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Thursday, 18 July, 2002, 12:27 GMT 13:27 UK
Housing crisis in northern England
Empry and deteriorating homes
Empty homes: Urban crisis in some cities

Attention tends to focus on house prices in the south-east. But the problems faced by northern England are far more dramatic.

It's not unheard of in London for someone to give a flat a lick of paint, strip the floorboards and see the value go up by 10,000.

But how would you feel if you spent 74,000 on home improvements only to discover the property was no longer worth more than 5,000.

A graphic explaining the empty homes crisis
That is what happened to one home owner in the north-west and it sums up the different kind of housing crisis faced by northern England.

According to a recent investigation by MPs, large areas of northern English cities are in danger of becoming a devastated "no-man's land".

The report published in March found that there were approximately 750,000 empty properties across England.

On top of this, there are an estimated 850,000 homes in areas at risk of completely collapsing in value. The true figures may be far worse.

Newcastle upon Tyne is an example of a city with complicated housing problems caused by a historic mix of unemployment and declining population.

The city's Quayside is a 1990s regeneration success story - housing, employment and leisure in an area that has lifted the city.

But a few miles away, there are streets of empty properties apparently abandoned to the vandals.

Those who can't get out are trapped in a home decreasing in value all the time.

Subtle jigsaw

Housing departments were the big losers of the cuts in council spending in the 1980s.

Coronation Street
Coronation Street: No longer wanted
Today, they say that the legacy is in their inability to regenerate communities and intervene where the housing market is suffering.

In turn, housing is part of the subtle urban package including transport, planning and education that makes an area attractive to employers and residents alike.

Poor housing is not the cause of decline, say the planners, but it is the most visible symptom of where things have gone wrong.

Andrew Bennett, the MP who chaired the report published in March, warned the government that it had to act to save northern cities.

"We visited Burnley, Bootle, Liverpool and Manchester," he said at the time.

"We were shocked to see the scale of the problem of empty homes and low demand with row upon row of terraced houses lying abandoned.

"Many people cannot sell their houses. They face negative equity and suffer very high crime rates, anti-social neighbours and collapsing local services.

"This is a massive problem and getting worse."

Market failure

Gwyneth Taylor, head of housing at the Local Government Association, said that there was a serious issue with "market failure" in the north.

A new housing estate
New homes: New des res
"In many areas, housing problems are related to the need for neighbourhood and economic regeneration," she said.

"What we hope the government will do is extend the 'pathfinder projects' for areas where there is low demand, abandonment and home owners trapped because they can't sell."

One pilot in Salford will see the council help people take their mortgage from abandoned areas into new homes, leaving the negative equity behind.

Then the old area can then be turned into something new for the city - not necessarily housing.

Northern crisis: Pilot areas for special help
Greater Manchester
East Lancs
Oldham and Rochdale
South Yorks
"In some cities there has been significant population decline," says Ms Taylor. "Councils will need to demolish whole areas. But then they can replace these with green spaces or business parks."

So is this a return to the slum clearances of the 1960s that changed the urban face of Britain? Not quite. What housing experts want is joined-up policy on housing, planning, transport and urban revival - rather than knee-jerk bulldozing and rebuilding.

Hull is another of the areas sharing the first 25m handed out by government.

While Manchester and Newcastle suffer the "two-speed" problem of rising and falling markets at the same time, Hull's head of housing Janet Whipps says her city has witnessed a rapidly growing problem of people moving out of the city centre for good.

"What we have is an oversupply of housing such as small terraces that nobody wants and an undersupply of the kind of homes that people aspire to," she said.

"We now have approximately 10,000 empty properties in the city - a third of council owned.

Hull is now trying to knock heads together with the cash from Whitehall to work out how to rescue these areas, but it says that there will not be a return to the wholesale demolition of previous decades.

The problem may appear insurmountable. But Janet Whipps says that the fact that Whitehall has recognised the north's plight, is a cause for optimism.

"This is going to take perhaps 10 or 20 years to solve," she said.

"We don't know yet how much money we are going to get but the fact that northern housing has moved up the Whitehall agenda is a step in the right direction."

See also:

18 Jul 02 | Politics
20 Mar 02 | England
26 Feb 02 | Business
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