Memorandum by Councillor Peter Mole, Gateshead
Council (EMP 13)
1. Gateshead is situated on the south bank
of the River Tyne. It is a metropolitan authority with a population
of almost 200,000 and is characterised by central urban areas
and outlying rural districts.
2. The housing stock within the Borough
consists of 87,864 dwellings of which 3,198 are vacant. Empty
homes are typically pepper-potted across the borough, however
in areas of low demand abandonment of up to 50 per cent is evidenced.
3. Our evidence is based on our experience
of the causes and effect of empty homes arising as a result of
neighbourhood decline and the impact of irresponsible landlords
and their tenants on that decline.
4. Abandonment is one of the clearest and
most recognisable trademarks of areas suffering from decline.
Our experience, however, is that it is not one of the primary
indicators of neighbourhood decline but is an effect of a failing
5. We have witnessed a number of well-established
communities, sometimes only a few terraces in size, with previously
sustainable demand falling into decline rapidly. Such areas are
often initially characterised by high levels of unemployment,
poverty, fear of crime, poor quality housing stock, unpopular
house types, low house prices, a decline in neighbourhood shops
and services and new affordable house building locally. Economically
mobile households migrate out of such areas and house prices fall
as supply outstrips demand. It is not uncommon to see terraces
with "For Sale" boards outside every other property.
There is often little demand from owner-occupiers who choose to
buy newer and better homes elsewhere, what demand there is comes
from speculative landlords.
6. Irresponsible landlords investing in
these areas have a significant impact. Their activity in areas
has a destabilising effect. They fail to maintain their properties,
which serves to increase the physical deterioration of the area
and the general feeling of decay. There is little vetting of tenants
and subsequent anti-social and criminal behaviour of tenants goes
uncontrolled, causing distress for original residents and increasing
the social tension in the neighbourhood. An area rapidly becomes
stigmatised which further drives out original residents, often
to the benefit of speculative landlords who continue to buy up
7. Owner-occupiers desperate to leave such
areas have few choices, especially if they have negative equity.
Many reluctantly sell their homes at seriously depressed prices
to landlords; others try to let their properties but are clearly
inexperienced in such matters; others simply hand the keys back
to the lender for subsequent re-sale through auction or specialist
agents, usually to speculative landlords and others choose to
leave the area abandoning the property entirely and leaving it
8. Turnover is high in let dwellings and
landlords who find it increasingly difficult to let their properties
often resort to tenants who have been excluded from Social housing
or other private accommodation, thereby increasing problems of
disorder. As demand for rented accommodation also dries up, due
to a combination of an area's reputation and an oversupply of
rented accommodation, landlords have no option but to abandon
their properties also.
9. The appearance of empty homes in these
areas serves to accelerate decline rapidly. Empty homes add to
the decay and dilapidation of an area. Boarded up properties act
as magnets for vandalism, arson, fly-tipping and criminal activity,
further blighting the area.
10. Our experience is that empty homes are
a symptom of neighbourhood decline and, further to that serve
to accelerate that very decline. A key factor in this is the activity
of irresponsible landlords and their tenants who can exploit the
market, taking advantage of Housing Benefit payment to often sub-standard
housing, with no control or restrictions.
11. It is our contention that the introduction
of a licensing scheme for private landlords will address a number
of the problems outlined and will help prevent neighbourhood decline
in the manner that we have experienced in some parts of Gateshead.
12. A licensing scheme will impose on landlords
minimum standards of repair and management, to include the vetting
of tenants and acting on receipt of complaints of disorder. No
property would be available for letting without a licence and
those operating without licence will be closed down. Such standards
can be directly linked to the payment of housing benefit.
13. We believe that such a scheme will remove
the possibility of landlords exploiting areas of decline for purely
financial gain to the detriment of the community. By having an
enforceable minimum standard the physical and social deterioration
of areas that is directly attributable to irresponsible landlords,
and which leads to empty homes, can be prevented.
14. Local Authorities have a range of powers
to deal with house condition, however, despite their frequent
use we conclude that the existing enforcement regime is failing
to address the range of problems in these areas. Intervention
for disrepair is reactive rather than proactive and landlords
are often unwilling to take action against disruptive tenants.
We believe that a register of approved landlords will not address
the problems as it relies on the existing enforcement regime.
Similarly our experience is that voluntary accreditation schemes
only attract well-intentioned landlords.
15. By introducing mandatory licensing one
of the factors evident in the decline of areas can be managed.
This is one reason why we believe licensing should not be restricted
to areas of low demand as has been proposed in the Housing Policy
statement. In many areas speculative landlords actively maintain
demand, early intervention is therefore necessary to prevent areas
degenerating and suffering falling demand which subsequently leads
16. Gateshead Council has been leading a
campaign advocating the introduction of a Licensing Scheme for
private landlords. Nearly one hundred and thirty local authorities,
housing and professional organisations and Members of Parliament
have pledged their support to the campaign.
17. The Government is keen to see local
authorities adopt a more strategic approach to housing issues
and to give them greater flexibility to adopt policies that meet
the needs of their communities. We recommend that the Government
consider the introduction of a licensing scheme that can be applied
to all private sector landlords, in areas of low and high demand.
We believe that this will give local authorities effective tools
to tackle problems of decline and abandonment as they see fit
at local level.