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Housing (Horden, County Durham)

Volume 592: debated on Wednesday 11 February 2015

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Owen, for what I believe is the first time. I am grateful to have this opportunity to raise an important issue on behalf of the residents and community of Horden in my constituency of Easington.

By way of background—this is for the Minister’s benefit, because I am unsure whether he is familiar with the communities of east Durham—Horden, like many of the communities I represent, is a close-knit former mining community, located on the east Durham heritage coast. The village, which has a long and proud industrial heritage, was established to serve the needs of the colliery. The sinking of the pit brought new workers and the village began to take shape with the construction of terraced housing—that style of housing will be familiar to you, Mr Owen, because similar terraced housing exists in all the former mining areas, including in Wales and Yorkshire.

The demand for housing remained high until the closure of Horden colliery in 1987. I recall that Horden was one of the biggest collieries in Europe when it was at peak production and we had a number of associated industries, including a petrol-from-coal plant, which was a considerable employer, which I think was developed during the war.

The loss of the coal mine has led to issues found in many former mining communities such as unemployment, health inequalities and an ageing and declining population, which has led to lower demand for family-type housing in particular. While today’s debate is on the situation caused by the Accent housing association, I hope that the Minister will acknowledge the wider issues concerning the lack of investment and support given to Horden in particular—other mining communities have received such support—to attract new industries, jobs and investment since the end of its mining operations.

I hope that the Minister is aware of precisely what has happened with Accent. It is quite a large housing association that manages more than 20,000 properties nationally, but I want to raise specific concerns regarding the 361 properties that it manages in Horden and Blackhall, the neighbouring village. Of its 220 homes in Horden, 130 are currently empty. In Blackhall it owns 141 properties and 30 of those have become vacant. The problem is that, as properties become empty, Accent no longer seeks to let them as homes. Instead, vacant properties are being boarded up, which are an eyesore and a drain on the community.

It is clear, from walking around the area, that properties have gradually fallen into a state of disrepair and now require substantial work. Accent did have an investment plan in place to improve those properties to the decent homes standard through replacing bathrooms, kitchens, windows, doors and heating systems as well as making other repairs, but millions of pounds of regeneration funding were withdrawn following the Government’s implementation of the bedroom tax. In Accent’s view, those properties are no longer financially viable because many of them had been let to single people who, under the terms of the bedroom tax, would be under-occupying them and so be subject to an additional charge.

Although the bedroom tax was the tipping point, to be fair to the Minister—I hope that he is paying attention—the cause of the problem is long-term mismanagement by a social landlord that has failed to invest in the homes over many years. Accent acknowledges that as long ago as 2008, it was letting two-bedroom former colliery houses to single people in the knowledge that that was not a long-term option. Its failure to maintain its properties adequately is evident: estimates suggest that to bring the homes up to a fit standard would require a £7 million investment, based on £20,000 a property. The bedroom tax significantly reduced demand for the properties and although I will criticise Accent for many things, it cannot be blamed for the bedroom tax. However, it is responsible for a chronic lack of investment.

I have had considerable communications with local residents and representatives of Horden residents association, who are highly critical of Accent. They said that it has had a “non-dynamic” approach to the care and maintenance of the properties that goes back as far as 2006. It seems to have total disregard for the community in terms of vetting potential tenants. The residents’ groups, who have worked closely with the local authority and the police, have been out litter picking, clearing up fly-tipping and identifying problems to report to the local authority. However, the residents say that their efforts to clean and improve the area have been undermined

“as a result of poor quality tenants being given access to poor quality properties, which were suffering from a lack of investment by Accent”.

As we know, when areas fall into disrepair, they become a target for crime and we get a vicious circle of decline. Accent has an obligation not just to its existing tenants, but to the neighbours of its tenants, because its properties are not necessarily continuous on streets; they may be in small clusters and groups. Residents in neighbouring properties are also experiencing problems such as antisocial behaviour, fly-tipping and rat infestations owing to issues in the Accent-owned derelict properties. The crime figures from the previous three months indicate that in this relatively small village there have been 409 reported incidents, including 88 incidents of antisocial behaviour and 14 incidents of criminal damage. Arson is not uncommon at the derelict properties.

The feeling is that Accent has abandoned the community and I would like the Minister to ensure that it will not be allowed simply to walk away from its responsibilities. I understand that it is currently seeking permission from the Homes and Communities Agency to dispose of its properties on the private market, which means that it will put them up piecemeal for auction. However, a wholesale sell-off where the homes disperse into many ownerships would be the worst possible option for the community. The genuine fear is that that will lead to an influx of absentee landlords with no interest in the community buying and letting substandard properties to maximise their return and get a quick profit from housing benefit. That would be bad for the residents, future tenants and the wider community.

I would also like to mention the role of the Homes and Communities Agency, which in relation to Horden has been hugely disappointing and incredibly ineffective. It seems to have no long-term plan for the regeneration of housing in Horden. As an aside, I perhaps should have declared a non-pecuniary interest at the start. I am the secretary of the all-party group on housing in the north. We have had many presentations from housing associations and organisations with an interest in housing. The big issue that we face in the north and in particular in my constituency—in Easington, Horden, Blackhall and some of the other villages—is not so much a lack of housing, although there is a need for new housing, but the fact that the existing housing stock in many cases is very old. It needs modernising. We need some selective demolitions and the existing stock needs to be refashioned in a way that accommodates the needs of local populations. The Homes and Communities Agency should be taking a lead in developing that strategy.

The views that I have received on the effectiveness of the HCA are that its priority and primary concern seems to be the viability of the social landlords, of the housing association, rather than the legitimate concerns of the local community about the condition of their neighbourhoods and localities.

The Homes and Communities Agency and the Government have no strategic plan for housing in the north. Particularly in former industrial areas and especially in former coal mining areas, housing is often tied accommodation—houses were built to accommodate the workers—and part of the legacy of the coal mining industry. There is a failure to recognise that the problems with housing needs in the north are not the same as those faced, acute though they are, in London and the south-east. Housing in the north needs a different set of solutions and strategies. We certainly need more housing, but we also need to reshape our communities, replacing high-density colliery housing with more modern housing to meet the needs and aspirations of local communities.

You might be aware, Mr Owen, that these densely packed terrace houses have no gardens or parking facilities. They tend to have a path running along the front of the terrace and yards at the back. We need some selective demolition and some strategic oversight to open up these areas, as has happened with Easington colliery, where some excellent schemes have been carried out by the Durham Aged Mineworkers Homes Association, East Durham Homes and others. There is a model to follow there.

Will the Minister rule out the wholesale disposal of the properties on the private market? Everyone in the locality feels that that would be a retrograde step that would hurt the community in the short, medium and long term. Instead, I would like the Minister to intervene and to seek alternative options.

A homesteading scheme has been suggested, and I saw some coverage in the national news of schemes in Staffordshire, Liverpool and Middlesbrough. Homesteading involves a property being purchased by a first-time buyer at a significant discount. They then renovate the property as a home and are prohibited from selling the property for a specified period. I understand that the aim of that is to deter speculators, who would pick up the properties very cheaply, improve them and sell them on. If that happened, that would put us back in the same situation we are in now, where large amounts of property are in the hands of absentee landlords.

We need stable communities. Homesteading would help that, and the proceeds from any sales of such properties could be used to support the homesteading initiative or be reinvested in the remaining housing stock, to bring it up to a decent standard where it could then be re-let. It is an interesting idea that is worth considering, but significant investment is required to repair the properties in Horden and, to a lesser extent, in Blackhall. If it is a viable solution, I would welcome the Minister’s thoughts on it.

I highlight the community initiative of the Horden residents association. It has been extremely active in looking to establish a community-led co-operative similar to those in Liverpool and closer to home in Middlesbrough. It will be holding a meeting on Friday to explore the option further. Can the Minister provide an assurance that the Homes and Communities Agency will offer practical assistance to the residents association if it tries to pursue that option? Ideally, we would like a long-term investment strategy for former industrial communities, both for regeneration and redevelopment.

I understand that we are in a time of austerity, but if there is a political will, we can overcome any barriers on finance. With all due respect, I point out that huge spending commitments have been made recently—on High Speed 2, for example. My good and hon. Friend the Member for Gateshead (Ian Mearns), who is serving on the Committee considering that legislation, tells me that the estimates on the cost of HS2 vary between £40 billion and £50 billion. Already, £1 billion has been committed to acquisition, and the scheme has not yet got full parliamentary approval. The lifetime cost of replacing the Trident missile system is estimated to be in excess of £100 billion.

Those are just two items of Government spending. One is not coming to the north-east and the other’s success is based on the assumption that it will never be used. I am not asking for tens of millions of pounds or billions of pounds, but a similar level of commitment from the Government to former industrial communities. At the moment, we lack a national plan and the political will and resources to tackle this important issue.

I will conclude, because I would like to hear what the Minister has to say. Before that, I will ask him some questions and raise three specific issues. First, in the short term, will he use his influence with the HCA to ensure that Accent is not allowed to walk away from its responsibilities by disposing of its properties in a piecemeal fashion on the open market? That would be another betrayal of a community that feels it has already been betrayed by Accent.

In the medium term, will the Minister investigate the role and effectiveness of the Homes and Communities Agency? As a Government agency, it has clearly failed in Horden, and I am sure there are other examples. We need to work in the interests of the community, rather than in the interests of social housing providers; as we have seen with this case, they are not necessarily one and the same. In the long term, we need a national housing plan that recognises the unique needs of former industrial communities. We need not only more housing, but full-scale regeneration to ensure that our communities can succeed and thrive for future generations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning, Mr Owen. I congratulate the hon. Member for Easington (Grahame M. Morris) on securing a debate on this topic, which bears directly on his constituency.

First, I will respond to the specific points he raised about the challenges faced by his constituents who are living in places blighted by empty homes. I am absolutely committed to bringing empty homes back into use. Secondly, I will explain that our welfare reform programme is part of the solution—not part of the problem, as has been suggested by some. Thirdly, I will look more widely at the action we have taken to reduce empty homes and improve affordable housing for tenants. Finally, we need to acknowledge that we are fixing a broken housing market and reviving an economy that will give Horden and Blackhall the hope and economic future that they are looking for. We should bear in mind that in 2010, we inherited the lowest level of house building that this country has seen since 1923.

I am looking for some constructive help, so I do not want to have a row, but I point out with all due respect to the Minister that the issues we face in the north—I believe he represents a northern constituency, although it is not as far north as mine—are very different from those faced in the south and the south-east. The issue is not so much the lack of housing, but the lack of decent housing. That is why Labour concentrated on reaching the decent homes standard, particularly in the local authority stock.

That is the first time that I have heard the East Anglia coastline described as the north, but I will take that as a compliment for Great Yarmouth. If more people from the north want to visit our fantastic seaside resort this summer, we will be pleased to see everyone.

The hon. Gentleman made the point about what the Government are doing with housing programmes in the north more generally; I would point out that Durham is the fifth highest beneficiary in the entire country of the benefits introduced by the Government’s Help to Buy scheme. We are very much helping people in the north. Durham is not the only part of the north that is one of the higher beneficiaries of Help to Buy, let alone other schemes.

The hon. Gentleman painted a sobering picture of a town struggling with empty homes and the damaging impact that that can have on the wider community. Horden is in one of the most beautiful corners of the country. I appreciate that, having visited the north-east in the past few weeks: I visited Newcastle and took part in announcing the £40 million of devolved money that we have given to the local enterprise partnership there. That money is there for regeneration as well. The north-east has a lot to offer in terms of location and, as the hon. Gentleman says, environment, but the blight of empty homes is an issue.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that I keep a close eye on the effectiveness of the Homes and Communities Agency and have confidence in its work. In the local area that he discussed, the HCA has been working with Durham council and Accent, seeking to allow the two parties to reach an agreed way forward. He mentioned the examples that we have seen in the past few weeks of schemes, which I fully support, in Liverpool and elsewhere in the north and south of the country to get empty homes back into use and to get discounted sales to benefit local residents. I understand that Accent is currently working on a homesteading initiative, whereby, as he said, properties can be sold at a discount in return for the purchaser guaranteeing that the property will be their home for a specific period. That proposal will require the consent of the HCA, bearing in mind its objective to ensure value for money from public investment in social housing. As we have seen elsewhere in the country, such schemes can work very well.

The HCA is not only taking action in Horden, but working across the wider area to ensure that empty homes are brought back into use and that new affordable homes are delivered. I am pleased to report that the HCA has been working with Durham county council in nearby Seaham, for example, where it has entered into a joint venture agreement to provide a site for the new Seaham school of technology, as well as the delivery of more than 400 homes on HCA and council-owned land, of which a percentage will be affordable. I can tell the hon. Gentleman that more than 1,000 homes will be delivered in County Durham under the affordable homes programme, from more than £25 million of funding. As of the end of September 2014, 843 of those homes had been completed.

Empty homes on the scale we are talking about is a particular issue to the communities and the provider that the hon. Gentleman mentioned. To provide a point of comparison, a local arm’s length management organisation, East Durham Homes, also owns stock in the area, albeit with some different types of property—I acknowledge that—but it has a very low vacancy rate of less than 1%.

Some of the media coverage of the issues in Horden has seemed to imply that the removal of the spare room subsidy was part of the picture. That is not an implication that I accept. The removal of the subsidy not only balances fairness in a system based on what the previous Government did in the private rented sector, but is encouraging the more effective use of social housing by addressing issues of overcrowding and under-occupancy. Let us be clear about the facts: in this country, 820,000 spare rooms in social housing in working-age households were being paid for by housing benefit, while about a quarter of a million households live in overcrowded accommodation. The removal of the subsidy has already introduced greater fairness between claimants living in the social and private rented sectors, where benefit entitlement has been based on household need for more than two decades. In the current climate, let us also remember that it is achieving savings of more than £1 million per day.

More widely, we have made significant changes to encourage local authority and housing association landlords such as Accent to provide decent homes for their tenants. We have put in place measures that have brought empty homes to their lowest level since records began. Bringing empty properties back into use helps to support local economic growth. We have brought forward a number of measures related to that. Self-financing reforms give local authority landlords a long-term, stable source of funding—on average, 15% more to spend on their homes than previously. The new homes bonus rewards local authorities for not only delivering new homes but bringing empty homes back into use. Local authorities have received £3.4 billion from that, and 100,000 empty homes have been brought back into use.

Durham’s unitary authority is the 24th largest earner of bonus funding in the country: taking account of the recent allocations, it will have received almost £24 million by the end of the financial year. We have set up a £200 million direct funding programme for community groups, councils and housing associations, that has so far created just shy of 5,000 homes from empty property, with the potential to deliver more. That has provided opportunities for apprenticeships, training and employment, as well as homes and better neighbourhoods for local people. We have promised almost £2.5 billion of funding going forward to 2016 to make social homes—to take the hon. Gentleman’s point—decent. In addition, the affordable housing programme prospectus for the years to 2018 makes it clear that private registered providers of social housing are expected to take a strategic and rigorous approach to considering vacant properties as part of their active asset management.

We have not only made substantial progress in social and affordable housing, but are fixing the broken housing market. We have to look at things in the context of some 700,000 new homes having been delivered, including just shy of 220,000 affordable homes. We have got house building up to a seven-year high. Councils are giving planning permission at a rate that we have not seen for a long time—650 homes a day—and local people now have a real say in local development. That turnaround bears testament to our approach to housing and planning—as well as to our action to cut the deficit, which has sustained low interest rates and economic growth—giving local people local power in planning while ensuring that we are building the homes that we need and getting empty homes back into use on a scale that we have not seen before.

I recognise the particular circumstances in Horden that the hon. Gentleman has highlighted today. We need to see beautiful places such as Horden thriving, but we must also ensure that we fix the broken market so that they can deliver on that. That is why we are taking action in the wider Durham area, and nationally, to tackle the underuse of social housing, reduce the numbers of empty homes, and deliver the affordable homes that we need. The Homes and Communities Agency is working with local partners to seek a solution to the problems being experienced in Horden. If it would be useful, I will be happy to facilitate a meeting between the hon. Gentleman and the HCA so that he can discuss some of the ideas that he has outlined. I will take that up with him after the debate. I wish all parties well with the work that they are doing.

Sitting suspended.