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

Examination of Witness (Questions 280 - 288)



Mrs Ellman

  280. How can it be damaging for the North West to plan for more economic prosperity or did I misunderstand what you said one or two questions ago?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) No, I think you have misunderstood in that case. It is perfectly understandable and right that regional development agencies should seek to put in place measures which will raise the economic prosperity of their areas. Where the mistake is perhaps, is to assume the success of such measures. We have to remember that regional development agencies in every region are doing the same thing, so you cannot assume that your region is going to pick up more people from other regions simply because you have a regional development agency with ambitious plans. Clearly you cannot rob Peter to pay Paul. It is right to say that increasing prosperity tends to mean people demand more houses for a given population because the economic ability to set up on your own has increased. I have to say that has to be strongly qualified by the statement that it all depends on how that additional prosperity is distributed across the population. If a lot of it is concentrated among a relatively small number at the top end of the income scale, the effect on housing demand will be minimal. If it is spread much more widely, the effect on total housing demand is much greater. You cannot work on the assumption that this is going to happen overnight. What was wrong with the North West was that they assumed that starting tomorrow, for the whole of the plan period, the amount of additional housing arising from increased prosperity would cut in literally on day one of the plan period and continue throughout the next 20 years. That just does not strike me as being realistic and certainly in the evidence I gave at that inquiry, I suggested they should think in terms of it ramping up over a period of time and work that through and it produces some quite significantly different figures.

  281. Do you think that the northern regions should be planning for more demolitions?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) They probably ought to get their minds round the strong probability that there are some areas which are not going to be economically or socially rescuable from the state they have got to. That needs great sensitivity in how it is dealt with. All of us can remember the clearance areas—well I can, I do not know about all of us—the self-fulfilling prophecy element of large-scale clearance and areas where it may have been 20 years off had 20 years in the condemned cell and the category D villages in Durham. This is not a scenario one wants to repeat. We have to be much more sensitive and neighbourhood focused about how we deal with this. That is not to say that at regional level you should not take a broad view about the scale of what is going to go on, particularly if it is a regionally significant issue, as it is in the North East and the North West. It is important that you do some broad numbers. It is when you start identifying particular places, that you have to take extreme care and that is something handled very much at local level and with a strong neighbourhood-up element. In a lot of these places it is a case of whether you can enlist local people in rescuing their area and whether you can put together all the money which is pouring in from all the different sources, housing benefit, local authority, whatever, and make that money work better for those people. That is something which is for the moment not part of the approach which is generally adopted. It is not something which can be imposed from the region downwards or indeed from government downwards.

  282. What is your view of the current programme New Deal for Communities, which in fact does focus on neighbourhoods in terms of regeneration? Do you think that is likely to be a successful policy?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) It is a necessary part of the thing in the sense that the Government have said that you need to have this focus. The record of the last 20 years or so of regeneration projects is that there is a lot of signing up to great partnerships and so forth, a lot of which does not actually penetrate down to the grassroots. Certainly my experience in Birmingham involved in quite a few of these things is that with some interesting exceptions, Castle Vale Housing Action Trust for one, St Paul's Neighbourhood Project in Balsall Health, there are examples of places where in addition to that sort of top-down initiative there has been some genuine bottom-up energy into the situation and you have to have both. It is like the greenfield/brownfield. The top-down neighbourhood renewal policies of the Government are necessary but they are not sufficient. You have to have a genuine bottom-up engagement as well.

Chris Grayling

  283. On the question of demolition and community involvement in reducing the size of communities, one of the things I came away very clearly with from our visit to the North West was a sense that you cannot really avoid market trends. Therefore the question which came to my mind would be: should local authorities in areas where there is clearly a migration away from the traditional communities actually have structure plans which manage the decline of the community over a period of time? Town X has lots of empty homes. Town X has a migration away from it. Should its council have a 20-year plan to reduce its size in overall terms and return some parts of it to greenfield sites?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) We have been there before. This is category D effectively. Putting a place under death sentence in that sort of way is almost invariably negative. You cannot enthuse people about the idea of managed decline, it is simply not within the bounds of human responses. I challenge slightly the point that you cannot buck the market. People make choices in a context and certainly people will make the choices they see as being advantageous to them within their resources and within whatever else is on offer. There is a strong capacity at present, not as much used as it should be, to alter the terms of that choice and that is where local authorities and government need to be much more creative in generating realistic visions. A lot of vision stuff goes on but not a lot of it is realistic. If you can generate a realistic view about what town X could actually do with itself, with its assets, with its resources, with its people and get people engaged in that, it may not be a super-duper, all-singing, all-dancing kind of image of the sort PR people like, but it may nevertheless be one people could actively subscribe to and say yes, I want to be part of that and I am prepared to put my effort into it. That is very, very difficult, but I cannot emphasise too strongly that writing off whole places is something which will be wholly negative in its effect. It cannot make things better. It will almost invariably make it much, much worse.


  284. Is it not fairer to tell people that an area really has a death sentence placed on it rather than let people go on struggling, believing that they are going to survive, when all the evidence is that the neighbourhood is going straight down?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) It is not as simple as that because neighbourhoods exist in a context. One of the interesting things which has come out of some of the recent research is that places in the North West which are suffering high levels of migration also have high levels of in-commuting. They have plenty of jobs but people just do not want to live there any more. No place in the UK is so isolated that you can say really that it has had it, it is down the slip.

  285. The Committee saw an area in Harpurhey in Manchester where we were told that over a ten-year period a great deal of effort had been put in by housing associations, by private landlords, private owner-occupiers to regenerate housing. The Committee went into some of those houses which looked reasonably attractive. Yet all that effort appeared to have been wasted because they were starting to demolish street after street.
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) That almost makes the point. That was obviously an area where effectively the bulldozers were in and that was a statement that the area had had it. It is a self-fulfilling statement.

  286. Would it not have been better ten years ago to have said they could not do anything with this rather than put huge amounts of public money into the area unsuccessfully?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) I would have thought it would have been better to put huge amounts of public money in in a way which produces a better result than that. I would not draw from that that it is impossible to regenerate a neighbourhood like this, although I do not know this particular neighbourhood, I have to say. Clearly whatever way was chosen in that instance did not work and there is some learning to be had from that.

Mr Betts

  287. Why can demolition and rebuild not be a form of regeneration? You seem to be ruling that out.
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) Indeed it can; that is right. There are certainly areas of Birmingham where a review of the situation would suggest that you cannot simply prop up these houses. There are some system-built estates in Birmingham where there is actually a major opportunity to rebuild and produce more and better housing out of the surplus generated by the fact that there is a lot of spare land. That can work. It needs to be done in a way which deals with the total social environment and not just the houses. That is the point I would make.

  288. Could you say a bit more about that? There is probably a presumption there that we should be putting constraints on greenfield development and in various places we have seen encouragement to supply new homes in less popular areas. But attracting people to go there is another issue. Can you elaborate a bit more on what you were saying about the wider environment and how we actually attract people into those areas?
  (Mr Wenban-Smith) One of the key things that attracts people to areas is the quality of public services; things like education and health are examples. Those are certainly areas where there is scope for public policy to change the terms of the choice available to people. The thing it is worth stressing is that there tends to be a presumption that providing housing is about providing new housing. Only about five or ten per cent of people's locational choices are expressed through occupying new housing. The vast majority of housing choice is met through the secondhand market. There is an opportunity there in existing areas that the turnover of people can move an area up just as it can move an area down. There are parts of the country which have been at the bottom end of the heap for a very long time, even in London areas like Deptford have been the bottom of the heap since Shakespeare was a lad and there are reasons for that and they are built in down in the basement somewhere but they are not completely immutable. We do have the instruments to do better, but we have to do it better in a bottom-up way not just a purely top-down way. The tendency of top-down agencies is to see their bit, education, health, whatever it is, exclusively, whereas people can see their housing needs, their health needs, education needs, as a seamless totality. They do not see a separation. You need to get that seamlessness into the way that area regeneration is actually done, otherwise you are continually going to run into these problems of putting in a lot of money and it not working and saying it was a waste of money.

  Chairman: On that note, may I thank you very much for your evidence.

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