The Housing Market Renewal Programme in Northern England: Lessons from the past, challenges for the future.

By Brendan Nevin – Director of North Housing Consulting

On Friday 24th January 2014 Brendan was the guest speaker at a seminar as part of the Urban Studies Seminar Series. Here is a briefing of his talk.

During the 1980s many older post industrial towns and cities in the North and Midlands of England exhibited low demand for social housing which was unpopular by virtue of its design or location. This fall in demand was driven in part by employment and population decline, but also by changes in tenure preferences and consumer choice. As a result, for 15 years, area based programmes which were targeted at abandonment or low demand were almost exclusively targeted at large concentrations of social housing, and the prevailing view amongst policy makers and many academics was that the “problem” of neighbourhood decline was related to the over provision of one particular tenure type. During the middle of the 1990s however different patterns of neighbourhood decline began to emerge in cities such as Liverpool and Manchester. Terraced multi tenure neighbourhoods which had been saved from clearance in the 1970s and subject to expensive publically funded renewal also began to show signs of abandonment and a collapse in house prices.

The towns and cities which experienced this new wave of neighbourhood decline had similar characteristics in respect of employment and population loss, but also at the core of the urban areas they shared a general breakdown in the urban form, with a loss of shops and facilities, dereliction from factory closure and the previous demolition of unpopular poorly designed social housing estates. This emerging problem initially created a panic amongst policy makers and local politicians as the speed and scale of change overwhelmed the resources available to address the problem, and the problem itself was poorly understood.

Following research by amongst others Bramley et al and the Centre For Urban and Regional Studies at Birmingham during the period 1998-2001 a better understanding of the dynamics of change emerged. The persistent outflow of households had been facilitated at a sub regional level by market driven planning policies, the increasing social segregation of the inner cities resulted and in many places the demand for housing became dependent upon a demographic profile which was aging and not being replaced by inward movement. The resulting demolition programmes had largely been reactive and area based regeneration at neighbourhood level had been insufficient to address the poor environment of large swathes of the inner city.

Following a House of Commons Select Committee Inquiry in 2002 the Government announced a Market Renewal programme with a complimentary Housing Market Renewal Fund (HMRF). The market renewal approach aimed to coordinate housing, planning and economic policy at a sub regional level to ensure that: house building reinforced urban areas; that labour markets were developed through public policy and job creation; and that failed and declining neighbourhoods were supported through refurbishment , clearance and rebuilding resourced by the HMRF and a cocktail of other public and private sector funding regimes. The HMRF was targeted at 26 local authorities in nine sub regional partnerships and over the period 2002-2011 was allocated £2.2 bn of HMRF resources before being prematurely closed six years early under the Coalition Governments austerity measures.

The programme which is continued post 2011 in a residual form by individual local authorities and partnerships , has to date refurbished around 120,000 properties and demolished 35,000 with a similar number constructed. The future focus of the local authorities who are charged with finishing incomplete neighbourhood programmes will be to facilitate new supply and rebuilding on cleared sites. To that effect Joint Venture Companies and Public Private Partnerships are being developed utilising a limited amount of public resource to deliver new build programmes over the next decade. The limited amount of public subsidy available post 2015 inevitably will mean that some more marginal neighbourhoods may struggle to attract investment, while even in areas with more robust markets it will also be difficult to develop sub market housing for more disadvantaged groups.

The programme exhibited some areas of success in reducing vacancies, increasing population and securing public and private investment (around £7bn),however these achievements were not evenly distributed and were heavily skewed towards the larger cities which were experiencing employment growth during the long economic upswing ( Manchester/Salford being the best example). Other areas such as Hull, Stoke and East Lancashire experienced continued relative or absolute decline and fared less well. Economic performance was not the only factor which determined outcomes, the quality of governance and the extent to which the area had acquired the capacity to facilitate and manage change were critical factors. These skills and abilities were partly a product of historical Government investment in place based regeneration. In the bigger cities there has been a forty year partnership between central and local government to invest in renewal and change management. Conversely non metropolitan areas which exhibit substantial disadvantage and decline such as East Lancashire had received little priority in English regeneration policy and therefore had a very low skills base amongst politicians and practitioners to plan, design and execute complex market restructuring programmes.

The reductions in public expenditure imposed by the Coalition Government have left England without an urban renewal budget for the first time in 60 years. While the HMR programme will have reconfigured most of the multi tenure neighbourhoods which exhibited the worst decline by the end of this decade, there are many neighbourhoods containing tens of thousands of dwelling refurbished by the public sector in the 1970s and 1980s which have begun the long march to obsolescence. It is likely therefore that twenty years from now the State will need to return to this issue and rebuild from scratch the capacity to renew marginal places. In that context what did the HMR programme tell us that future generations need to take into account? Firstly it will have taken 30 years to renew places which failed in the mid 1990s, this disrupts lives and creates uncertainties for two generations of families and children and is unacceptable in a relatively affluent society; Secondly market volatility worked against certainty, made financial planning difficult and exposed the prevailing orthodoxy that public subsidy can always be reduced if Government works with markets to obtain socially just outcomes – there were times during the period 2002-2011 where public sector funding needed to be increased substantially to smooth out market fluctuations; Thirdly the failure to integrate economic and housing renewal policy and programmes meant that in most areas there were no improvements in employment or income, leaving the 85 per cent of residents who were untouched by the investment programmes in no better place to maintain homes or pay the higher housing costs associated with a sustainable long term housing market with thriving neighbourhoods.

Brendan Nevin led the programme of Housing Market research at CURS 1998-2001, he was then seconded to the ODPM in 2002 to develop the framework for HMR and subsequently led on two bids for resources for the programme from the Comprehensive Spending Review. At different times he managed the HMR partnerships in North Staffordshire and Merseyside and also worked with Manchester/Salford, East Lancashire and Birmingham and Sandwell developing housing market analysis and strategic policy and investment responses through the decade from inception to closure.

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