Friday, January 30, 2009
Unfortunately the story did not end there. Figures uncovered by the Liberal Democrats today reveal that the military’s housing vacancy rate is as bad as ever. With an estimated 9000 empty homes the military’s vacancy rate is approximately 20%. Seven times the national average and around ten times the rate of an average housing association. The customary response from the MOD to accusations of high vacancy levels is that they are a special case. And indeed they are. The military needs a flexible housing stock to accommodate changing operational needs. Most people would agree that service people returning from a tour of duty abroad need a decent home to return to, and that means keeping a greater vacancy rate than other housing providers.
But what is so significant about these figures is that they don't reppresent pristine properties waiting to welcome new residents. A BBC’s investigation for the Today programme last year knocked the MOD’s argument right off its pedestal. Visiting a selection of empty military homes the BBC discovered that most were in no fit state to house anybody. Left totally unmanaged and, amazingly – unsecured, the homes fell into semi-dereliction. The Military's argument that they are mothballed awaiting a returning battalion from Iraq is rendered absurd and faintly insulting to service men and women. The one empty MOD property I saw last year that was in good condition (with windows open and heating on- presumably to stop condensation rather than heat the atmosphere and attract intruders) ended up a squat .
So what went wrong, and how come the Military still own so much residential property? It turns out that many of these homes are the very same ones that were sold to Annington homes in 1996. Discovering later that they didn’t have enough housing, the MOD leased back many of the homes it sold. Now, saddled with high rents and dilapidation clauses, leaving them empty now is even more wasteful to the MOD than it was in the early 1990s. Can anything be done? I think it can. There are housing providers that are perfectly suited to these circumstances. Shortlife housing providers are very good at making use of the most unpromising buildings. They can help with repairs and renovation and provide what these homes need most – occupants. If military needs change and the MOD need them back, shortlife housing agreements allow for them to be rapidly returned to the owner. The MOD gets residents and a management service to stop the properties from deteriorating, Neighbours loose an eyesore and source of anti social behaviour. Lots of people get homes to live in. We put this to Defence Estates last year and on the Today programme last February and they said that they would do it. So what’s happened in the last year? Nothing. They haven’t put any properties out to shortlife and their vacancy rate has gone up. Shame on them.
Friday, January 23, 2009
I have been resisting the temptation to post anything about so-called posh squats up until now. They appear to be getting plenty of publicity without my help. Today, however, I have spoken to six journalists about them, including, if she will forgive me for bracketing her in such company, Vanessa Feltz. There is no doubt that this has become a big story.
It started in Brighton, then Upper Grovesnor Street, then Green Park and now Park Lane. Some of the poshest addresses in the UK have become squatted by what appears to be a new breed of lifestyle squatters. In total their number is tiny but the fact that they have infiltrated such prestigious neighbourhoods gives them access to the media in a quite phenomenal way. What amazes me is the uncritical way they have been reported. Both the Telegraph and the Mail managed to print articles on squatting without uttering the words scrounger, freeloader or sponger - unthinkable just a few weeks ago. The recession moves in mysterious ways!
Friday, January 16, 2009
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
With the enormous new “Liverpool One” shopping centre taking shape, a revitalised Pier Head and a new cruise liner dock their can be little doubt that the city centre is looking forward with confidence.
A mile or two away however and regeneration of Liverpool’s housing stock looks less rosy. Anfield contains a greater volume of empty homes than anywhere else in the UK. Liverpool’s housing regeneration was based on trying to attract the housing boom into areas of the city with depressed housing markets. Large volumes of homes were bought up and left vacant in the hope that they would appeal as large development sites to big housing developers. Unfortunately it hasn’t worked, and with the housing boom over there is nothing to attract.
Like many other towns and cities Liverpool has it’s fair share of vacant new flats too, but nowhere has the combination of overoptimistic housing developers, and regenerators left so much damage. The legacy of culture for this city is surely bright, but the housing legacy is in need of urgent attention. This superbly edited video speaks a thousand words.
Monday, January 05, 2009
In the meantime the one thing that could knock some sense into this ludicrous situation is the council using its enforcement powers to force the owners to get then occupied. Councillor Harsant’s comments don’t lead me to think this is imminent. But there’s nothing to stop the council doing this and forcing the owners to accept the true market rental value. It may sound draconian, but to do otherwise is simply storing up a bigger financial hit for the owner later, and putting the prospect of housing market recovery ever further away.
Friday, January 02, 2009
But look what we are left with. A housing market so dysfunctional that despite record levels of housing need, we have the retched sight of nearly a million empty homes. And policy so out of touch;that perfectly good homes are being destroyed to make way for regeneration projects that will never happen. It’s time to think again about who controls our housing.
At heart I’m an optimist. What gives me faith is that the skills of finding and building homes lie deep in the DNA of our species. Just a few generations ago we all created our own homes. Much of the world still does. But here those skills are untapped as housing has been commoditised by housebuilders, speculators and governments. Between them they have let us down. Surely the lesson of this year is that we should never again let so few people make decisions about our housing at our expense again.
Now, with little prospect of profit, many speculators are turning their back on housing altogether. This leaves a gap, and I believe a unique opportunity for you to influence future decisions about housing in your area. What better place to start than vacant property that should be homes.
My hope is that in 2009 we all become housing activists. If we do, I think there is every chance that what emerges from the wreckage will be a housing market that serves people over profits and leaves a legacy we can have pride in for a generation.