Sheffield, the pressure is intolerable. Who should have the power, which needs to be quite considerable to resist that pressure, particularly when it is coming from a public sector land owner and not a private sector land owner?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) Indeed and that illustrates the reason why I think the government office is not necessarily the right place. In such instances it is often the case, and I suspect somewhere at the bottom of your example, that there is a need to generate money into a PFI for a new hospital.

  269. Sort of thing.
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) I am just guessing here. Clearly that is one bit of government which stands to benefit from the highest value use on the redundant site. I have come across exactly the same situation all over. It is not particular to your area. I am involved in a very similar one in the West Midlands. Often the decision making is skewed by virtue of that. It is important that the locus for that kind of decision is regional and that means that the local authority and the other regional stakeholders need to be party to that kind of decision. It may be that the right trade-off is that in order to raise the money to build a new hospital, say, some compromise, some trade-off is required on some of the other things you hold dear. That is a regional decision, it seems to me. It is not something which has a proper locus somewhere else, particularly not where the decision may well be contaminated by public expenditure considerations, which come in very often.

Mr Cummings

  270. Your memorandum to the Committee shows how the vacancy rate has been used in the calculation of the net requirement for dwellings in both the Yorkshire and Humber and West Midlands RPGs. Can you tell the Committee how much difference a change in the vacancy rate does make to the net requirement for new dwellings in a region?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) In the case of Yorkshire and Humberside it made a difference of around 10,000 as a result of saying they ought to go for a target of three per cent rather than the current four per cent. Out of a total requirement of 240,000 that is about four per cent. It does not make a huge difference. In the North West it made a much bigger difference because you are starting with a much larger base of housing, about 3.5 million dwellings in the North West. There, not only were they not making an allowance for reducing the vacancy rate, which at the beginning of the plan period was 4.3 per cent, they were actually for some reason which I have never been able to get to the bottom of, proposing to allow for additional vacancy of 15,000. That actually adds up to seven per cent of the overall requirement. It is not a huge difference but it is a significant difference in the sense that all that extra feeds through and at the end of day means more greenfield land must be identified to meet it.

  271. So it is far from being an exact science.
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) Nothing talking about what is going to happen in 20 years' time is a science, exact or otherwise. It is necessarily a "best guess" of what might happen. That is a very important point to make. A lot of this numbers game is done on the basis that this is science; it is not science, it is forecasting which is a different thing altogether. I have devoted a lot of my several meetings with this Committee to stressing the need to deal with planning from today onwards and not always looking at 20 years down the track, because one tends to take one's eye off the ball.

  272. How does the calculation of the number of dwellings needed in a region take account of the differences within the existing housing stock, for example obsolete houses?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) The figures in the regional planning guidance are about the net addition to the stock needed to meet the needs of additional households, whether that is people migrating in or whether it is simply the same number of people splitting themselves into separate households. If you want to get at how many new houses have to be built, you have to add to that the number of the existing stock which needs to be replaced. Trying to predict how many of the existing stock will fall off the edge and need to be replaced is not something you can do anything more than make a fairly broad estimate of. It is important, taking regions like the North West, where there is a lot of houses which are potentially obsolescent in that way—

  273. How would you define obsolete houses?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) I did not say "obsolete" I said "obsolescent", which is an important difference.

  274. I said "obsolete".
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) No house cannot be rescued. It is a question of what it costs and what you have at the end of it and whether that balance is sensible or not. In Birmingham 20 years ago we were doing revitalisation and some of the properties we were revitalising because we were doing it on a worst-first basis were costing £20,000 a go and the property which resulted from that work was worth £10,000. Clearly you have to ask whether it is sensible. I am sorry, I cannot answer your question directly on how you define an obsolete house because it is obsolete relative to what you could do with it and what it would cost you to do that and whether anybody wanted the result. It is not a simple question at all. It is part of the managing from now on agenda which to my mind is absolutely critical if we are going to make urban renaissance a reality. We have to have broad quantitative view of the future, but we really have to focus on what we do today, tomorrow and the day after to the stuff we have.

  275. The Panel in the North West argued that vacancy rates are a "contextual indicator" that are not directly influenced by RPG. Do you agree and could you perhaps elaborate upon the "contextual indicator"?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) I think that is a cop-out. It is a very narrow view of regional planning guidance. It says essentially that all that regional planning guidance is there for is to provide a view about how many new houses and where they should go. Everything else is subsidiary and not really about it. I think that even on that very narrow view of planning the view you have mentioned is perverse because there is an effect on vacancy, according to how much greenfield land you provide, even if it is an indirect one, but it is real nevertheless. The real answer is that regional planning guidance, according to government guidelines, and I agree with this, should be about spatial strategy. It is not just about colouring bits of land different colours, it is about the whole panoply of public policy. To take the approach the North West has represents a refusal to take that wider responsibility. It is also influenced by a desire to massage up the figures so there is something for the planners to do. I have the strong impression that unless you have some numbers to play with, you may well find you have already over-committed yourself and you may as well pack up your planning department for the next few years. This may be cynical of me.


  276. So you think the row they had in the South East about the extra number of houses was a good row for planners, kept them in work.
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) Keeping planners in work is not necessarily a good thing in itself, but the row in the South East was very, very important in terms of focusing attention and getting some of these very difficult issues into the public arena and getting some serious debate around them, simply because the numbers which were coming out were so huge and their implications so mind blowing—I remember coming to this Committee and talking about another two Birminghams and a Southampton for good measure. That was what was being talked about in the South East. When you put it in that sort of context, it gets to be beggaring belief. Having gone through that process, that has been educational.

  277. Should the North West not have said absolutely no new building and got a similar row going and got people's minds concentrated on the empty properties?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) It might well have got people's minds concentrated. A realistic view to my mind would have been something well below the sort of figures they were putting forward. They were putting forward figures which were based not only on high vacancy rates continuing, but also on a very rapid increase to national average levels of economic prosperity. That in total seemed to be quite unrealistic and indeed possibly damaging to the future prospects of the North West. That argument is a necessary argument to have. I am not sure I would have started it from the point the North West chose to start it.

Mr Cummings

  278. The Committee have been told that current experience in the South East where vacancy rates are now below three per cent reinforce the DTLR's statement in their memorandum to the Committee that transactional vacancies amount to two per cent of the housing stock at any one time. If that is the case, do you believe that the current national target level for vacancy rates should be reduced to reflect that particular statement from the DTLR?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) I made the point in my evidence that there is a transactional rate of vacancy. I do not think that is an irreducible rate, I have to say, because a rate of three per cent, which is the current national target, implies, if properties turn over by about ten per cent a year, which is a broad average, that the gaps between occupation are on average of the order of four months. That is quite a long gap to have as an average and I cannot believe it is beyond the wit of man to find some way of reducing that. The vacancy rate tends to be highest in the private sector and that is to do with conveyancing and buy/sell chains and all the rest. There may be ways of actually reducing that.


  279. Is it not quite difficult if someone dies in a house to have got the estate wound up and the house sold in four months?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) I am just saying that is an average. I do not know what the proportion of transactions which involve that kind of process is, but I would not have thought it was a majority. Certainly there are circumstances in which a long gap is understandable. I am not sure that the legal processes around winding up an estate or indeed carrying out ordinary conveyancing are immutable and could not be altered by taking thought. That is the only point I am making. I am not an expert on that and I would hesitate to go any further than I have.

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