Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Sorry we took your house, do you want it back?

Those who followed the extraordinary 40 year saga of the 80 empty homes on the North Circular Road in London may have a sense of de ja vous. This time the story is Armitage Gardens in Luton. The Highways Agency tasked with widening the M1 started buying up properties that seemed to be in the way. Over a period of fifteen years between 1993 and 2008 seventy-three houses were bought and boarded up for future demolition. Then, with motorway costs spiralling out of control, the government decided on a different approach. Instead of widening the road they’d let people drive on the hard shoulder instead. Neat idea! But then what happens to the 73 houses. Why not offer them back to the original owners? Under an old ruling called the Crichel Down Rules that is indeed exactly what has to happen.

But who or what is Crichel Down? Well it turns out that it’s an area of farmland in Dorset. It was requisitioned by the government for bombing practice at the beginning of World War 2 . Winston Churchil gave an undertaking at the time, that all requisitioned land would be given back after the war. It wasn’t, and indeed parts of Salisbury plain including the whole village of Imber remain in government ownership for military use today. Crichel down had another fate, after the war ownership was handed over to the ministry of agriculture who the leased it out at vast profit. The original owners were understandably cheesed off with this arrangement, and began campaigning for the return of their land. After many years they were successful, an enquiry was launched which ultimately ended in the resignation of a cabinet minister and the establishment of rules (the Crichel Down Rules) that are still in use today.

The pity is that the Luton homes were boarded up and not temporarily let. Had they been rented out they would be in habitable condition today and would have provided homes for seventy three households who currently have no home. The Luton case is not a happy one, taking property off people never is. But at least the prospect of a happy ending is possible, and in rather shorter timescale than it took on the North Circular Road.


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