Funding for empty homes is worthy of praise, whatever your political colour, says Ann O’Byrne
Thank you, Grant Shapps
As a Labour Party cabinet member for housing, the words ‘thank you, Grant Shapps’ were never something I expected to say privately let alone have attributed to me within Inside Housing. But after the Liverpool city region was awarded £17 million from the government’s empty homes fund, I have to utter those very words.
The cash will provide much needed resources to help offset some of the damage done by the government’s previous decisions to cease housing market renewal, withdraw the single capital pot for housing and remove an estimated £34 million of housing investment in the city. But still, even a partial reversal of that decision is welcome so, ‘thank you Grant Shapps’.
Of course, with the money in place the work now begins as 550 homes are brought back into use. It’s an investment which builds upon a housing market renewal initiative record of 10,000 refurbished homes and 1,750 new homes built.
Oh, and 2,715 houses demolished, not that we talk publicly about demolition anymore, of course. Anyone who does is quickly associated with World War II German bomber pilots so polarised has the demolition debate become. It is ridiculous and ultimately, unhelpful.
Please don’t misunderstand me, I am not attempting to defend indiscriminate demolition. In truth my colleagues and I in Liverpool have always sought a balanced approach to housing market renewal and community regeneration. We have always had serious reservations about the approach taken under HMR by our Liberal Democrat predecessors.
In fact it is worth noting that although the demolition issue is often the one that hits the headlines, more houses in our renewal areas have been refurbished than demolished. We have marketed a development opportunity to redesign and refurbish 177 vacant properties. However we are continuing to look at the most creative and appropriate solutions to reinvigorating our housing market, so selective clearance and the assembly of sites to provide new modern homes will continue to be part of our approach.
It’s the words ‘appropriate’ and ‘selective’ which appear to have vanished from the debate. Redesign and refurbishment certainly offer part of the solution to housing market renewal but they are not the only tools we need to have in our armoury. Sometimes refurbishment is not the most cost effective option. Constricted sites, lack of gardens, limited car parking, subsidence, major structural defects etc, can all mean that refurbishment simply will not work and demolition and new build becomes the only alternative option. Even where there is a stated preference for refurbishment, there may still be a need for selective demolition to facilitate remodelling.
A strategic approach
We live in a world where government wants to spend less on housing, but at the same time introduce benefit regimes which demand a greater variation and flexibility in the type and tenure of property available. The private housing market is flat and precious little is being done to invigorate that market while housing associations are struggling to come to terms with a world without grants (financial incentive rather than the Mr Shapps variety).
To have any chance of reinvigorating our housing market we need a government which enables us to access the most flexible and effective range of interventions as possible, not a pointless debate over what is quickly becoming ideology.
To be fair, the representatives from the Communities and Local Government department and the government’s empty homes advisors who visited us in Liverpool were receptive to our views on this point. Characterising the strategic approach as a straight choice between demolition and refurbishment is too simplistic. The high proportion of pre-1919 stock in Liverpool that has now had its day means that it will always be necessary to have some replacement as an element of our renewal strategy. Liverpool is justifiably proud of its heritage, however, we also strive to be an international, modern city. This is as true in areas such as Anfield, Granby and Kensington as it is on our world-famous waterfront.
So sincerely, thank you Mr Shapps for the investment but what we need now is for you and the CLG to end the unnecessary debate about demolition and let us get on and deliver. If you could, I’d be even more thankful.
Ann O’Byrne is cabinet member for housing and community safety at Liverpool Council