Advertisement

My old house – a snapshot of the post-regeneration landscape

John P Houghton revisits the problem of empty homes and calls for imaginative local solutions as regeneration winds down and resources dry up

John Houghton’s childhood home in Kirkby, 12 months ago (left) and now (right).

I first wrote about my old house in January 2011. I’d been back to Kirkby, my home town in Merseyside, for Christmas and was shocked to find that the place I’d called home for most of childhood was an empty, vandalised wreck.

Having worked in deprived neighbourhoods across the country, derelict houses have been a familiar sight in my career. But that doesn’t soften the impact when the problem is brought home in a stingingly personal way.

Purchased but left unoccupied by a private landlord, the house was smashed up so badly that the owner couldn’t afford the refurbishments needed to put it back on the market. The council was aware of the problem, but was fairly constrained in what it could do (certainly for the first six months) and sought to work with the owner.

I promised to keep you updated on what happened. Not because my old house is special in itself, to anyone but me. But because I want to understand and explore with you what it reveals about the difficulties facing towns across England, where even the strongest ties of community spirit can’t repair the damage being done by debt, spending cuts and a stagnant housing market.

Over the past twelve months, the situation has deteriorated, prompting serious questions about whether we need to look at more radical local solutions to the problems of empty homes in a post-regeneration world.

On the face of it, as you can see from the two pictures above, there’s been little obvious change over the past twelve months. The place is still empty and boarded up, though the Corpy – as we sometimes still refer to the council in Kirkby – have cleared it up and halted any further serious damage.

TACKLING EMPTY HOMES A ‘THANKLESS TASK’
In two less obvious ways, however, the situation worsened. Over the course of 2011, two neighbouring houses fell into a similar state. By Christmas, one was back in use, and, according to the latest information from Knowsley Council, the other one is also now inhabitedThe spread of abandonment is a familiar story to anyone who lives or works in weak-market neighbourhoods. One empty house sends a signal of neglect that attracts vandals and fly-tippers, and repels other residents who are worried about the value of their house and the safety of the area. A single empty unit can become a half-abandoned street with terrifying speed, opening up the prospect of further, faster, wider decline.

The second problem is that the landlord is no longer co-operating with the council. Given the primacy we attach to the rights of home ownership, councils are fairly constrained in what they can do to tackle empty homes. The processes for dealing with them, which only become available after six months, are legally onerous and potentially expensive.

It’s easy to bash councils, but national legislation has made tackling empty homes ‘prosaic, mind-numbingly procedural and thankless work’, as one housing professional put it in the Guardian. Since their introduction in 2004, fewer than 100 Empty Dwelling Management Orders, which allow councils to bring a house back into use even without the owner’s consent, have been served.

To make matters worse, the government is currently in the process of increasing the length of time from which councils can take action, from the current six months to two years; strengthening the position of absent landlords at the expense of local authorities. As a result, many council officers are cautious in the measures they take.

Knowsley’s initial strategy was to work with the landlord on bringing the property back into use. This kind of solution avoids protracted legal wrangling and returns the house to the private sector, which the council ‘wants to make much greater use of’ to tackle the supply shortfall in the borough.

After initial cooperation, the landlord has now cut off communication and the council has started the process of applying for a warrant to inspect the property. After that it will determine what further enforcement action might be necessary.

Overall, progress has been painfully slow and almost entirely dependent on the involvement of a now uncooperative landlord. And as my old house continues to decline, the economic and housing market challenges facing towns like Kirkby continue to grow.

A new school in Kirkby

A BOROUGH IN NEED
It would be strangely comforting if my old house were an isolated problem, and I was the only one with cause to mourn. But that isn’t the case.

Kirkby is one of the poorest parts of Knowsley, which is one of the poorest areas of England. It has occupied more or less the same place in the deprivation tables since I grew up there, although recent years have seen major investment in housing renewal and the creation of jobs in the public and private sectors.

Service sector employers have expanded, but the older industries continue to shrink. I went on my first march in 1994, aged 15, protesting the threatened closure of the Delco factory, where three of my aunties and many other local women worked. Next month it will finally close, with the loss of 180 much-needed jobs.

Some amazing teachers gave me the confidence to go to university, but I was one of the few kids in my year who did. Exam results have improved and schools have been re-built since then, but Knowsley still has one of the highest percentages of young people who are not in education, employment or training.

All these factors feed into a serious problem with housing affordability. Many people think of this as a problem confined to London and South East. But average prices in Knowsley in 2011 were over five times the average income level, which is the lowest on Merseyside.

Knowsley Council puts the total shortfall of affordable housing at 550 homes per year, and there is little sign of immediate improvement. New houses in the borough have been built at a lower rate since 2000 than in the decade before, and the pace is expected to slow further. This is in line with the national completion rate, which fell in 2010/11 to the lowest rate since 1923.

These difficulties with affordability, supply and the suitability of the stock for an ageing population underline the importance of making the most of what already exists. They’re the reasons why empty homes represent such an appalling waste of current resources and future potential.

According to the latest figures, 2,041 homes in Knowsley are empty, accounting for 3.7% of the total stock. This is lower than the regional average but higher than the national. Around 85% of the borough’s empty homes are, like my old house, privately owned.

The council is clear, in its Empty Homes Strategy, that dealing with empty homes will become more difficult in future. Despite the new Empty Homes Bonus, there will be cutbacks in the number of staff with housing responsibilities and ‘a reduction in funding to tackle the problem’. The Working Neighbourhoods Fund which was used by Knowsley Housing Trust and the council to renovate this Kirkby house has been abolished.

With homelessness and repossessions on the rise, private renting no longer an easy money-spinner and regeneration schemes grinding to a halt, the number of empty homes is likely to increase across the north. A number of proposed regeneration programmes across Knowsley have failed to move forward in recent years as government funds were withdrawn and private developers and investors lost interest.

In response, the government in London is diluting the powers and draining the resources that local authorities have to address the problem.

 

ALTERNATIVE USES FOR EMPTY HOMES
The case for action on empty homes is clear and compelling. Although exact figures are hard arrive at, there are something like 930,000 properties standing empty in England. Of that, around 350,000 are classified as long-term empty, having been unoccupied for more than six months.

The complicating factor is the mismatch between supply and demand. A lot of empty homes are in weak market areas, while the demand for affordable homes is greatest in London and the southeast.

There are also localised mismatches between what could be brought back into use and what people actually need. There is a demand for new affordable homes in Kirkby, but one of greatest areas of need is affordable housing for older people. A three-bedroom, two-storey house like the one I grew up in isn’t going to help an elderly person living alone who can’t climb stairs.

Let’s be clear that there are no simple solutions. But that shouldn’t be an excuse for adopting the complacent attitude that empty homes are ‘not a scandal…just the nature of the complex housing market in which we operate‘.

Instead, we need to look at alternative uses for empty homes. Paul Palmer has worked for many years with councils, community groups and housing associations across England to bring empty homes back into use.

In many cases, he sees empty homes as the symptom of a ‘wider issue where there are fundamental market failures’. Simply bringing a property back into use as a house isn’t sustainable if a lack of local demand was the main reason it became empty in the first place.

Finding an alternative purpose, like offering the space to community groups and local businesses or running vocational training, can generate more sustainable uses and deliver a whole set of additional benefits in terms of community cohesion and resilience. These kinds of approaches still need to be paid for, but they cost a lot less than either redevelopment or constant repairs in response to vandalism.

For any of these alternatives to become a reality, councils need greater enforcement powers that can be deployed more easily. Retaining the six-month timescale for serving an Empty Dwelling Management Order and introducing stronger sanctions would start to re-balance the relationship between the private gain of individuals and the public interest of entire communities.

As Palmer argues, ‘the attitude should be use or lose it – it’s just not right that [landlords] can let their properties become a problem’.

A former hotel in Kirkby sits empty

RE-USING AND RECYCLING TO SERVE UNMET NEEDS
Finding alternative uses for empty homes fits with the post-regeneration landscape we find ourselves in. With no national programme for the first time in forty years, very little funding and deep public scepticism about regeneration, the emphasis in future has to be on recycling and re-using our existing infrastructure.

This is the fundamental task in deprived neighbourhoods; making unused resources serve unmet needs.

Kirkby, like the rest of Merseyside, is a profoundly resilient place. But there’s no denying the difficulties it will face as the age of austerity stretches ever further into future. It’s not just houses that are being abandoned. According to the Chief Executive of the Child Poverty Action Group, ‘Britain’s poorest families have been abandoned and left to face the worst’.

As unemployment grows, public services are cut back and hundreds of thousands of families are pushed into poverty, these opportunities for social mobility are being closed down.

Every available resource needs to be pushed into the struggle against the rising tide of hardship, starting with a place that was once a home and can be so again.

Comments

Subscribe
Notify of
guest
2 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
les woolley
les woolley
11 years ago

I grew up in kirkby in marbury road westvale in the 1960s, I have lived in london for 30 years but when i go back i always have a walk past 19 marbury road, what a great road this was i went to the towny last week and it does not seem as good as it was but i wont knock kirkby in the 60 s you were safe everybody knew each other, i went to roughwood school i still have family in kirkby so i will always go back.say hello to christine.

John P Houghton
John P Houghton
11 years ago

Hi Ian,

Thanks for your comment. My old house is opposite Marbury Road! We lived there for over ten years.

I was there last week, talking to some of the neighbours about the area. They were all pretty angry that the house had been left in such a state and gave such a negative impression of the area.

John

Help us break the news – share your information, opinion or analysis
Back to top