Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Lancashire County Council (EMP 38)


  I have been informed by the Local Government Association that the House of Commons Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions has resolved to undertake an inquiry into Empty Homes. I understand the Association will be submitting a memorandum on the issue, and member authorities have been invited to participate and contribute their views and experience on this matter. Due to reasons of timing, this authority has resolved to submit, separately, the following response, which I ask you to consider.

  The matter of empty homes is considerable in Lancashire, and the condition of Lancashire's existing stock, including vacancy, has been an important consideration in preparing a development strategy, and formulating planning policy, as part of the current Review of the Joint Lancashire Structure Plan. Several parts of Lancashire, and principally eastern districts, are particularly affected by housing vacancy, unfitness and low demand. The County Council considers the matter of empty homes to be one on which it can offer important advice.

  These observations represent the views of the County Council as strategic planning authority with responsibility for (jointly) preparing a Structure Plan and for responding to Regional Planning Guidance and national planning policy. The County Council has no responsibilities as a housing authority. For this reason, this response is limited to those subject areas relevant to the town and country planning system. Each of the relevant subject areas forms the sub headings below.

The consequences of so many homes being empty, including the link between empty homes and urban degeneration, social and racial tension; the benefits that would arise from bringing empty homes back into use

  The condition of Lancashire's existing housing would appear to indicate close links with broader social, economic and environmental conditions across the County. In broad terms, it is notable that in Lancashire those areas with the most serious problems of empty homes are those with higher incidences of deprivation, across the range of indicators to do with income, employment, health and disability, skills and training, access to services, along with housing.

  Bringing empty homes back into habitable use should represent a more efficient use of existing resources, with concomitant benefits for reducing pressures for new housing provision, as per PPG3. On a broader scale, and crucially alongside complementary regeneration initiatives, better occupation and investment in the existing housing stock should contribute to improving the image and perception of those areas, to fostering investor confidence, community pride and social cohesion.

  As part of this Authority's development strategy to improve conditions in urban areas and to prioritise regeneration activity in the most depressed areas, and specifically to tackle problems of vacancy, planning policy, and specifically policies concerning the future provision of new housing, anticipates the existing stock to contribute to meeting future housing needs, as better use is made of readily-occupied housing.

Why so many homes are empty

  In many parts of Lancashire, current vacancy levels suggest a number of factors contributing to higher than normally-accepted levels of vacancy in the housing stock. The sub-standard condition of some housing, typically concentrated in inner areas of our larger towns, represents a serious obstacle to re-occupying such housing. The problem of sub-standard or obsolete stock is considerable in Lancashire, with one in eight dwellings classified unfit in the County, and a much higher proportion in the larger towns in East Lancashire. Lancashire contained four of the five local authority areas with the highest proportion of unfit housing nationally. The situation is compounded by the predominance in these areas of pre-1919 housing, much of which is "life expired" and unsuitable for modern-day living expectations. Given these conditions, low demand in private sector and public sector housing afflicts many of these areas, and compounds these problems.

  It is a widely-held view that investment in the existing stock, whether it be through renovation or demolition, has failed to keep pace with the deterioration of the older, more vulnerable housing stock. As long as renewal activity fails to keep pace with stock deterioration, conditions will continue to worsen. The lack of sufficient resources over recent years may well have accelerated problems of low demand and vacancy, where single or small pockets of housing falling into poor condition or left vacant for some time have the effect of "blighting" neighbourhoods.

  It is recognised too, in the worst-affected areas, that the relative cost of newer private housing is at a level that enables households to "jump" the more moderately-priced existing stock, so exacerbating problems of low demand, declining stock condition and vacancy.

Whether regional planning guidance is taking proper account of the re-use of empty properties in making provision for housing; whether too many homes are being built and proposed by Regional Planning Conferences on greenfield sites in areas of low demand

  The condition of the existing housing stock is acknowledged in draft Regional Planning Guidance for the North West as one of the biggest problems facing the region. The draft guidance emphasises the importance of making better use of the existing stock to meeting future housing needs, as per PPG3. The guidance as drafted provides a policy framework for, and affords the necessary priority to, bringing empty homes back into use, and provides a challenging target for reducing vacancy levels across the region.

  However, it is notable that, compared to the considerable research undertaken at the regional level into the urban potential and brownfield capacity for new housing provision, the same degree of background research has not been afforded to the potential contribution that the existing stock could make to meeting future housing needs. Whilst regional planning guidance acknowledges the undoubted importance of those issues surrounding the existing housing stock, it does not adequately identify or provide the necessary instruments, planning or fiscal, to address the problem. This authority called on the RPG to provide a strategy, describing the progress to be made during the lifetime of the guidance, and including the various options to be pursued (whether by clearance or stock refurbishment) and the likely cost, in order to demonstrate a concerned effort, and the commitment, to seriously address the problem.

Whether Government Offices for the Regions should be more vigorous in implementing Government policy laid down in planning policy guidance notes

  The town and country planning system does not have a direct role in considerations over the renovation or demolition of housing stock. However, there are clear, interrelated issues, affecting housing condition and planning for the provision of new housing, recognised in national planning policy guidance. It is vital that Government Offices for the Regions provide a regional dimension in interpreting national planning policy guidance, and in doing so provide a deliverable framework, which considers the input of all relevant agencies and local authority service areas, to achieving the aims of Government policy.

Whether some homes should be demolished

  Notwithstanding the development strategy this authority intends to pursue to make better use of existing housing to meet future needs, it is evident that levels of vacancy will continue to vary across Lancashire, due to the problems associated with more serious problems affecting longer-term vacant housing. Further reductions in the numbers of vacant stock in the most seriously-affected areas will undoubtedly require substantial resources for clearance and renovation programmes.

  Whilst this Authority would expect the emphasis to be on the retention and improvement of this stock in areas of foreseeable demand, it is acknowledged that, with property prices for terraced housing in many areas among the lowest in the country, renovation may not represent a viable solution. Substantial levels of housing clearance will be needed as part of the regeneration of those towns affected, to improve the urban environment and better utilise urban land, and provide more suitable living accommodation for existing and future residents. It is widely acknowledged that recent levels of clearance activity have been low, and considerably higher levels of funding will be necessary to reverse a worsening trend in stock condition.

  I trust that these observations will be reported to, and will assist the Committee in its consideration of this important matter.

Graham Harding

Environment Director

September 2001

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