Saturday, 25 April 2015

Broken faith

Halfway through their mission to revive the housing market in depressed areas, pathfinders have had their funding axed. In the first of a two-part series on the demise of the landmark programme, Inside Housing reports from the communities where hope of a new start is fading fast

The houses on the east side of Balfour Street in Stoke-on-Trent don’t have the best view. Though the properties are smart and neat at the front, and obviously well looked-after within, and though the bottom of the street gives way to spectacular views of the North Staffordshire hills, the homes facing them are far less prepossessing. Almost every single property on the west side of the terraced street is empty and boarded up.

A long terrace of crumbling, boarded-up properties would probably be easier to stomach if it were due to be replaced by smart, new and refurbished properties. These would raise the area’s profile and, possibly, average house prices which, at £69,000, are among the UK’s lowest. Until a few months ago, that was the plan. But now the future of Balfour Street and the roads surrounding it is bleak - the government has pulled the funding needed to redevelop it.

The street is part of the Renew North Staffordshire housing market renewal pathfinder area. In April 2003 the Labour government began pouring £201 million into it. Renew spent the funds on new homes, demolitions and refurbishments. The programme was supposed to run until 2018, but last autumn the coalition government announced it would not fund housing market renewal beyond March 2011. In March and April, the 10 pathfinders that handled the programme in across England’s north and midlands closed. Renew is one of five pathfinder areas where lowest quartile house prices remain well below regional averages, despite the programme.

The remaining £236 million housing market renewal fund had already been subsumed into the coalition’s £1.4 billion regional growth fund. Pathfinders were invited to bid for money from this fund, but none were successful in the first round of bids.

Protest
The decision to close the scheme halfway through its 15-year term has attracted plenty of protest: filming of the BBC’s Question Time programme was interrupted recently in Liverpool when a member of the audience disrupted proceedings to complain about the end of HMR in his derelict neighbourhood. In March, a report from the Audit Commission described the decision to axe the pathfinders as ‘untimely and premature’, and warned that fragile housing markets in HMR areas could deteriorate because of the extent of unfinished work.

It’s difficult to see how Stoke will ever really recover from this. There is no money left to do anything

Professor Bendan Nevin, University of Manchester

A short walk around Stoke-on-Trent brings the scale of the regeneration challenge here - now left to the council to meet - into sharp relief. In parts, the city looks as though it is recovering from a bombing campaign; big patches of waste ground await redevelopment next to long streets of empty homes, some scorched by arsonists. The HMR programme was only just taking off in earnest here when the programme ended.

The short-term effect on the city is clear. But has the pathfinders’ premature end scuppered the chance of recovery for housing markets in Renew and the four other most depressed pathfinder areas?

Brendan Nevin, visiting professor at the University of Manchester, is the man who developed the housing market renewal programme in the late 1990s. He is unequivocally depressed about the future for cities such as Stoke now that it has ended. ‘It’s difficult to see how Stoke will ever really recover from this. There is no money left to do anything,’ he says, looking out along Travers Street in the Middleport area of the city. The road is empty save for two or three properties where the occupants are refusing to leave. Shutters cover the doors and windows, apart from a few houses where boxes of discarded lampshades and curtains still lie in the hallway as though someone might return at any moment. Stoke Council plans to demolish these properties.

‘Three streets which are having extensive work done to existing properties include Balfour Street, Port Street and Travers Street,’ explains Mark Meredith, cabinet member for economic development at the council.

‘It is important to remember that once a site is prepared, the cost to Renew is minimal as developers move in to build properties using private finance.’

Tina Knapper, 28, left her privately rented home on Travers Street a year ago when the clearances were announced, moving to another rented property in neighbouring Port Street. Most of the houses in this street are boarded up, awaiting imminent refurbishment, and Ms Knapper will soon be on the move again to another part of Stoke. ‘It’s horrible at night,’ she says. ‘There’s gangs and that, and the whole street is empty, as well as the houses behind.’

She is not the only one to find her surroundings frightening. Around the corner, sandwiched between two boarded-up properties, is a house with a CCTV camera trained on the door. The street is eerily deserted.

‘It’s a good idea to knock the houses in Travers Street down because they are falling apart,’ says Ms Knapper. ‘Mine was disgusting: the plaster was falling off the walls. Basically, the government doesn’t care about this area.’

Lifeline
The government would beg to differ. Last month, housing minister Grant Shapps announced a £30 million ‘lifeline’ for families trapped in blighted pathfinder neighbourhoods.

The fund will be shared between the five pathfinder areas, Stoke included, where market renewal thus far has failed to provide the desired boost to house prices. Local authorities will be expected to match-fund the money they have been allocated. Where they will find the cash for this with money so tight is not entirely clear.

The Communities and Local Government department says councils now forced to pick up the regeneration challenge can take advantage of the new homes bonus, which matches the council tax raised from new homes and empty properties brought back into use for six years after they are built. A second round of regional growth fund allocations has yet to be announced.

Stoke Council’s member for economic development, Mark Meredith, puts on a brave face. ‘We are in the process of bidding for future funding. There are a number of new funding opportunities that are available so we are confident that we will be able to deliver on existing commitments,’ he says.

Stoke is seeking funding on a site-by-site basis from sources including the second round of the regional growth fund and the £30 million
‘lifeline’.

For Professor Nevin, the available funding streams will not solve the problems that Renew and other pathfinders operating in the most fragile markets face. ‘The £30 million spread between the pathfinders could do a couple of streets for each area,’ he says. ‘The problem is much, much bigger than that.’

CLG officials had originally agreed with this assessment. The decision to deprive the pathfinders of funding to finish the job seems to have been taken late the night before the comprehensive spending review on 20 October 2010. Right up until the close of play on 19 October, civil servants were liaising with pathfinder chiefs about concentrating £500 million of funding on five or six HMR areas where house prices are well below regional averages. But by the following day, HMR had been wiped from the budget sheet.

The pathfinders did not give people enough ownership: that was its biggest failing

Tom Archer, director of community interest company Locally Made

‘That £500 million would have enabled us to finish off the most blighted neighbourhoods,’ argues Mr Nevin. ‘We would have been able to wind up the programme properly, rather than the messy end it has had here. It would have made enough of a difference to the local housing markets, rather than the blight that the half-finished projects are now putting on the areas around them.’

Councils aren’t the only ones trying to work out how to make the best of a bad situation in the housing market renewal zones: there is also growing interest from community groups. Tom Archer, director of community interest company Locally Made, is lobbying local authorities to allow community land trusts to reclaim derelict or part-cleared sites. He says: ‘For community land trusts to reclaim land is a very complex process, although they would be looking to use the community right to build and the community right to reclaim land to do this: these will help them take ownership of areas where the pathfinder scheme has failed.’

Mr Archer also argues that, in some instances, community groups are better placed to address the housing markets in their areas than the pathfinders ever were. ‘Community groups have greater ownership of a scheme. The pathfinders did not give people enough ownership: that was its biggest failing.’

Professor Nevin agrees: ‘Looking back, I think we could have been better not just at defending the programme from its critics but also marketing its achievements. We weren’t good enough on that and I think that was one of the programme’s major failings.’

The programme has certainly attracted its fair share of critics, from communities secretary Eric Pickles to architectural heritage groups, which argue the programme imposed work on communities without their consent. The Conservative party has long opposed the HMR programme, while organisations such as Save Britain’s Heritage argue that the pathfinders are responsible for destroying the character of neighbourhoods with their demolition programmes.

Save believes many of the properties that are being demolished could usefully be renovated again, potentially attracting funding from the empty homes allocation of the new homes bonus. But those involved in the programme dispute this. Professor Nevin says: ‘We have renovated many, many more properties than we have demolished’.

Over in Hartlepool, part of the Tees Valley Living pathfinder area, Mark Dutton is standing in an empty street. The head of regeneration at local housing association and pathfinder partner organisation Vela Group, says: ‘We could not put these houses back into use. They are awful inside: and it is wrong to expect people to live in them. They have damp problems, and they are cramped.

‘But these properties that we are going to demolish are the exception. In the majority of cases, we carry out external improvements and retain the houses. We are not destroying our town’s heritage.’

But boarded-up houses do little to improve an area’s heritage either. ‘I should walk around here more often,’ says Professor Nevin as he walks past an enormous patch of cleared land back in Stoke. ‘Ministers should too: then they’d understand why that £30 million just isn’t enough.’

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