In Gateshead we are in the unusual situation of having council house rents that are higher than those in the private rented sector. There has also been a rise in the number of vacant council properties. At the start of April, there were 502 vacant council properties compared to 441 at the start of April 2016. 124 of these empty homes (25% of all vacant properties) were located in four tower blocks: Eslington Court, Redheugh Court, Regent Court and Warwick Court. Meanwhile, demand remains strong for council owned bungalows and family homes.
With such a concentration of voids in four tower blocks, we have to ask ourselves whether or not we should retain them when they are so difficult to rent out. In effect, money is going into keeping empty properties which we have no realistic chance of filling with new tenants.
This was precisely the point I raised at full council on 28th September. I added to it the likely cost of additional work that will almost certainly result from the Grenfell inquiry. To be fair to Martin Gannon, leader of the council, he accepted that the future of difficult-to-let blocks needs to be reviewed and work is now underway on looking into this.
Demolition may or may not be the solution but my ideal scenario is that the blocks are retained as housing though the likelihood of retaining them in the social rented sector is remote. It may be that to retain housing stock in Gateshead (we lose government funding if we have a net loss of housing), we may have to look to transfer them to the private sector. One further possibility could be that the council continues to retain ownership but invests in a refurbishment that results in flats that are let at a market rate, therefore outside the social sector. This has a number of advantages: the rents will provide an income to the council and housing will definitely be retained in the borough. The drawback is that the council carries the risk if the venture is not a success. This scheme is not all that fanciful. The council is preparing to do exactly the same with the Derwentside former aged persons unit which is to be converted into apartments to be let at a market rent.
I returned to the issue of the future of council tower blocks this afternoon in a meeting about Gateshead's preparations for a Grenfell type event in the borough. The future of these buildings is yet to be decided but much thought needs to go into what is a difficult issue to tackle.