Leeds ’empty homes’ conference – time to drop the obsession with demolition and new-build

Good news that Leeds City Council is talking today to private landlords about what can be done about empty homes in the city.

Especially good news that organisations like Canopy – a self-help, community housing project that renovates derelict houses to create decent homes for people that are homeless – are in on the conference.

Given that no-one knows where the money’s going to come from to build new affordable homes any more, it feels like a great opportunity for the Council to show proper civic leadership and bring the refurbishment of empty homes closer to the heart of its housing policy.

But first, how many properties are we talking about?

Since the council announced the conference was going to happen the figure that’s been bandied about as the number of private and public empty homes in Leeds is 15,883.

But that figure, which seems to have been picked up from a report in the Yorkshire Evening Post, refers to the situation in March this year. By August, the last time the Council gave an update, the number had gone up to around 17,000. It’s a rough figure because the Council doesn’t release precise numbers regularly, but updates a pretty imprecise graph on its website every now and then.

Here’s the latest version of the graph. You can click on it to see it better:

Just as important as the tall blue lines on the graph representing the overall number of empty properties are the purple one in the middle and the little white one down at the bottom. These show the number of private properties that have been empty for over 6 months (purple) and the number of council properties (white) empty for the same time.

And it’s those long-term empty properties – 7,500 in private hands and between 500 and 800 owned by the council – where there is room for manoeuvre under the law.

Plenty to be going on with.

It’s worth noting that the number of council-owned empty properties – or “voids” as they like to call them – appears to have fallen quite a bit over the past two years. Who knows whether that’s because the properties have been refurbished by the council and brought back into use, passed on to an organisation like Canopy, or just demolished.

So what about that rethink?

On the right all the way down this post are clickable photos of boarded-up properties taken on a fairly random swing through parts of south Leeds a few weeks ago. Some are just empty. Many others have been condemned by the council as “obsolete” and are earmarked for the bulldozer as part of a “regeneration” programme.

They’ll be knocked down and grassed over or replaced by new-builds that will cost an arm and a leg and probably (if past regeneration efforts are anything to go by) won’t achieve the desired aim of improving the lives of the individuals and families living in the area.

Lest we forget, the track record of council-led housing regeneration/renewal in Leeds is not up to much: Quarry Hill, Seacroft, Little London, the Leek St flats, Holbeck Towers…

It speaks volumes that a large part of the £180m that’s being spent on the latest PFI regeneration project in the city is going towards regenerating areas of housing built by the council in the 60s and 70s in an earlier less than successful stab at renewal (that’s what they called regeneration in those days).

So, in this cash-strapped day and age, isn’t it time that the council – especially where it concerns Victorian and Edwardian terraces – finally gets rid of the obsession with demolition and new-build that it’s been clinging to for decades?

What if?

What if as a result of today’s conference Leeds council tried to find ways of helping loads of people and groups to do up empty houses in the areas where they live? What if the council began to see an empty terraced house as an asset that plenty of people would happily exploit – an unemployed person, a group of friends, a would-be DIY expert, a couple at risk of being made homeless… Anyone.

So, what if – as a start – the council gave away all its long-term empty properties?

What if it then made a serious effort to requisition as many long-term empty properties from the private sector as it could, paying the market price if it had to? What if it gave those houses away too or offered them at a peppercorn rent for refurbishment by people eager to learn new skills, find work or create a home?

Funnily enough, giving the houses away would be a cheaper and greener option than the traditional demolition/new build route. Earlier this year we worked out the unit cost of some new houses being built by the council on land in Beeston where several rows of terraces used to stand. When we factored in the costs of acquiring the terraced houses, paying compensation and demolishing them on top of the cost of the new construction, the total per house came out at £315,000.

So for every one new build you could bring at least 3 empty properties back into use. And give people an opportunity to make a real difference to where they live.

Go on, Leeds City Council. Be bold!

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12 Responses to Leeds ’empty homes’ conference – time to drop the obsession with demolition and new-build

  1. Alison says:

    My partner and I recently bought a Beeston Hill (through-)terrace house. It was in a fairly bad state and needed everything except a new boiler and new roof. For c.£25,000 we did all the essential work, including masses of insulation, patching up the roof, A-grade double glazing and new doors, new bathroom and kitchen and decoration throughout, new wiring, radiators, err… trying to think what else. Anyway, you get the picture. Oh, and much of that was done by experts, although we did our fair share of DIY. Thus for the £300,000 you mention, you could refurbish around 12 houses. More, probably, given economies of scale.

    On a similar note, have you noticed that the Beverleys development seems to have rebuilt houses that are just as small and cramped together as before?! Ludicrous. I know they’re probably not back-to-backs, which are apparently ‘undesirable’ (although I’d suggest that most first-time buyers across the country would jump at the chance of one), but there has been no finesse, no imagination used to redesign the plot. I’m just dreading seeing what they’ll do with the street after street of homes round here awaiting the PFI scheme redevelopment next year… Grrrr. Sorry, rant over. Interesting article, as always.

  2. Cheers Alison, that figure of £25,000 seems to be about the going rate for a refurb according to everybody – except the people who do the surveys for the council. Have seen some mad off-the-wall refurb cost estimations presented as “evidence” for the case in favour of demolition being the best option.

    Haven’t been back to the Beverleys (which is the very development that’s costing £315,000 per house) since it was rubble. Must pay it a visit.

    When I said you could get three times as many houses from refurbs I was thinking of the council paying a max of £75,000 for a compulsory purchase of a private long-term empty property plus the £25,000 for doing it up. If the council handed their 600-odd long term empties over gratis then yes, you’d get 12 for every new build.

    Keep ranting!

  3. Are these properties being knocked down because they don’t want to sell them (counter-intuitive, considering the cost!), or are they being knocked down because no-one wants to buy them.

    It seems they’d rather knocked them down, build something they can sell, and make a profit regarding teh cost of demolition and rebuilding vs value of the newly built house.

    This is pure business. Welcome to uncontrolled capitalism.

    • Southleedsfan says:

      They don’t think like capitalists, on the contrary they seem to actually believe that terrace houses are ‘obsolete’ it’s scandalous. People do want these houses nut as soon as the council moves in it immediatly undermines investor confidence in the area because there is never any clarity, just a cloud of potential demolitions hanging over the place! Who would ever invest in an area like that, meanwhile business confidence fails, shops close down, bus routes stop and this is the Market responding to the councils plans!! In the end there is blight, no food to buy other than takeaways and the council still trying to buy houses off people who don’t want to sell just so they can demolish them!! I’m just thinking of stourton here. There’s a war memorial there to the people of stourton… The troops fought for thier beloved place. But what happened? The council demolished stourton. Now there is nothing left except the war memorial, the houses have been replaced by sheds!!! These disgraces must stop!!!

      • Southleedsfan
        Agreed. The council’s been locked up for so long doing renewal/regeneration deals with big developers that they have lost their grip on reality. Ironically, there’s a great video on permanent display in the (council-run) City Museum in which residents are filmed saying what all of us who’ve lived in them know to be true – that there’s nothing wrong with back-to-backs.

        And agreed too that it’s Council intervention that has usually kick-started the decline and subsequent collapse of our traditional communities. And then they try and claim the credit for sorting it out with their “professional regeneration” partners!

  4. Southleedsfan says:

    Here here Leeds citizen!!!!! Let’s get the council to do this and stop destroying our places, our history and one of our most unique assets! Why are the council knocking down perfectly good semi detached houses to build….semi detached houses!! The new builds are not of half the quality of our old beloved terraces and we need to stop these “regeneration proffesionals” from thinking the best route is to wipe our communities off the face of the earth!!! I hope for once these people will listen and stop all the cloak and dagger stuff!!!

    • Mike Chitty says:

      Just ask yourself – ‘Who IS actually benefitting from all this?’ And then look at how they have taken up positions of power and influence. How they sponsor ‘regeneration conferences’ make promises of jobs and so on….All soon becomes crystal clear….

  5. Mike Chitty says:

    As Sue Townsend helped to show in My Heartlands from 2001 http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2005/apr/24/society.politicsphilosophyandsociety and then again in 2005 http://www.guardian.co.uk/politics/2001/may/20/uk.news regeneration is not about upvc windows and doors. But until we manage to reclaim Leeds back from the Property Industry and focus it once again on providing a platform from which all can develop their potential….

  6. The rejection of refurbishment and its many social economic and environmental benefits has come at a very high cost. We write from Liverpool where an alleged 12 thousand or more homes were emptied for bulldozers and the promised replacement homes that never came. Taxpayers have spent as much on renting tin sheet to cover the windows than the refurbishment of whole streets would have cost.
    We continue to seek alternatives to demolition and are uplifted by this blog it’s financial analysis and links. Thanks.
    As they say you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time !

  7. Meg Howarth says:

    Ludicrous current VAT policy in which demolition and new-build are VAT-free, refurbishment VAT-liable (result of developer lobbying, it seems) has to be rectified to VAT on both. Also need LVT land-tax, making it more expensive to keep homes empty than to bring them/land in to use. Landbanking is a social evil.

  8. A genuinely good article. Cheers!!

  9. carole thompson says:

    My house had a fire and was insured but they desided not to pay out now property getting badley vandalised what could be done to help

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