“Conservative Party policy will continue the good work of regenerating cities right across England, including northern cities.”
David Cameron MP, 13 August 2008
Cathy Newman checks it out…
Ever since becoming Conservative leader, David Cameron has tried to make friends in the North. Right from the start, he’s committed his party to urban regeneration of the big Northern cities. It was a message which featured in his first party conference speech as leader in 2006, and two years ago he dismissed the idea that some Northern cities were “beyond revival” as “insane”. But an ambitious programme to overhaul sub-standard housing in areas like Liverpool and Oldham has been quietly shelved by the coalition government. The result? Tens of thousands of homeowners trapped in streets of derelict houses. They’d been promised their houses would be bought up and knocked down, so they would be able to move into better accommodation. But with the housing regeneration programme suspended, they’re stuck in limbo. So has Cameron broken his promise to “continue the good work”?
In 2003, Labour launched its so-called “Pathfinder” programme, pledging £5bn to regenerate housing in nine areas. It was expected to run for 15 years.
But seven years on only £2.2bn has been spent and the current government will not be providing the remaining £2.8bn. Up to 62,000 households will be affected, Channel 4 News understands.
Axing the funding has meant that the demolition of around 30,000 sub-standard houses and the refurbishment of another 32,000 will no longer go ahead, according to analysis by Brendan Nevin, a visiting professor at Manchester University, for Channel 4 News. Some householders we visited in Liverpool and Oldham are marooned in streets where the majority of homes have been boarded up ready for demolition. Because the project won’t now be completed, these homeowners fear their houses won’t be bought up by the council as promised.
In the Anfield area of Liverpool alone, 360 households will be left surrounded by houses that have been boarded up because they are unable to move on from the area.
The danger is the changes will hit the poor the hardest. According to the Audit Commission, around 43 per cent of the poorest one per cent of neighbourhoods are located in the areas where this housing regeneration was due to happen.
Mr Nevin says over 123,000 of England’s poorest residents will be directly affected by the changes, assuming 30 per cent of the properties set for demolition are vacant and five per cent of the houses to be refurbished are unoccupied. And he claims that the government’s failure to provide the remaining funding will put at risk £4.2bn of private investment and around 17,200 jobs in construction.
It’s true that the Pathfinder programme has never been popular with the Conservatives. They have seized on local opposition to the demolition of Victorian two-up, two-down houses. Back in 2006 David Cameron called it “insensitive”, saying local communities should be in charge of regeneration, rather than central government. He said: “Our response, based on our philosophy of social responsibility, is to trust local leaders, not undermine them. So we will hand power and control to local councils and local people who have the solutions to poverty, to crime, to urban decay in their hands.”
Housing minister Grant Shapps told Channel 4 News today that “money that is already committed can continue, and we will make sure that all of the contracts that are in place carry on…And then we need to find a better way of getting money direct to the communities, obviously all set against the background of deficit reduction and trying to resolve the big national problems.”
He suggested that if councils were short of funding to buy up and demolish houses, they should apply for money from the £1.4bn Regional Growth Fund. But that Fund is shared among a number of different schemes aside from housing, so there won’t be enough money to cover the shortfall. He challenged local authorities to show “innovation and leadership” to help people stranded in derelict streets.
Mr Shapps also pointed out that the money for urban regeneration would have faced cuts under Labour.
Cathy Newman’s verdict
The Pathfinder scheme has certainly been controversial, with many questioning why decent Victorian terraced houses are being demolished and replaced. But there is no doubt that shelving this funding has left tens of thousands in limbo, stranded in inadequate houses and surrounded by dereliction. The housing minister hopes local councils will be able to scratch around for funds to help the neediest out. But that may be very hard to achieve. In the mean time, believing Cameron’s claim that the Tories will continue the “good work” on urban regeneration requires a rather large leap of faith.