Fencing contest

The Big Issue in the North led the way in reporting on Housing Market Renewal. Ten years after the multi-billion pound scheme got under way, we look back on a bleak landscape

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“It’s like the Blitz without the bodies,” is Jonathan Brown’s bleak assessment of the legacy of a decade of urban renewal in his home city, Liverpool.

A resident, a professional planner and a long-standing campaigner on heritage and regeneration issues, he has watched with horror as inner-city neighbourhoods have been emptied, boarded up and flattened.

“I still haven’t got my head around the motivation for all the waste and destruction that has been brought about in the name of progress,” he admits.

It has caused controversy and divided communities, campaigners and academics for years now, but the debate on large-scale urban renewal continues to fester.

Rows of tinned-up properties have been a common sight in some northern areas for several years, but today they are increasingly interspersed with tracts of cleared land – a situation likely to remain until the economy picks up.

For residents who have been living in the shadow of the bulldozer, much remains the same

In some ways a lot has changed since The Big Issue in the North began investigating the human cost of Labour’s taxpayer-funded Pathfinder scheme in 2006 – one of the first media outlets to do so in any sustained and meaningful way. Since then we have reported from every Pathfinder (also known as Housing Market Renewal) area in our region.

And yet for residents who have been living in the shadow of the bulldozer for 10 years now, much remains the same. Some are fighting plans to demolish their homes, while others – now resigned to their fate – wait to be found an alternative, away from the blight brought on by the scheme.

HMR was abandoned by the coalition government in 2011, eight years after it began, and having spent £2.3 billion trying to tackle the problem of low housing demand in 10 urban areas from Merseyside in the west to Hull in the east, and from Birmingham to Newcastle.

Research had shown these places were suffering from population loss and high unemployment and poverty levels, so schemes featuring demolition, new build and refurbishment were developed, aiming to improve neighbourhoods and attract new residents. Terraced houses were often earmarked for clearance, making way for new houses, with off-road parking and gardens.

In Merseyside, large numbers of boarded-up properties remain

Each Pathfinder operated independently so progress has been mixed. In Openshaw, east Manchester, a compulsory purchase order was served several years ago and building is taking place. In Salford, empty houses in Higher Broughton are just being cleared, while a primary school has opened on land in Seedley South where houses stood a few years previously. About 500 houses in Derker, Oldham, have now been bulldozed, their occupants now scattered across the town. People in all three areas campaigned unsuccesfully to save their homes.

In Merseyside, large numbers of boarded-up properties remain. Anfield and Toxteth are still home to numerous ghost streets, while in the Klondyke area of Bootle, a handful of mainly elderly and disabled residents are stranded among 480 vacant houses. Some are waiting for adapted bungalows to be built on an adjacent site, previously home to a further 500 condemned terraced homes.

The empty houses look visibly neglected – bushes grow out of some crevices and rooflines, and the buildings are secured with flimsy-looking clear perspex. The area is eerily quiet in the day but at night many locals feel unsafe: vandals have stolen metal from the vacant houses, started fires and broken into those still occupied. Damp and drafts seep in from neighbouring properties and heating bills are high.

Matthew Conefery, who lives on the estate with his disabled mother, says: “There’s not a lot you can do when it’s only you against the council – to make a difference you have to stand together but here, people got picked off one by one and now there’s only three or four of us.

“My mother owns this house and they said they were going to give us market value but they aren’t really because the whole area has gone down so much since they announced their plans.”

Matthew Conefery, with his mother Mary, left stranded among 480 vacant homes in Bootle
Matthew Conefery, with his mother Mary, left stranded among 480 vacant homes in Bootle. Photo: Ciara Leeming

Despite what many people believe, Pathfinder was not only about demolition. There were some innovative refurbishment schemes but these were often small in scale. In Nelson, Lancashire, for example, a terrace of seven two-bedroom properties were turned into loft-style homes with mezzanines and skylights.

In a larger remodelling scheme in Salford, the developer Urban Splash took 400 terraces that were due to be pulled down and turned them into “upside down houses”, with upstairs kitchens, first-floor decking and garages.

Perhaps the programme would have fared better had the recession not arrived, bringing the economy to a standstill and making it unprofitable for developers to build the units they had originally planned.

From an early point, however, critics had been accusing Pathfinder of being too prescriptive, and based on weak consultation. Its emphasis on clearance in some areas – at one point more than 100,000 properties were feared to be at risk, but by its demise 30,000 had been demolished – was seen as wasteful, both financially and environmentally. The fact that only “transformational” schemes could receive HMR funding was called into question, as was the UK’s VAT regime, which heavily favours new build over refurbishment.

Opponents say the declaration of a regeneration zone actually killed housing markets, while in similar areas property prices rose. Housing associations often started the blight by tinning their houses up, leaving homeowners and private tenants surrounded by vacant properties.

Selected residents groups were invited into the regeneration process, frequently leading to bitter conflict within communities.

HMR compensation levels left many owners out of pocket and having to take on larger mortgages or equity loans. Those who resisted were served with CPOs, and then dragged through stressful public inquiries, which they invariably lost.

When the coalition government was formed, then housing minister Grant Shapps criticised HMR’s “obsession with demolition over refurbishment, the lack of transparency of the Pathfinder quangos, large profits by developers, the demolition of our nation’s Victorian heritage and perverse incentives being given to run down neighbourhoods…”

Ministers apparently believed they were bringing the programme to an end when they put in place a £35 million transition fund to help the worst-hit local authorities find solutions that did not involve clearance for those trapped on ghost streets. A separate one-off £300 million to tackle the problem of empty homes has also been announced, and will also benefit some former Pathfinder areas.

Some councils are now looking for pragmatic ways forward. In Stoke about 70 properties are being sold for £1 each to local people who commit to staying for five years, in a homesteading scheme. The idea is to ensure assets go to people who will become part of the community. The houses will first be brought to a reasonable standard, and a £30,000 low-interest loan is then available to help each buyer renovate their property.

In Accrington, a specialist empty homes developer, Place First, is partnering with a housing association to bring 200 properties back into use as private rental.

Elsewhere, councils seem wedded to their original plans. The lobby group Save Britain’s Heritage – of which Brown is a member – is pursuing a judicial review over the misuse of the government’s transition fund, which some authorities, including Liverpool, want to spend on demolishing a further 5,000 vacant houses, contrary to the promises made by Shapps.

Developer Place First has an innovative scheme to bring back 200 empty homes in Accrington into use
Developer Place First has an innovative scheme to bring back 200 empty homes in Accrington into use

In Liverpool’s Welsh Streets a residents group is trying to persuade officials to shelve clearance plans and allow a private developer to bring the area back to life.

In Granby, Toxteth, and on the Klondyke estate in Merseyside, and in Middlesbrough, residents are exploring the possibility of setting up community land trusts to bring vacant housing back into public use. A major stumbling block is that they must first convince reluctant council officials to take a risk and entrust some properties that are due to be demolished to them.

The campaigning charity Empty Homes has been instrumental in the development of the Stoke project, and has held discussions with several other ex-Pathfinder councils – so far without results.

Chief executive David Ireland says: “We suggested to the council in Stoke that it would be much better and much cheaper to give the properties away to people who wanted to live in them than to acquire the 50 per cent which are in private ownership and clear them all, and they are going for it, to their credit.

“In Hyndburn – the local authority for Accrington, a project we are not involved in – there are 4,000 families on the housing waiting list, but the rhetoric has been that no one wants these empty properties, which were tinned up by the Pathfinder following acquisition.

“These situations have been created by council actions, but there are ways to make these areas sustainable again.”

Brown also believes that the thousands of vacant homes that are currently rotting should be given to individuals and community groups to bring back into use.

“A lot of the problems in these areas have actually been caused by the HMR scheme.”

Like many who have fought Pathfinder over the years, he believes that with the political will and some imagination, terraced homes could easily be turned into desirable homes.

“The world has changed a lot over recent years but some of these councils just want to press ahead with the same old plans,” he says. “A lot of the problems in these areas have actually been caused by the HMR scheme, which should have focused on stimulating demand and making areas more attractive and prosperous. What they have done is not, to me, regeneration.

“The empty homes are an asset base already in public ownership, and I would like to see this resource given away. We could do creative refurbishments with eco houses, knock-throughs to change the interiors and make some bigger, and we could put balconies and garages in some of them.

“We aren’t anti-demolition fundamentalists. There could even be some surgical clearance in these areas and they could build on the gap sites, to provide the new homes promised to some residents. The authorities hate the idea though because it would mean breaking up their land banks.”

Out of time

Kevin Gopal on a scheme that couldn’t keep the pace

It was a solution in search of problems.

When the Labour government announced the £2.3 billion Housing Market Renewal programme in 2002, there was no doubting the weakness of the housing market in northern areas like Burnley and Oldham.

Years of industrial decline had brought deprivation and population flight. There were strong images of shabby streets of terraced houses that owners couldn’t sell even for less than £10,000 – all the more powerful when compared with areas enjoying the property boom. They were the wrong sort of houses, said experts.

But even as the money started to come on stream a year later, HMR areas such as Liverpool were starting to feel the benefits of that boom. Demand for property was rising, the market was in less need of renewal.

The political truth was that deputy prime minister John Prescott had to find some way of getting public spending into the north – and HMR was a way to do it on a substantial scale.
Burnley and Oldham had been scarred by riots in 2001, partly caused by resentment that some parts of town did better than others when it came to bidding competitions for what regeneration money was on offer.

John Prescott needed a way of getting public spending into the north
John Prescott needed a way of getting public spending into the north

Prescott was also in the process of committing hundreds of millions to build new homes in the Thames Gateway, when many thought the north needed investment more than the overheating South East.

Regeneration officials seized on the HMR money with noble intentions of bringing lasting improvements. And in some cases that’s what they’ve achieved.

But that zeal was clouded by a “we know best” approach that often excluded the views of residents.

The result – as The Big Issue in the North has documented extensively over the last six years – was an emphasis on clearing out residents and demolishing houses that no longer needed demolishing. Looking at the bigger picture often meant ignoring the smaller human details.

Even some housebuilders were sceptical about getting involved in complex HMR schemes, with tricky land acquisition and brownfield problems. But the thought that they might be rewarded with planning permission for juicy suburban developments elsewhere might have been a spur.

And then it all came to a halt.

The recession slowed down the pace of development and the new government, keen to kick over the traces of the old, brought the scheme to a halt nine years into a planned 15-year cycle and at a time when the need for more housing is at its greatest.

So just as HMR began by responding to a problem that was diminishing anyway, it was cancelled when most urgently needed.

Bad timing.

‘They stabbed me in the back’

Ciara Leeming on one Oldham woman’s Pathfinder experience

Maureen and Terry Walsh spent seven years fighting to save their home in Derker, Oldham, from the Pathfinder bulldozers.Shortly after they accepted defeat and made moves to leave,

HMR was axed and the council stopped acquiring properties – marooning a handful of residents among the 500 or so condemned houses. Terry died in January last year.

Walsh says: “The council said that if a household was left in an empty terrace, they would make them a financial offer to leave that they couldn’t refuse.

“Then they said we were excluded from this because there were two occupants on our row – us and a neighbour.

“They have ended up knocking down the rest of the terrace, except for us, so we have managed to stay.”

“Terry and I fought together to save our home.”

The remaining terrace has been given a new gable wall and now overlooks a no-man’s-land created by the clearance. “I feel sad in a way because those houses should be still standing and people still be living here, but I’ve still got my home, which is initially what I set out to do,” she says.

“They stabbed me in the back but as far as I’m concerned I’m the winner, because Terry and I fought together to save our home.”

Architect unrepentant

Brendan Nevin, one of the authors of HMR, speaks to Ciara Leeming

Brendan Nevin’s research underpinned HMR and he ran both the Merseyside and Staffordshire Pathfinders at various times. Today he observes what has happened since its demise from a distance.

“There are too many people trying to make absolutes out of what was a devolved programme that initially had 26 local authorities involved, and where there were hard calls, good practice, poor decisions and shades of grey,” says Nevin (pictured).

Nevin: still proud to have been part
Nevin: still proud to have been part

“I really resent the idea that demolition was a fetish that was always preferred – that’s bending the truth. There were innovative refurbishment approaches in some areas, funded by HMR, such as Chimney Pot Park in Salford, and de-conversions in Birmingham [where large Victorian properties were changed from flats back into houses].

“The point I would like to make to David Ireland and others now would be that their campaigning has ended up with fewer resources for refurbishment and less certainty going forward than they had with HMR. For the first time in 70 years there is no resource for urban renewal beyond the one-off fund for empty homes, and I fear the entire housing capital programme – which has already been savagely cut – may vanish when the government conducts its next comprehensive spending review. That’s not much of a success in my eyes.

“All programmes are imperfect and HMR was no different. It was dealing with wicked issues, sometimes not very well but sometimes very well. There were serious weaknesses in the way in which parts of it were organised by central government. However as government has now exited from renewal activity we are unlikely to learn the lessons – good and bad – from the HMR programme.

“I am still proud to have been part of such a large investment programme which refurbished over 100,000 homes and tried to address conditions of collapse in some neighbourhoods.”

Main image: the Edge Hill-Wavertree borderlands (Ciara Leeming)

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