Examination of Witness (Questions 280
WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001
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 areaswell
I can, I do not know about all of usthe 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
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
(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.
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
(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
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.
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.