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Govan Community Council Conference

Poverty, deprivation and development in working class communities

The Pearce Institute, Govan, Glasgow
Monday, 22 November 2004

The Pearce Institute

Housing policies and community deprivation in Scotland

THE SCOTTISH EXECUTIVE'S Guide to the Planning System in Scotland (available online here) asks, why do we have a planning system?  The answer given is that:

"Constructing new buildings and other changes on the way land is used are essential to help the economy grow and meet the need for homes, shops, leisure and mobility.  The nature, quality and location of these new developments are important.  Poorly designed developments in unsuitable places can damage the quality of life in a community.  It is not easy or cheap to put mistakes right".

In the context of traditional working class communities in Scotland we need to question:  firstly, are the needs for 'homes, shops & leisure' being adequately met?  And, secondly, how fairly does the current planning system balance competing and conflicting interests?

In Glasgow, several geographical areas (and by default many communities) have been designated by the planning authority as 'Core Economic Development Areas' (CEDAs).  I would suggest that it is this designation which has resulted in economic consideration taking primacy over the needs of communities.  How does this impact on local communities in Glasgow?

Yet if one walks anywhere in central Govan the most striking feature is the large number of empty shops and empty industrial units.  I would respectfully suggest that the current planning system has and is failing working class communities.

When we talk of housing policies and working class communities we are often talking about policies which consist of little or nothing - the principal activity appears to be numerous officials measuring and recording the decline of communities.  While research and analysis is important it is no substitute for policies which can prevent the decline of fragile communities.

Population decline can occur because housing and social needs are not being met.  People who have a modest or good income can vote with their feet and leave an area in perceived decline.  Population decline in working class communities impacts upon the sustainability of those communities - the number of shops, schools and local services in an area is all dependent upon the ability of a community to sustain those services.  Significantly, population decline also impacts upon the level and concentration of poverty in a community.

Glasgow Housing Association's 2004 Baseline Tenant Survey confirms that:

These stark statistics should be ringing alarm bells in the planning department.  What working class communities need are positive and pro-active housing policies which can free up unused & derelict industrial land and vacant land, and attract developers and registered social landlords who can supply a mix of high quality affordable housing for rent or purchase.

That is what we need in Glasgow, however, please allow me to summarise what we currently have, drawing upon my experience in Govan over the last 5 years.

The Govan Community Council took part in a planning inquiry when it opposed the rezoning of residential land in Teucharhill.  Govan Law Centre represented the community council, while the City Council was represented by Queens Counsel.  The experience from that inquiry exposed substantive inadequacies in the Scottish Executive's Reporters Service.   Please allow me to qualify this assertion.  In the sheriff court or any tribunal, the judge or chairperson will hear evidence and make 'findings-in-fact'.  That is the lynch-pin of the civil justice system because without findings-in-fact you cannot tell if the court or tribunal has omitted or ignored important evidence; you cannot tell what evidence has been accepted as credible.

In the Reporter's decision on the Teucharhill case huge swathes of important evidence was absent or not referred to in the Reporter's decision.  Govan Law Centre obtained Counsel's Opinion with the support of the local MSP which confirmed that the Community Council had reasonable prospects of success for an appeal to the Court of Session.  However, there is no civil legal aid available for community councils, and an appeal would have had to be taken in the community council's name.  Thus in practice the local community were denied access to justice.  They were only allowed to participate so far in a planning process which ultimately is not robust and lacks judicially impartiality and basic quality.

Last week the Scottish Executive announced it will not introduce a third party right of appeal with respect to planning law, however we can only hope that it will improve the quality of a decision making process which is supposed to balance the needs and interests of local communities with commerce.  You can't grow the local economy if you don't have a strong local community.

In the Teucharhill inquiry, for example, the Reporter failed to consider evidence on the GHA Ltd's stated business plan to demolish 14,000 houses in Glasgow.  This figure increased this month to 19,000 when the GHA published its 30 year business plan.  Many of these demolitions will take place in Govan - likely including many of the dozen or so high rise flats in the Ibrox area.  Where will these displaced residents be rehoused? They could have been re-housed in Teucharhill.

It could be argued that there is a housing crisis in Glasgow at present.  Many tenants living in multi-storey flats are living in conditions not reasonably fit for human habitation.   We know this because the law centre has around 50 current cases and independent architects who have surveyed many of these properties in Govan have confirmed that accommodation is prejudicial and dangerous to the health of adults and children because of the effects of dampness, mould growth and spores, water penetration, a lack of heating, poor quality water, and very high levels of house dust mite.  GHA Ltd has yet to decide when it may demolish these properties.   It has formally stated that it might be anytime within the next 10 years.  It has formally stated that no major repairs will be carried out to these properties.

While we will be using the law on behalf of tenants to pursue this untenable legal position the fact remains that there is a major demand for affordable housing construction in Govan right now.  But with no reasonable policy on housing will peoples' needs and aspirations ever be met?

The failure to address housing need is intrinsically linked to communities falling into decline and the creation of 'sink estates', which is in turn linked to increased vandalism, abject poverty, ill-health, anti-social behaviour, mental illness and crime.  Without a progressive housing policy and planning system all of these problems cannot be resolved.

What then of the future?

Two issues stand out.  Firstly, with the Local Government in Scotland Act 2003, social inclusion partnerships will be phased out and incorporated as part of new local 'Community Planning Partnerships'.  These should be fully operational next year.  Statutory guidance on community planning from the Scottish Executive (available online here) provides that 'community need' must be the central focus of the new CPPs.  We can only hope with this new model of local community planning the needs of the local community will have a greater opportunity of being met?

Key Features 

Community need is central focus. 

Main Community Planning partnership at LA level. Community plan or similar to set out responsibilities and key outcomes.

Linked with themed partnerships e.g. Health Improvement.

Supported by local or neighbourhood partnership structures where required.

Supported by regional strategic partnerships and national partnership approaches where required.

Issues of a European or International context also a consideration - not shown in diagram. 

Secondly, there is a major problem surrounding the affordability of socially rented housing.  A typical monthly rent in Scotland is around £240 to £260 per month.   Meeting that rent is not an issue if a person is in full receipt of housing benefit, but for those only part entitled to HB, and in low, part-time, or modestly paid work is can be very difficult to meet these levels of rent.  As a comparison it can be noted that tenants who have exercised a right to buy will typically be paying a monthly mortgage of £150 per month.  For those in low paid work, not being able to afford their rent can result in family poverty, and ultimately eviction. 

In the case of Angus Housing Association v. Fraser 2004 Hous LR (Scottish housing law reports) 83 a tenant with rent arrears of £1,448.60 was evicted along with her 14 year old daughter.  From the court report the tenant seemed to have went in and out of low paid employment due to ill-health and child care problems.  That resulted in housing benefit delays and overpayments of housing benefit.  However, this case highlights the issue of affordability of rent.  Mrs Fraser's monthly rent was £240 per month.  When in employment she earned £240 net per month, thus leaving her with £27 per week family tax credit and £16 per week child benefit to maintain herself and her 14 year old daughter - a total of £43 per week to meet living costs, and to pay for water and sewerage charges etc.,   Those in low paid work simply can't afford the relatively high levels of rent in the social rented sector - we need to start a debate on this issue.