Examination of Witness (Questions 300
WEDNESDAY 21 NOVEMBER 2001
300. Do you also as a development agency keep
track of how many homes are being constructed on brownfield land
and how many on greenfield land?
(Mr Cowcher) Yes, indeed we do and we are aware of
our regional planning guidance and our requirement in the North
East that 65 per cent of homes should be built on brownfield.
We are always working in partnership with our local partners,
both in terms of planning and in terms of housing to make sure
that those opportunities for development on brownfield are maximised.
Indeed, in some of our areas like Sunderland where we have large
amounts of potential brownfield land, that is where we are putting
together in partnership an arrangement where we can maximise the
opportunity for that. We are also minded that housing is not a
stand-alone activity and that housing has to sit alongside other
forms of regeneration, in particular in ensuring that we have
adequate land and premises available for employment purposes as
well. Generally we are looking at mixed use schemes in our region.
We are not looking to produce purely large single housing areas
or indeed large employment areas. We are looking to see where
there is a mixture of both which meets all other requirements
in relation to pollution control and trying to minimise travel.
301. What sort of strategy are you developing
in relation to thousands of colliery houses which have been left
since the demise of the mining industry? You tend to concentrate
upon Newcastle, upon the larger conurbations, but there is an
equally severe problem amongst the dozens and dozens of small
mining settlements. Could you perhaps tell us which strategy you
are adopting to tackle those problems?
(Mr Cowcher) We do have a coalfield strategy that
is being enacted within the North East.
302. Would you like to tell the Committee about
(Mr Cowcher) That is a strategy which is largely charged
with physical regeneration. Particularly in areas like Durham,
we had very large areas of physical degradation and total catastrophe
for the local economy when these large collieries closed. The
initial work which has been done to date has been largely on the
physical regeneration of those areasI am thinking in terms
of Seaham, the work going on in the former Vane Tempest area.
303. This inquiry is about empty homes. You
are concentrating now upon those areas of land which have been
cleared for redevelopment. Can we concentrate upon empty homes
and what strategy you have adopted for the thousands of colliery
houses which still remain in an absolutely appalling condition
but which still house many thousands and thousands of former mining
(Mr Cowcher) Certainly the first element of that strategy
was to deal with the major physical problems which were left as
a result of the contraction of the coal industry. What we are
trying to do now is positively trying to get new employment opportunities
into those areas. We are looking in terms of inward investment.
304. Are you saying that it is going to be inward
investment into the area rather than dealing with the properties
which is important?
(Mr Cowcher) Indeed. We would see that as our primary
focus as a regional development agency. We are attempting to regenerate
those areas by making them more economically viable, by stimulating
the economy. We are not generally having a direct effect on dealing
with the physical manifestation of the empty homes.
305. That is an important point. If you are
driving towards economic growth and if the RDA's focus is towards
increasing regional GDP, that by definition would suggest that
the resource allocation would go more towards the investment side
of things than towards housing and regeneration schemes. If that
is the case, what are the consequences? It makes me think that
perhaps what you are going to end up with is resource going into
new estates rather than an attempt to revive those which have
perhaps become run down.
(Mr Cowcher) There has to be a balance and certainly
that is what is happening in our region. There is little possibility
in some of the geographical areas in the region, that we are going
to see the new industries, the new investment, coming in as primary
drivers for what we are trying to do. A great example of that
is in County Durham where Nissan is located on the outside of
Sunderland. That was a greenfield location for a major international
car plant which is now the most productive car plant in the whole
of the UK. That has had an amazing spin-off for that area. It
was a greenfield development which started that off but which
is actually having a great regenerating effect in terms of providing
additional business and additional work in areas like Peterlee.
306. You are not going to find a major regeneration
project the size of Nissan very often, are you?
(Mr Cowcher) Indeed and the likelihood of that type
of investment is decreasing. What we are doing at the moment is
looking, particularly on the northern side of Newcastle with Newcastle
Great Park, at another focus in terms of what we are doing with
Newcastle University in attracting new industries to that area.
That is one part of the equation but I would not say that is the
only part of the equation because there are clearly more localised
regeneration issues which need to be dealt with. We are spending
a very large amount of money in the west end of Newcastle, which
is an area where we have a particular problem with empty homes,
at Newburn down on the River Tyne to create what is probably going
to be the largest employment area in the whole of the city. Indeed
the regional development agency will be moving its headquarters
there as a signal that we need to
307. Those will be some of the jobs you are
(Mr Cowcher) Only 200 of them. We are hoping we shall
have many more hundreds. It is a gesture of faith that we need
to be in areas of the region which perhaps are suffering the greatest
distress as a draw for others to come there and hopefully that
will then have a regenerating effect on the western part of Newcastle,
which is currently suffering.
308. Do you think that wholesale demolition
and clearances are needed in some of the areas which have become
(Mr Cowcher) This is a very, very tricky question.
Even in the west end of Newcastle or parts of Middlesbrough where
you have 20 or 30 per cent vacancy rates there is still a residual
community and there needs to be some sensitivity to that. In many
respects that community is incredibly brave and wanting to remain
and wanting to see their area
309. Are they incredibly brave wanting to remain?
Is it not that they just have no chance to escape?
(Mr Cowcher) There is an element of that, but in many
of these areas also there is quite a will to remain in their area;
they are very proud of their area, they have lots of historical
and family roots associated with this area, they have invested
a lot in it and they do want to try to fight for their area. The
problem with wholesale demolitionand we have gone down
this road before, particularly in the 1960s and early 1970sis
that you can destroy communities very easily in doing that. Demolition
certainly is important: wholesale demolition, I worry greatly
310. If you have a village which is deeply run
down, which has large numbers of empty properties, where there
is very little prospect of restoring that village as a viable
economic centre and at the same time you are building new estates
40 or 50 miles away on green land for people to move to, is there
a case for saying you will return that village to open countryside,
you will accept that there has been a change in history and the
future will be there rather than here, rather than trying to prop
up something which is dying anyway?
(Mr Cowcher) It is extremely difficult and very expensive
to turn urban land into green fields; extremely expensive, extremely
difficult to do. That would be my first point in relation to that.
The second point I would make is the point which was made by your
previous witness in terms of how you manage that process. As soon
as you signal to a community that they have no future, then there
is a further run down in relation to that community. It is not
always possible to deal with that over night, in fact it is impossible
to deal with overnight. It is a long-term progress and you tend
to have what can be an even worse blight situation for eight or
ten years on your hands. It has to be a balanced approach. You
have to have areas of new investment because that is the only
way in which you will attract that type of investment into a region
like the North East. You have to have a positive approach in terms
of how you are dealing with these residual problems. That is not
to say we need to keep communities at their current size. I go
back to County Durham, I go back to Seaham in particular, which
has been greatly affected by colliery closures and by employment
prospects. There has been an awful lot of work done in terms of
physical regeneration in that area, both positive, to bring new
investment in, but also in a rationalising factor as well. It
has been done in a positive spirit in terms of remodelling Seaham,
giving Seaham a new purpose in life and a new future. It has not
been done on the basis of cutting, clearing and moving them off
311. I fully support what you are saying about
the new development but not the colliery housing. You ought to
make it clear to the Committee that that has not been touched
(Mr Cowcher) No; I agree.
312. Do you think that regional planning guidance
in the North East is robust enough to control the greenfield developments
so you can meet your targets for brownfield development? Earlier
you mentioned the abandoned homes in the west end of Newcastle.
Do you have any evidence that empty properties can be a disincentive
for inward investment in the North East? Finally, earlier in your
evidence you mentioned how the RDAs are having to move away from
the social agenda. If that is true, how are we going to marry
together and improve the co-ordination of economic regeneration
of housing development and regional planning guidance in the regions?
(Mr Cowcher) RPG has been formulated in the region
on a tripartite basis with the regional office having a major
role, all of the planning authorities having a major role and
the RDA also having a role in relation to that. We all have differing
views of that so at the end of the day it is a compromise document.
It is a very broad-brush document and there are elements of discretion
within that guidance which have really been put in specifically
to give flexibility. Of course that does also give opportunities
for there to be not as much robustness as we might see. In summary,
my answer to you is that we understand the reason there is perhaps
not that robustness is because there are different parties to
this, there are different calls in relation to that and also because
it is covering a period of time. We are trying to foresee perhaps
a number of scenarios for the future ahead. In terms of effect
of empty homes on inward investment, clearly when we are trying
to attract inward investment we are doing a selling job on behalf
of our region. We are trying to heighten the positives of our
particular region or our particular location. Having a whole series
of empty homes would not be a positive, it would not be something
I would want in any way to advocate or even showcase. Where we
do have those which are physically very obvious, that is an inhibiting
factor to attracting new inward investment.
313. What about putting up walls so they cannot
(Mr Cowcher) We do our best to try to ameliorate the
worst evidence, indeed that is why there may be a requirement
for selective demolition to make sure we do remove those homes
which are having a counter effect.
Chairman: I shall have to cut you off at that
point. Thank you very much indeed for your evidence.