Unpopular Housing in England in Conditions of Low Demand: Coping with a Diversity of Problems and Policy Measures

Article excerpt

The aim of this paper is to provide an understanding of unpopular housing in a way that links the identification of causes to remedial prescriptions and also allows a consideration of the views of residents and practitioners. Three discourses of change are identified-economic, social and radical-which are partly complementary and partly contradictory to one another. Each discourse provides a narrative of neighbourhood decline, favours distinct remedial measures and generates lessons about the aims and methods of policy. The identification of different discourses therefore provides a more comprehensive understanding and a more practical framework for policy generation than any single approach. The recent history of neighbourhood regeneration is one where measures to tackle unpopular housing have become increasingly absorbed into a broad social inclusion agenda. Nevertheless, the distinction between types of discourses and types of responsive measures persists.

Unpopular housing is problematic because it causes high levels of vacant property, imposes additional costs on public services, offers poor and sometimes unacceptable living conditions for its residents and can trap owner-occupiers in particular areas from which they cannot move without paying a premium for doing so. Unpopular housing, together with the closely related phenomenon of low demand housing, is an increasingly important issue in urban regeneration in Britain and is recognised as such in recent official documents and reports, including the Urban White Paper (DETR, 2000a, 57) and the Sixth Report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Transport, Local Government and the Regions (2002).

Empty local authority houses have been noted as a problem since the 1970s, notably in the peripheral estates of large towns and cities (Donnison, 1979). In the 1990s, however, according to most reports the problem of empty homes became more widespread and started to affect larger areas. The problem became less one of individual properties and more one of unpopular neighbourhoods. The problem, moreover, started to affect neighbourhoods containing privately owned as well as social housing (that is property owned by local authorities and housing associations) (Keenan, et al., 1999; PAT 7, 2000, para. 2.8).

Scope and structure of the analysis

Unpopular housing has generated a wealth of official reports and articles in the professional journals. Research has mostly been about either the surface characteristics of unpopular neighbourhoods-their geographical distribution (Murie et al., 1998, 18-20; PAT 7, 2000, paras 1.2-1.4) and their social and environmental characteristics (Long, 2000, 8-14; Turok et al., 1999, 377-80)- or the details of practice and policy (DETR, 2000c; PAT 7, 2000). Much less attention has been paid to understanding unpopular housing as a dynamic process of decline and regeneration. The aim of this paper is to provide such an understanding in a way that links the identification of causes to remedial prescriptions and that also allows a consideration of the views of residents and practitioners.

This paper takes the form of a literature review, but attempts to provide more than a summary of the available evidence and debate. It seeks to synthesise the literature through a process of theory building. The first section of the paper will, therefore, examine different interpretations of the problem from a combination of US and British sources. This section will explain how these different interpretations may be classified into an economic orthodoxy, mostly concerned with filtering and changing patterns of demand, and social and radical discourses that place more emphasis on the role of residents and property institutions.

The subsequent sections deal with the policy response and draw on a number of recent studies undertaken at Sheffield Hallam University. These studies comprise a survey of practice of social housing agencies in low demand areas (Cole et al. …