Examination of Witness (Questions 289
WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001
289. May I welcome you to the Committee? Could
you identify yourself for the record?
(Mr Cowcher) I am George Cowcher and I am the Acting
Director of Operations of ONE North East, the Regional Development
Agency for the North East.
290. Do you want to say anything by way of introduction
or are you happy for us to go straight to questions?
(Mr Cowcher) I am happy for you to go
291. The Urban White Paper asks the regional
development agencies to address the issue of empty properties.
What has ONE North East done about that?
(Mr Cowcher) Our primary remit is not necessarily
in relation to housing, but we have a remit for improving the
economic performance of the area and for increasing the area's
competitiveness. Our agendas to achieve that have effect on housing
and empty housing. We are aware that in our region empty housing
is not a constant factor throughout the region. There are pockets
of areas where it is a particular problem. Those are good indications
to us that those are areas of under-performance for the local
economy. Therefore, in terms of our economic strategy, we are
aiming to address those areas to try to improve the local economy
in those areas to create greater demand for housing in those areas.
292. Do you feel that regional development agencies
can have a direct role in housing provision?
(Mr Cowcher) It is difficult. Regional development
agencies are not the planning authority and they are not the housing
authority. Their remit is quite clear, certainly in terms of the
changes under current government policy. The regional development
agencies really have to address the whole question of wealth creation
and moving towards improving wealth in areas and moving to some
degree away from the social agenda. When the regional development
agencies started out, we inherited a lot of programmes, particularly
under the old SRB schemes. Many of those were directly related
to deal with housing and associated matters. Our current programmes
are moving to some degree away from that, but in the North East
we have taken a very imaginative way of addressing how we deal
with our forward direction in that we have decided to work very
closely with our local regional partners, our four regional partners
in the North East and we shall be devolving 75 per cent of our
headroom budget directly to our local partners who are delivering
that against a programme which they are putting forward and in
some instances the physical regeneration of those areas is a very,
very high priority.
293. Who are those partners?
(Mr Cowcher) Those partners in the North East are
Northumberland County, Tyne-and-Wear, Durham and Tees Valley,
which is basically the former Cleveland County and Darlington.
294. What has the impact been of the removal
of gap funding?
(Mr Cowcher) At the moment we are not actually seeing
terrific impact because at the moment we are dealing with a number
of schemes which were actually approved when gap funding was available.
We are seeing some very major regeneration schemes coming forward
which is making use of those original powers.
295. That is just the fag end of things which
were granted some time ago.
(Mr Cowcher) Indeed. One of the concerns we have is
that the loss of gap funding may well create problems for us in
years to come. In terms of putting new programmes together, that
is a great concern to us. Our calculation at the moment is that
to bring forward brownfield land for housing costs twice as much
as it does to bring forward greenfield land and there is a huge
gap there and if gap funding powers are not available to us that
will inhibit our ability to deliver.
296. Are there any new projects in the pipeline,
any alternatives which have come forward?
(Mr Cowcher) We have a raft of projects in the pipeline
and clearly we are working our way round at the moment to ensure
that we can get the right finance to achieve those. The gap funding
route was very helpful in that respect. Other measures are perhaps
297. Have you found any alternatives?
(Mr Cowcher) We are looking under a variety of programmes
and looking perhaps particularly at Sunderland at the moment where
we are looking at setting up urban regeneration companies which
are able to lever in additional money. There are other programmes
which are still running, where we are able to use some coalfield
money, which is particularly relevant in County Durham which is
able to fill this role. There is nothing with the same degree
of flexibility as there was with the gap funding and gap funding
mechanism that we had.
298. Do you or your regional partners know how
many houses are empty in your region?
(Mr Cowcher) There are estimates in our region of
how many there are.
299. Could you put your finger on those estimates
and say this is the problem, this is the scale of the empty homes
problem we have?
(Mr Cowcher) There is that empirical evidence which
is collated for us by our local authority partners. We are able
to see that there are particular areas in our region which are
suffering as a result of this particular problem. You are going
to take evidence from Gateshead Borough shortly and I am sure
they could give more details about that.