14 December 2018

Kevin Parkes is Executive Director of Growth and Place at Middlesbrough Council. He spoke to our Great Places Commission about the need to address challenges around poor quality housing and inequality in parts of the North and beyond.

It appears that the housing challenges facing some northern town and cities are of little interest in faraway Whitehall. The distress caused by struggling streets and neighbourhoods leaves citizens marooned in challenging environments with little hope or sense that there is anyone watching their backs. The neglect of policy makers to address the needs of these areas is not acceptable in a modern developed economy.

The circumstances in Middlesbrough reflect the wholescale change in public sector finance following the financial crash and austerity. Local public sector organisations are no longer resourced to make a meaningful impact in their own communities and interventions in failing housing markets are exceptionally expensive.

Middlesbrough is often much maligned – it’s where journalists venture when they want to show the ills of society. However, the town has a surprisingly strong economy and an attractive centre. The Financial Times FDi Index 2018 identified Middlesbrough as one of the top 10 small cities in Europe. There is a strong digital sector, university and in-migration for employment.

Business investment is apparent. Stunning contemporary architecture typifies the newfound confidence. Major new office development in the city centre, an advanced manufacturing park and investment in dynamic cultural facilities are transforming the economy.

Reflecting national priorities and available resources, the investment emphasis is clearly on business growth. Middlesbrough has a healthy growth in new build housing, but this tends to be in the southern suburbs, not the inner areas. The business buoyancy is not translating into investment in the more deprived housing areas.

There are parts of Middlesbrough where the future is of real concern, particularly some inner neighbourhoods and social housing areas. Austerity across public services has means these agencies are struggling to maintain the basic requirements these areas and residents need to ensure their sustainability.

The Index of Multiple Deprivation tells its own sorry story for these communities in terms of poor health, low employment rates and low levels of educational attainment. The housing story in the inner terraced areas is especially daunting. Empty homes are endemic. In parts of Middlesbrough, such as Newport and North Ormesby, many streets have long-term vacancies of over 20%. The average for the latter area was less than 5% in 2005 when the Housing Market Renewal Programme was intervening with demolitions and improvement programmes. Today’s vacancy levels are not sustainable.

In North Ormesby in 2005, private rented sector (PRS) properties represented about 20% on most streets. There has since been a major shift: PRS on many streets now exceeds 50%, owner occupation is in perilous decline. Some housing associations continue to perservere, such as North Star and Thirteen Group, which is currently investing £1m in a programme to bring empty homes back into use. Others, however, have opted to back out.

It would be wrong to blame this decline solely on private landlords. Many are genuinely trying their best, as are their agents. But there is a clear link to be drawn between the rise of the PRS and the transience of the population and breakdown of strong communities. Selective landlord licensing has tackled some problems, but its achievements are partial. The Council has established its own housing delivery company which is focusing heavily on urban regeneration. This will help, but it’s only a part of a long-term complex solution that needs commitment over a number of parliamentary terms.

It may not be topical to advocate about communities in distress, but let’s not lose sight that there are thousands of people who are trying to have a life in these places. Many lack the support they need and often face major personal challenges. Living in streets with so many vacant properties can be nothing but demoralising.

Middlesbrough is not unique. There are parts of the North that face similar circumstances. Local service providers simply don’t have the resources to address their needs. We have to face up to the fact that there are parts of our society that, as a nation, we don’t seem to be able to support.

I’d like to see a proper debate in Government about this significant problem that afflicts so many areas. The North needs a voice – and not just one that is solely interested in the economy and transport. Social injustice is alive, well and getting worse.

Kevin Parkes

Executive Director of Growth and Place, Middlesbrough Council

Kevin Parkes spoke to our Great Places Commission during their visit to the North East on 30-31 October.

Our commitment to the North must go beyond economy and transport