At a time when it is estimated that there will be a backlog of one million homes by the end of next year, some 700,000 dwellings lie vacant or derelict in England.
This issue of empty buildings was investigated at a local level at the Young Planners Conference. Hannah Heinemann of Gateshead Council led delegates on a study tour of the Bensham and Saltwell area to demonstrate how the residents and local stakeholders have contributed to the area's regeneration. They have been supported by the Bridging Newcastle Gateshead housing market renewal pathfinder initiative.
The neighbourhoods were identified in 2005 as characterised by a large number of empty properties, a deficiency in family homes and neglected areas of open space. Since then, a series of consultation events has been carried out. More than 90 residents were signed up as street representatives to ensure that the views of the community were incorporated into the Bensham and Saltwell neighbourhood plan.
Delegates witnessed at first hand the work to improve the appearance of housing in Bensham and Saltwell. The sympathetic refurbishment appears to have revived a sense of pride and ownership in the area.
An example of the environmental improvements can be seen at the recently opened Avondale Park. Here an underused grassed area on a prominent corner site in Saltwell has been transformed into an urban park with designated play facilities. In addition, the park has prompted the Jewish and Muslim communities to engage positively. This was evident from the children and adults from different cultural backgrounds participating in various activities.
The tour provided a practical example of how positive engagement can improve the accountability of proposals and contribute to the creation of cohesive neighbourhoods. Furthermore, the property and environmental improvements in Bensham and Saltwell show that planning can regenerate areas in a sensitive manner without causing disruption to the community.
Greg Dickson is an assistant planner in Turley Associates Manchester office and a member of the North West Young Planners steering group.