‘Of all the cuts, this is probably the most damaging.’ So Professor Ian Cole of Sheffield Hallam University this week said of the death throes of the nine housing market renewal pathfinders in the north and midlands.
The rumours of the demise of what could legitimately be called New Labour’s ultimate regeneration project are sadly not exaggerated. Promises of long-term investment made to tens of thousands of people in some of England’s most deprived communities are to be broken.
More than £2 billion of public funding has been invested in these areas of low housing demand since 2002 in an attempt to give them a new lease of life. The Audit Commission - itself a victim of the cuts - found the programme’s efforts have proved patchy. In the past year the watchdog called for pathfinders to deliver improved value for money and to better communicate changes in plans to residents. So is the government right to pull the plug?
Professionals involved argue that, by its very nature, the pathfinder project could only be judged over decades, not the months and years of electoral cycles that appeal to politicians. Perhaps it was naïve for councils to assume that a programme of investment so closely tied to Labour and its core voters would survive under a rival administration.
However, despite negative headlines about the compulsory purchase of cherished homes and subsequent demolition, certain areas had begun to develop the critical mass necessary to thrive under their own steam without such large-scale public intervention. Admittedly this applies to fewer than half the total pathfinder projects, but for the government to abandon these areas, wasting all the public and hundreds of millions of private funds committed there, is reckless.
Professor Cole estimates that for a relatively modest sum - £50 to 60 million - plans could be put in place, following an audit, to salvage those areas with a viable case to stand on their own two feet. Communities secretary Eric Pickles is fond of urging financial prudence on local authorities - this is a perfect opportunity for him to practice what he preaches.