Giroscope – a sustainable model for neighbourhood regeneration

Giroscope is a housing charity that buys and renovates empty property in west Hull to provide secure and affordable accommodation to those in housing need. In this guest blog post, Martin Newman, Giroscope Co-founder and Coordinator, explains how they built a sustainable model for neighbourhood regeneration.

Background – where did all those empty homes come from?

Giroscope is a housing project based in west Hull, in the area formerly associated with the deep sea trawling industry. This industry fell into disrepair in the 1970s and never recovered. This was also the beginning of the decline of the Hessle Road community, which faced joblessness, poverty and large scale housing demolition.

From the 1960s onwards the area had begun to depopulate as houses were demolished and whole neighbourhoods relocated to estates on the outskirts of the city. By the mid-eighties all the housing south of Hessle Road had been demolished, and the neighbourhood population was declining rapidly. Those who could afford to move out did so leaving behind many empty properties and a neighbourhood with little diversity.

Then, in 2002 the then Labour Government announced its ‘Pathfinder’ scheme and plans were announced to demolish vast areas of Victorian housing, to deal with the ‘surpluses’ of houses and especially derelict homes. This led to more uncertainty and a further exodus of people from the neighbourhood. The scheme collapsed in 2010 when the incoming Conservative Coalition Government scrapped the Pathfinders  as part of the start of austerity. The housing market in the neighbourhood was also recovering from the fallout from the global financial crash, and so by the end of the first decade of the new century, whole streets lay empty and other streets had up to 50% of the properties boarded up.

Giroscope – the run up to 2012

Giroscope started life in 1985 as a self-help housing project, buying and renovating properties in the Hessle Road neighbourhood and letting them to those normally discriminated against in the private rented housing market. Our initial motives were as a response to the homelessness crisis of the mid-eighties.

We were established as a company Limited by Guarantee and were also a Workers Cooperative. We plodded on through the 1980s and 1990s buying and renovating a few houses a year. By the end of the noughties we had accumulated over 30 houses and also some non-residential property in the neighbourhood.

It was at the end of the noughties that we first approached Hull City Council regarding properties that they owned and were long term empty. These were not council houses as such, but properties from the private sector that had ended up in council ownership. We finally managed to get our hands on four totally derelict, long term empties – transferred to Giroscope at no cost – as well as six properties that Hull City Council had purchased in the fallout from the Pathfinder scheme with a view to demolishing.

Post 2012 – relationship with Hull City Council

By 2012 the neighbourhood was in a mess. The large-scale demolition had started, but was nowhere near complete. All the Pathfinder money was gone, austerity was in full force and many properties stood empty.

The then coalition Government brought forward the Empty Homes Grant Programme – with a strand for Local Authorities and Housing Associations and a strand for community projects like Giroscope. Hull County Council brought together all the local projects that had applied for funding form the ‘Community’ pot and encouraged a coordinated approach to the purchasing and leasing of empty properties.

This partnership approach worked really well – in fact bringing an award from the Empty Homes Network!  The empty Homes Community Grant Programme enabled Giroscope to more than double in size over three years. We purchased and renovated 50 empty houses and flats, strengthened our building team and grew our capacity. We were able to deliver a far better service to our tenants and develop our ‘volunteer’ programme – to help disadvantaged people to find work and fulfilment.

Giroscope today

Building on the success that the Empty Homes Grant Programme brought to our organisation and our neighbourhood, Giroscope has continued to grow. We now have over 140 flats and houses and continue to buy and renovate several properties every year. We have kept our work neighbourhood based, and with the exception of a few outlying properties, most of our stock is in this neighbourhood. This has been the main reason for Giroscope’s success and longevity. We live and work in the streets where we are based, we know our tenants and their families, and we are part of the community.

The neighbourhood has also changed over the last decade – mostly for the better! It is now much more diverse, with many people settling here from Eastern Europe and beyond. Giroscope houses many refugee families from the Syrian and African programmes, and more recently the Afghan and Ukrainian programmes.

There are far fewer empty properties in the neighbourhood than a decade ago, but we continue to identify and target long term empties that we come across. We still work in tandem with the local authority, and between them and us we can usually identify the owners of empty properties and find ways to persuade them to sell! This partnership working has been key to the success in turning the neighbourhood around. We have also benefitted from funding from Hull City Council via the Right to Buy Replacement Grant Fund – using money that the Local Authority cannot always use – for Giroscope to buy and renovate properties.

Giroscope Community Self-Build

Early in 2022 we completed the construction of three timber framed houses on land to the rear of our offices here on Coltman Street. Designed by Architect Duncan Roberts, and the prospective tenants, the houses are based on the Walter Segal self-built method and where possible, natural materials were used, including sheep’s wool insulation!  The timber-framed houses are super-insulated, do not use gas and incorporate both solar thermal and solar PV.

It took almost five years from obtaining planning permission to completing the construction of the houses, and the eventual success of the project was, I believe, heavily based in the experience that we have learned over 30 years renovating properties. This is a good lesson for projects just starting out – cut your teeth on some renovations before embarking on new build schemes.

We are looking to build further houses in the future. We are currently building a joint extension on two empty properties that we are renovating using a system originated by Hull company, Blokbuild.  If successful we will look to work with Blokbuild to use these modern methods of construction to build some social housing from scratch.

We will work with Hull City Council to identify land that they own and that is surplus to requirements and not designated as green space. If the right piece of land is found then we can hopefully acquire it from the Local Authority at zero cost, if it is going to be used for the construction of social housing.

Special Projects

It is not just empty housing that Giroscope brings back into use in our neighbourhood. We have bought and renovated two yards with commercial buildings. These are let to other community businesses and trades people needing workspace.

We accommodate joiners, bakers, a bicycle delivery cooperative, a language school for new arrivals to the UK, counsellors, a vegetarian café and much more. Giroscope also runs a bicycle recycling project from one of these spaces.

Four years ago we purchased a large Victorian Church in our community that had sat empty and unused for nearly seven years. This building contained many memories for the people of the neighbourhood – weddings, funerals, christenings, carol services and so on. It also houses two war memorial plaques from the Great War with nearly two hundred names on them. We are currently renovating the building to bring it back into use for community space, offices, meeting rooms and co-working space.