Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Sixth Report


Conclusions and recommendations

156. Empty homes are an issue of national importance. There are two distinct aspects to the problem requiring very different solutions. Where the housing market is healthy, interventions are required to bring empty homes back into use and prevent the waste of a scarce resource. These interventions are set out in the detailed conclusions and recommendations, below. The problem of failing housing markets is much bigger and requires a different order of resources and interventions.

157. We received many moving letters from those trapped in areas of low demand. They did not prepare us for the desolation that we saw on our visit to the North West. The rows of abandoned terraces, the broken windows and the burned out houses were shocking. There are 280,000 houses in and at risk of low demand in the M62 corridor alone. The already gigantic costs to individuals, communities and the businesses and public services working in those areas will be even greater if markets at risk collapse.

158. If the fortunes of inner urban areas are to be turned around, they need to become attractive places to live. In northern and midlands cities with growing economies there is the potential for large scale, conurbation-wide interventions which include the reconfiguration of large areas to make them more attractive, not only to existing residents but to new residents. Some of these may be young people living in the city centre; others need to be working families moving in from the suburbs. A significant amount of demolition and rebuilding will be required. The redevelopment of Hulme in Manchester seems to have partially achieved these objectives; it could usefully be a basis for similar initiatives elsewhere. To be successful, such conurbation-wide interventions will need new powers and new ways of working with significant additional funding.

159. The Government has made a commitment to turn around the incidence of low demand by 2010 yet it does not have a clear method or enough funding to achieve it. To make matters worse, despite its commitment to "joined-up" policy making, current Government policies and actions are actually undermining its ability to meet the target:

  • the policies of PPG3 are not being implemented in the regions or by every local authority. New building on greenfield sites continues to undermine efforts to renew inner urban areas;

  • the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal takes no account of the effect of its interventions on the wider conurbation. It naively assumes every neighbourhood can be saved without looking at the long term viability of an area;

  • by concentrating its interventions in the most deprived neighbourhoods, the Government is ignoring areas at risk where early intervention could prevent a costly slip into decline;

  • RDAs are pursuing a narrowly defined economic growth agenda which takes insufficient account of social regeneration;

  • the Housing Corporation's investment strategy has been pursued in a sub-regional policy void;

  • empty homes jeopardise the ability of registered social landlords to attract the private sector finance that they need to renew the housing stock;

  • Housing Benefit is tending to lead to troubled families moving between tenures and neighbourhoods and their behaviour is not being addressed; and
  • Government Public Service Agreement targets on standards of decency in housing relate only to the social sector, despite all the evidence that decline in multi-tenure areas is the most intractable housing regeneration issue.

160. Our three main recommendations are:  

      (i)  Radical intervention is needed in some inner urban areas where the housing market has collapsed, to make them attractive to a broad mix of existing and potential residents. The housing market renewal approach needed to achieve this must be on a large, conurbation-wide scale. It will take a long time and so must be started as soon as possible and will require significant additional funding, of the order of hundreds of millions of pounds per annum.

      (ii)  Far greater emphasis should be placed on prevention and restoring confidence to housing markets to stop the problem of low demand spreading to neighbourhoods already at risk.

      (iii)  The planning guidance on the re-use of existing brownfield sites contained in PPG3 must be forcefully implemented locally and regionally with a far more radical curb on greenfield development. Far greater account must be taken of the existing urban capacity. This will mean that far higher targets for brownfield development are required in regions like the North West.

161. The alternative is that our northern cities will consist of a city centre surrounded by a devastated no man's land encompassed in turn by suburbia. In inner urban areas disadvantaged residents will increasingly see their standards of living diminish even further and the costs to communities, businesses and the public services increase.

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