Wednesday 11 February
Housing (Horden, County Durham)
Grahame M. Morris 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 on 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.