Sunday Times 06.11.11
Regenerate the Cities -
give houses away
You would laugh if it weren't so sad. A Commons committee, chaired by the Sheffield Labour MP Clive Betts, has been on a trip around the battered towns and cities of the industrial north of England and found streets where the last residents are stranded in boarded-up terraces. They have concluded that people have been abandoned in appalling conditions because of the coalition's "disastrous" cuts to regeneration schemes.
Who boarded up the houses, pray? Councils bankrolled by Betts's party. Who devised the Pathfinder schemes that blighted the areas they were meant to save with the threat of demolition, and seldom came up with the decent new housing they were meant to provide? Betts's party, again. In the words of Grant Shapps, the housing minister, the last government's attempts at regeneration involved "bulldozing buildings. ..[and] desperately hoping that someone might come along to reorder the rubble". What Betts and his committee fail to ask is which was the bigger disaster: the cuts to regeneration projects or the idea of Pathfinder itself. The reality is that the idea of "renewing" the housing market with state money, devised by John Prescott and left-leaning academics, has proved more expensive and more disruptive to people's lives than was ever envisaged. Historically, housing markets have renewed themselves when property has been cheap and urban pioneers such as artists and entrepreneurs have moved in, not when councils and property developers have struck some super-deal. Now, instead of calling for the release of perfectly good homes to people who would do them up, Betts -a former leader of Sheffield City council- and his committee seem to want more of the same: more state intervention; more big schemes. Their only incisive observation: the coalition doesn't have a viable strategy for cleaning up the mess Pathfinder left behind.
Arguably, the coalition should have reacted more ideologically than it has to the battle that still rages over housing in the north. For what is needed is a change to the state-dependent mindset that imprisons left-wing MPs and councils as surely as it does the benefit claimants of Burnley estates. A possible way forward was highlighted in the recommendations made by Lord Heseltine and Sir Terry Leahy in their report on Liverpool last month. They see the Victorian and Edwardian housing stock as an asset and the city's population as a potential labour market of nearly 3m people. They condemn the Detroit model of "demolish and grass over" in deprived areas, a strategy long pursued by Liverpool.
They propose that the long-term unemployed earn their benefits by creating gardens and doing up derelict houses. There is something comic in the recommendation that jobseekers on £67.50 a week should sort out the mess made by Pathfinder's consultants on £800 a day. But the message is invigorating after decades of managed decline and the demolition of supposedly obsolete but actually perfectly serviceable terraces. The question is whether councils such as Liverpool's are capable of the necessary change in thinking. What's clear is there is now a need to provoke one because the government looks as if it is about to set off another wave of demolitions. As exposed by the weekly trade magazine Inside Housing, an unintended consequence of a coming reform of public housing finances is that councils have an incentive to dispose of as many homes as possible by the time the rules take effect in March. Nottingham and Birmingham are threatening to demolish up to 2,000 homes. The solution is to devise a way of making councils such as Liverpool sell, or give away, empty homes that the private sector could more cheaply bring into use. London boroughs such as Islington, reluctant to divest themselves of council housing in the Thatcher era, were forced to do so. Property prices soared.
Powers, known as prods - public requests to order disposal - that were devised at that time need to be improved so councils are forced to sell empty homes to people who have a coherent vision for the area. Selling off property at a low price to people who undertake to do it up has worked in Rotterdam, where social problems have all but gone and the scheme is oversubscribed.
Eric Pickles's communities department needs to look at ways of getting boarded-up properties owned by councils and housing associations into the hands of charities, local groups and individuals. Groups such as Canopy in Leeds and Giroscope in Hull have shown the way by doing up empty properties, using the unemployed as labour, at their own expense.
At present the councils don't want to sell - certainly not at the bargain prices needed to drive regeneration - and the coalition is deterred by its belief in localism from forcing councils to do the right thing. Pickles should reflect that there is another kind of localism. He needs to empower people who want to do up their own environment with their own money -this means getting councils to sell underused assets such as Liverpool's boarded-up Welsh Streets, where Ringo Starr was born. Pickles and Shapps must act directly on the statist mindset that has held back the northern towns for so long. If they don't, they will go on being blamed for problems they didn't cause.
Sunday Times 06.11.11
the greenest option