Nearly 200 homes in east Durham communities have been left empty and boarded up – encouraging crime and damaging the quality of life for their neighbours, an MP has warned.
Easington MP Grahame Morris urged ministers to intervene as he warned that large numbers of homes in Horden and Blackhall, in his constituency, had been allowed to fall into disrepair.
Speaking in the House of Commons, he said social housing provider Accent had allowed properties to fall into disrepair through lack of investment and by failing to vet new tenants properly.
Mr Morris also warned that changes to housing benefit had meant properties went empty, because they had two bedrooms but were occupied by single people – who had become liable for the bedroom tax.
He won a promise from Local Government Minister Brandon Lewis to look into the problems faced by the villages.
The minister also said he would ask the Homes and Communities Agency, the official body which regulates social housing providers, to meet Mr Morris to discuss his concerns.
Leading the debate, Mr Morris said the villages’ problems followed the closure of Horden colliery in 1987, which among other things led to a decline in the local population over time.
Accent managed 361 properties in Horden and Blackhall, Mr Morris said. But 130 of its 220 homes in Horden were currently empty, as well as 30 of the 141 properties in Blackhall.
He warned: “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.”
Proposals to improve the homes had been scrapped following the introduction of the bedroom tax, he said, because the only way to ensure the homes were occupied had been to rent them to single people, and this was no longer possible.
But Mr Morris said that local residents complained Accent had not taken good care of its housing stock for many years before the bedroom tax was introduced.
He said: “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.”
The result had been crime, antisocial behaviour, fly-tipping and rat infestations in the empty homes.
The MP urged the minister to ensure the Government invested in the village to improve the housing stock, to replace high-density colliery housing with more modern housing.
One option could be an approach known as “homesteading”, in which homes are sold at a substantial discount to buyers who then spend money to improve the properties, he said.
However, Mr Morris said some public funding would be needed. He told the minister: “I understand that we are in a time of austerity, but if there is a political will, we can overcome any barriers on finance.”
Mr Lewis said:
“He painted a sobering picture of a town struggling with empty homes and the damaging impact that that can have on the wider community. Horden is in one of the most beautiful corners of the country. I appreciate that, having visited the north-east in the past few weeks.”
“We need to see beautiful places such as Horden thriving, but we must also ensure that we fix the broken market so that they can deliver on that.”
Claire Stone, Accent’s director of communities and assets, said:
“We have worked really hard to find the best possible solution for these homes and have had a dedicated project team in place with Durham County Council and the Homes and Communities Agency to explore all the options. We had hoped that other social landlords with stock in the area would take them on, but unfortunately this has not proved possible. We have therefore reluctantly decided to dispose of the properties as they fall empty. We will continue to work closely with residents and local representatives to ensure that they are fully supported throughout this process.
“As a responsible social landlord, we need to ensure that our stock is fit for the future. We are under an obligation to secure the best possible value for money for all of our residents into the future and our robust asset management strategy has identified that these properties are not sustainable for us as a social landlord.”
Newcastle Evening Chronicle, 12 Feb 2015