This week we've been treated to a new housing campaign, launched on Channel 4. The problem — no, let's get this in perspective — the scandal of empty homes. George Clarke has been bestriding our screens examining what has been going down. From the bits I've seen, he has mostly been laying into the now discredited Pathfinder Policy of the last government, which sought to rip up old terraced streets up North and replace them with state-of-the-art, zero-carbon flats, or Yvettes, as they never quite came to be known.
You can trawl up and down Liverpool, Stoke-on-Trent or Sunderland and find really depressing looking wastelands of derelict and boarded-up housing estates. As Clarke kept pointing out, these could all be done up for.....well, it wasn't entirely clear how much. The key fact that he kept reiterating was that it was cheaper to do them up than it was to build new.
But the research from the Technology Strategy Board's Retrofit for the Future programme suggests otherwise. That is that if you are to create good homes fit for 2050 and our low carbon future, rebuilding may well be a more sensible and cheaper option.
Bringing these homes back to life would be expensive, however you go about it. And the fact is there may well be very little demand for these renovated or rebuilt homes in the private market. Liverpool, Stoke-on-Trent, Sunderland — none of them are exactly setting the jobs market alight at the moment. Set against the demand for affordable homes in these towns, things look very different, but that's not a market demand which would lead to people come in and spend money on these houses in return for sensible financial return.
So juxtaposing the number of empty homes with the affordable housing demand may look compelling, but it's voodoo economics. The fact is there isn't enough money for affordable homes whether it's building new ones or doing up empty ones.
Which isn't to say that there must be some spots where terraces of empty homes could be given over to enthusiastic community selfbuilders to make of them what they will. David Ireland makes this point in his open letter.
But the truth is that there will still be one hell of a lot of empty homes in places where no one is ever going to find a sensible use for them. It's very sad, but I'm not sure it really counts as a scandal.