Taking back the empties

In the old days if you missed a TV programme, well that was it, you’d missed it. The wretched iPlayer (and what-have you) “catch up” TV phenomenon now means that, as well as a dirty great reading pile at the weekend, I generally also have to get abreast of last week’s telly viewing.  Particularly if there was anything in respect of the built environment.  Or housing trends. Or community empowerment.  

 Yesterday it was a programme about all three, as I finally caught up with the excellent The Great British Property Scandal made by the redoubtable George Clarke for Channel 4, and shown in its original form a year ago.

Mr Clarke has been acting for the coalition government as “Empty homes adviser” since April of this year and his updated programme examined the hundreds of thousands of housing units laid waste across the UK, much of it in the hands of the local authorities of course and, although a substantial amount of this quantum is only really suitable for demolition, there is much that could be saved at huge benefit to the nation. 

The number of empty homes is estimated at more than a million and, with more than two million families in need of a home, it is indeed, as Mr Clarke so rightly says, nothing short of scandalous. This is the most potent exposé that I have ever seen of the iniquitous “Pathfinder” or Housing Market Renewal (HMR) schemes of the Prescott years, where whole estates were bulldozed and communities spread to the four winds. 

Thank goodness for some clear thinking at last. And what a lamentable state we find ourselves in. The worst of it being that this is still regeneration thinking in some quarters: In all the sessions I attended of last year’s select committee on regeneration, most committee members were so bereft of ideas that all they could come up with was a plea to revert to the old HMR schemes (as a surefire way, I guess, of keeping government grant flowing) with concomitant wringing of hands. Well, as I reported it at the time; it was bankrupt then. And it is more than bankrupt now.


George Clarke is a brave man. Brave to accept a role with this government, in this climate, as empty homes adviser. Brave to expose the fact that it is money that talks (old school developers will always pay lots of money for key sites, irrespective of what is on them).  And brave, in particular, to come out on the right side of the West Kensington and Gibbs Green protest against the demolition of their estates.

At one point Mr Clarke (in an interview with the local MP, Andy Slaughter) described the Hammersmith proposal as “systematic clearance” to which Mr Slaughter remonstrated mildly to the extent that he didn’t like to adopt inflammatory language, but that was what it undoubtedly was. 

Some nice footage of the estates in the sunshine and some touching interviews with residents (the best ones with the children) brought home the message: communities are the most precious things we have.  But they don’t count for much when the land is worth so much. And that is wrong. We are at risk of understanding the price of everything and the value of nothing.


The sad thing is that short-term politics and voter sentiment count for much more than ideals. Grant Shapps (who was, of course, moved on from housing minister to “higher office” in September) gave a hint of the answer for Mr Clarke if he wants to make a difference: under localism, he should align himself to a number of can-do local authorities across the country, provided they are politically stable. That way he could, at least, achieve pockets of delivery, in a decentralised system. Failing that, I predict his palpable frustration will deepen.


I was pleased to see that David Ireland of the Empty Homes Agency got a full credit for this splendid contribution to this programme in what is an excellent campaign. In a couple of weeks (26 November to be precise) I will be chairing a session of the inaugural conference of the Empty Homes Agency at the Building Centre, Store Street, London WC2.

George Clarke is keynote speaker of course, and I will be proud, very proud, to share a platform with him. You can’t fault his enthusiasm and his idealism.  He is trying to make a real difference. We could do with more like him (and the ever-energetic Mr Ireland) in this poor beleaguered nation of ours.



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