The demolition explosion
Councils in England are planning to knock down thousands of homes at a time of critical housing need. Martin Hilditch investigates why
If you work in the demolitions trade then September must have been a blast.
It was, after all, the month in which Birmingham Council approved plans to demolish 1,279 homes. Nottingham Council wasn’t far behind, agreeing to knock down 973 of its homes. And they weren’t alone; across England councils of all shapes and sizes were signing off similar plans. In the same month, Harlow Council decided to flatten 261 properties, councillors in Eastbourne plumped for the demolition of three retirement blocks and Shropshire’s councillors signed off the demolition of 48 homes on one of their estates.
It’s no coincidence that the plans were approved in September. The authorities were, after all, working to a tight deadline. The timing of the decisions was driven by a desire to get the demolition schemes approved before 10 October. That’s because any properties which the government regards as an ‘ongoing concern’ after this date will be factored into the calculations when it reallocates debt as part of its plans to scrap the current housing revenue account subsidy system in March 2012. Put simply, the reform will see most councils take on some of the existing £21 billion housing debt based on the number of homes they own. So, the more homes they have, the more it will cost them. The rules also stipulate that homes must be demolished by 2017.
To what extent, though, were demolition plans a direct reaction to HRA reforms and can the councils expect much opposition, especially when waiting lists for homes are soaring?
To put the figures into some context, the 1,279 homes Birmingham Council is proposing to demolish between now and 2017 is roughly the same as it removed (along with Sandwell Council) when it took part in the centrally-funded housing market renewal programme between 2004 and 2011. In Birmingham and Sandwell 1,399 homes were flattened as a result of HMR, a programme which caused national controversy because of the number of properties demolished.
The council is entirely upfront about the fact the demolitions will result in a substantial saving when HRA debt is allocated. A report considered by the council’s cabinet on 26 September talks about ‘the financial savings to the HRA to be achieved by the declaration of clearance of 1,279 properties’. It puts a precise number on this saying ‘savings, over and above the cost of clearance and demolition, includes the avoidance of £19.5 million as part of the HRA reforms’.
Nottingham Council was similarly frank when it set out the reasons for acting when it did. ‘Under the proposed HRA self-financing programme, the demolition of 973 properties is estimated to have the effect of reducing opening debt by £10.2 million’, councillors were told in a report they approved in September.
The demolitions present ‘an opportunity to reduce debt, replace less popular stock and open up opportunities to build new council homes’, it added.
In Harlow it was a similar story. Its councillors discussed demolition plans - comprising 57 empty homes and 204 council homes - on 8 September. The report they saw states the council has procedures for demolishing empty homes but, ‘the deadline set by the CLG in respect to the self-financing debt settlement has imposed a degree of urgency which, in effect, means that it is financially advantageous to bring forward decisions that would otherwise have been made within the next couple of years’.
Eastbourne’s councillors were told that on top of its existing plans ‘further demolitions and disposals of retirement courts will be necessary to allow the council to develop and deliver a viable HRA business plan as part of the move to a self-financing HRA’.
The time is right
So it is clear that the timing of decisions has been directly affected, if not driven, by impending HRA reform. What is less obvious, though, is how many of these homes would have lasted beyond 2017 had this not been on the horizon.
Consultant Graham Moody says he thinks the self-financing deadlines have merely ‘made people sit up and think hard about what might have been tentative thoughts about demolitions or disposals’. ‘If the stock would go in five to 10 years anyway it just improves the position that much more,’ he adds.
There are questions to be asked, however, about why the councils are demolishing so many homes at a time of great housing need. Nottingham has 12,676 people on its waiting list.
Nick Murphy, chief executive of the city’s arm’s-length management organisation Nottingham City Homes, states that the demolitions are in the long-term interest of residents despite the sizeable waiting list. He acknowledges, however, that there will be some long-term loss to Nottingham’s housing stock.
‘Although we propose to build less homes than we demolish, we will be replacing flats with houses to best meet local housing needs,’ he adds. ‘As well as building new council housing, we are actively working with the council to identify sites for additional new housing on our estates.’
Not all the homes it is looking at are subject to low demand. One consultation involved 208 occupants of 209 properties on blocks in the city’s Meadows estate - just 50 per cent of residents responded to consultation and only a small majority of them - 51 per cent - favoured demolition.
Birmingham Council, which has a reported 17,000 people on its waiting list, did not respond to Inside Housing’s inquiries. However, the report considered by its councillors makes clear that it feels the 1,279 homes due for demolitions ‘are subject to poor demand or do not meet the needs of people on the waiting list’. It says the council has a pipeline programme to build more than 700 new homes and some of the plans are part of area-wide regeneration which has been proposed for years.
At a time of rising waiting lists, however, the plans could prove controversial both locally and nationally. Michael Gelling, chair of the Tenants’ and Residents’ Organisations of England, warns that large-scale demolitions could worsen existing housing pressures and heritage group SAVE says they ‘seem crazy’ because of the length of waiting lists.
So in the months and years ahead councils may well have to face down both local and national opposition before the demolition contractors can pull on their hard hats.
saving to Birmingham Council if it demolishes 1,279 homes
saving to Nottinham Council if it demolishes 973 homes
saving to Harlow Council if it demolishes 261 homes