Yesterday Minister Jan O’Sullivan published the 2012 National Housing Development Survey.  The headline story from this is that the number of estates categorised as unfinished has fallen from 2,876 in 2011 to 1,770 in 2012, and that decisions will be taken in the new year on which estates are commercially unviable and need to have parts of them demolished (especially in the midlands and border region).

Along with the report, the Department of Environment also published the data they used in the report in three separate files comparing counties, profiling individual counties, and profiling individual estates.

So, have the number of unfinished estates fallen by 1,106 and is the problem of unfinished estates receding?

Technically, yes.  But this is where I link to the title of this post.  The drop is principally because the DECLG have changed the definition of an unfinished estate.  The definition used in 2010 and 2011 refers to estates that have issues of vacancy and oversupply as well as outstanding development works.  In 2012 the definition refers only to estates where there is outstanding development work.  At one level, this change makes sense.  The 1,770 estates that need development work are the most problematic.  At the same time, the issue of vacancy and oversupply has not gone away, affect the overall market, and have consequence re. anti-social behaviour, sense of place and community, etc.  Indeed, on the old definition the number of estates surveyed rose in 2012 to 2,973.

This is not the only bit of being creative with the numbers.  Oddly, the figures both work for and against the government.

For the government

Overall occupancy: the overall level of occupancy in unfinished is reported as 91,692 – this is occupancy across the 2,973 estates surveyed not the 1,770 we’re told now constitute unfinished estates.  It is useful to have the data for the 2,973 estates but it also needs to be reported specifically for the 1,770.

Complete and vacant units: the overall level of vacancy is reported as 16,881, down from 18,638 in 2011 – again this is refers to the 2,973 estates surveyed.

Vacancy per county: the report provides a table and map of vacancy per 1,000 households for each county.  This actually refers to vacancy in unfinished estates, not overall residential vacancy in a county.  Making sense of vacancy in unfinished estates needs to be contextualised with respect to overall vacancy and oversupply, not simply the number of households.  The housing market is not simply unfinished estates and the data as presented is misleading.

Against the government

Services: In the comparing counties data file the reported figures for services are all shockingly bad.  Across the 2,973 estates (again there is no specific data for the 1,770) 57% of units have incomplete roads, 40.1% have incomplete paths, 42.5% have no lighting, 41.1% have no potable (drinking) water, 39.3% have no storm water drainage, 41.3% have no water waste (sewage), with 91,693 families living on these estates.  Actually these figures are grossly overstated because of how they are calculated and the numbers are much less.  They have been calculated against all housing units that had original planning permission, not those that were started.  There are two problems here.  First, planning permission has expired for 24,864 units, second why calculate for units that don’t exist?  The fact that 60,055 phantom houses don’t have potable water, and these are included in the rate of units that don’t have potable water, doesn’t make any sense.  The rates are actually much smaller, though nonetheless are a significant problem on many estates.

What are my headline stories from the report?

I have two main observations from the report.  The first is that 1,100 of the estates are in a ‘seriously problematic condition‘.  Families in these estates are living on building sites.  Second is that only 250 estates (8.5% of 1,770) are active – that is, the developer is on site and is undertaking works.  In 2010 it was 429, in 2011 it was 244.  That means that 1,520 of the estates that require development work are not in receipt of it and given that developers have gone bust they are not likely to receive it in the short to mid-term. The number of underconstruction units in 2011 was 17,872 and in 2012 it was 17,032.  All but 38 of the reduction is ‘nearly complete’ units being fitted out.  Anything half-built is staying half-built.  In the vast majority of cases then, unfinished estates are being left to wither on the vine, the great majority of which are in a ‘seriously problematic condition’.

To be fair to Minister O’Sullivan she fully recognizes these issues.  On the other hand, the actions of the government are painfully slow, some would say pathetic.  As we’ve argued before, the policy of Site Resolution Plans (SRPs) is a minimal cost, minimal effort approach to unfinished estates that give the impression of policy-at-work, but is really a sticking plaster that tries to stop a problem getting worse before the ‘surgeon’ in the form of the market re-appears to fix things.  In the present and foreseeable property market that ‘surgeon’ is not going to appear any time soon.  In the meantime, families are left living on developments that are substandard with huge negative equity that locks them in.

Five years after the property crash started to plummet its time unfinished estates problem was tackled properly, rather than simply messing about with the numbers.  That’s not to say the numbers are not important – we need to know what is going on (preferably with non-creative and meaningless data) – but what we really need is action for the families living on these estates.

Rob Kitchin