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Boom or Abandonment: housing conflicts in British cities

Anne Power and Katharine Mumford
Chartered Institute of Housing (February 2003)

Should we subsidise high-cost development in the over-congested, over-priced South East as the government's recently launched Sustainable Communities Plan proposes? According to Professor Anne Power, Britain's leading expert on urban neighbourhoods, and co-author Katharine Mumford, public money should go towards levelling the playing field with struggling inner cities in the North. Their research shows that there are huge opportunities for new growth in these neighbourhoods - and seizing them would bring benefits to the economy, the environment and social cohesion.

This book argues that the boom in the congested South East will start to hamper prosperity unless it spills over to the North. It might. Many communities in the overdeveloped South are fighting against further expansion in housing, traffic or road capacity. Often portrayed as selfish 'nimbyism', these public protests against development are a predictable reaction to living in one of the most congested regions in the world, only an hour to two from depleted regions with spare capacity.

The publication argues that

  • While London and the South East face high and fast-rising house prices, the North and Midlands show acute signs of over-supply, falling prices and housing abandonment in older inner city areas. To overcome this dual housing crisis, the government must discover how to spread success from the desperately congested South East to cities sometimes less than 100 miles away.

  • Many inner cities have become too depleted, with too little work, too much poverty, and eventually too few people. This leads social conditions to unravel: schools close, buses run less often, shops and banks disappear and criminal networks thrive in the vacuum of left behind spaces. The one thing that does not decline is traffic as people who have forsaken the city return for its amenities and for work. But congestion and commuting time are high prices to pay for allowing urban neighbourhoods to fall into such decay.

  • A key to the revival of cities as a whole is the vitality of city centres. But this vitality must be extended to inner city neighbourhoods - perhaps 3,000 of them in the country as a whole - that have become difficult to live in and, once they enter a cycle of housing decline, difficult to rescue. Notting Hill and Islington in London, Victoria Park in Manchester and Gosforth in Newcastle are examples of historically poorer neighbourhoods that have undergone dramatic transformations.

  • Inner city areas are full of unused, empty spaces where buildings have fallen into disuse, homes have been demolished or earlier plans unrealised. There are many large urban development sites, particularly in cities like Manchester and Newcastle, crying out for reuse. Techniques for bringing difficult urban sites into productive use are now well established and imaginative developers, engineers, architects, planners and regeneration managers are seizing the opportunity.

  • Inner city areas offer excellent locations. Smaller households are on the increase, and often prefer the 'buzz' and access of cities to sedate suburbia. Reusing buildings - from Victoria terraces to warehouses and 1960s office blocks - has worked near recovering centres. Reviving council housing is harder, given its image, its communal layouts and its neglected buildings. But small-scale selective demolition (as against large-scale 'bulldozing'), resident involvement, intensive management, reinvestment, broadening incomes and tenures have reinstated desperately declining estates.

  • The 'make or break' issues are crime, disorder and jobs. Tackling rogue landlords, drug dealing, unregistered, uninsured cars and car dumping, street prostitution, child abuse, youth gangs, knife carrying and other violent abuse requires detailed, swift co-operative action and strong security. Combating crime requires active policing, a visible street presence, supervision, repair and upgrading activity, all signals that the neighbourhood matters. These activities require an active local workforce, generating new jobs.

  • The key issue is reducing the amount of building on greenfield land, stopping over-building and pointless competition between surrounding local authorities for people. Urban neighbourhoods can attract pioneering new households. Jobs will flow where people go.

Anne Power argues that semi-abandoned urban neighbourhoods across the country will inevitably regain status because 'In a land-short, land-hungry country we are reaching the limits of environmental tolerance and we have no choice but to reuse and recycle what we so badly damaged in the last 200 years.'


For further information: contact Anne Power on 020-7955-6330 (email: anne.power@lse.ac.uk); Jonathan Brassington at the Chartered Institute of Housing on 020-7520-3386 (email: press@cih.org); or Romesh Vaitilingam on 07768-661095 (email: romesh@compuserve.com|).

Notes for editors: 'Boom or Abandonment: Housing Conflicts in British Cities' by Katharine Mumford and Anne Power is published by the Chartered Institute of Housing.

The book will be launched at the London School of Economics (LSE) at 4.30pm on Wednesday 19 February 2003. Contact Marissa Parry 020 7955 6330 (email: m.parry@lse.ac.uk|) for further details.

Anne Power is Professor of Social Policy and Deputy Director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion (CASE) at LSE; Katharine Mumford was Research Officer at the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the time of writing.