26 Feb 2015

Has ‘bedroom tax’ killed off this Durham community?

Scotland Correspondent

Our report from the County Durham village which residents say is “like Beirut” has raised many questions. Channel 4 News North of England Correspondent Ciaran Jenkins has some of the answers.

Is Horden really ‘like Beirut’?

Isabel Roberts certainly thinks so. She’s lived in Horden for 38 years and says the state of the village is an “absolute disgrace”. Another resident likened the place to “the Bronx”. Many viewers have been quick to point out Beirut’s merits. Few, however, had much that was good to say about Horden.

How did it get so bad?

Residents estimate over 200 properties are empty in Horden. On some streets the number of vacant homes outnumbers those that are lived in by two to one. Since the colliery closed in 1987 there has been little work. But the exodus has accelerated only in recent years.

I’ve got £1 – can I buy the 130 houses for sale in Horden?

No, you can’t. The houses are owned by Accent Group, a major housing association, and are offered to tenants in need of social housing. Any changes to the status of these properties must be approved by the Homes and Communities Agency.

Accent offered the properties for sale to Durham County Council for the price of £1. The council turned down the offer.

Read more: 'bedroom tax' - the key questions

Watch Ciaran Jenkins’s report from Horden, County Durham

Why wouldn’t the council want 130 council houses for £1?

The properties cost more to repair than they do to buy. The council reckons it would need to spend £7m refurbishing the houses. It said it’s “disappointed” Accent couldn’t find a solution for them.

Can’t the housing association refurbish them?

Some residents clearly blame the housing association for the area’s decline. I put this directly to its chief executive, Gordon Perry, who said: “We’d improve them if people wanted to live here.”

Accent says it has already invested £8.7m in Horden, mostly in bungalows which are in high demand. The problem, Gordon says, is that Horden has a glut of Victorian terraces in which nobody wants to live: “What’s wrong is there are dozens and dozens of terraced streets,” he says. “There are too many houses of the wrong sort.”

Could ‘bedroom tax’ kill off a community that survived pit closures?

The “bedroom tax”, according to Gordon, is “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. He claims the area is undesirable to families and single people are deterred by the “bedroom tax”.

Can’t they just knock down walls to create one-bed properties?

Accent did just that. As an experiment they turned a terrace house into a one bed home. They say they’ve tried to let it six times with no joy. Why? Because even taking the “bedroom tax” out of the picture, Gordon says welfare cuts mean young, single people on benefits cannot afford the rent.

Read more: how to beat the 'bedroom tax'
Empty properties in Horden, County Durham

Empty properties in Horden, County Durham

What’s the solution?

Gordon Perry reckons the answer is wholescale regeneration. If that seems unlikely, a more realistic option might be demolition of some of the homes and the sale of others.

Can’t they sell them to existing tenants?

Accent have offered the houses to existing tenants at a discount. Only half a dozen have expressed an interest. In the meantime, the exodus continues as 130 further households are expected to leave soon.

Couldn’t a co-op buy the houses and let them out to those in need?

Possibly. The residents are exploring whether they can buy some of the properties for the benefit of the community. They would like to set up a training programme for the local unemployed to renovate the houses, some of whom could live in them when they are complete. They estimate they could only tackle a handful of properties, however, which would still leave dozens empty.

What happens if they’re sold on the open market?

They will have to be sold in batches to try and protect the value of existing homes. Many homeowners in the area are former miners who bought their homes at a discount when the pits closed. Two terraced houses on Ninth Street, Horden, recently sold for under £20,000 each.

Isn’t there a housing crisis?

Yes. There are more than 11,000 people in County Durham on a waiting list for social housing, which makes what’s happening in Horden all the more bizarre.