Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Forgotten Story

Last year Liverpool campaigner Elizabeth Pascoe lost her fight to stay in her home, and halt the emptying out and demolition of Edge lane. She was forced out last year. But what has happened since? These two photos of her front door taken before and after she left, perhaps offer an answer.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

PROD this!

Three years ago, after a visit to the road I described this as the most dispiriting case the Empty Homes Agency had ever dealt with. Four large and imposing Victorian villas overlooking one of Liverpool’s great parks had been left to rot and deteriorate to the point that they were virtually falling down. What made it so dispiriting, was the owner of the property was the very organisation we expect to look to resolve problems like this: The local council. The houses were purchased by compulsory purchase by the council at the beginning of the decade to improve them. But nothing of the sort happened. Residents were moved out and the decline set in. First fly tippers used the gardens as rubbish dumps, looters broke in and stole the architectural features, vandals set about damaging what was left, and then last year somebody set fire to them. Local residents decided not to stand for it, and after numerous unsuccessful requests to the council to deal with the houses, the Friends of Newsham Park used a little used legal power to request action. A PROD (public request ordering disposal) was served on the secretary of state (at the time Ruth Kelly) requesting that the properties were sold. Ruth Kelly agreed, but gave the council a final year-long chance to sort it out. As is the way with housing ministers, by the time the year was up she was no longer the minister. Another round of campaigning by residents finally got Hazel Blears to make a decision, it turned out to be another final chance for the council of another year. By the time this year had expired she had gone too. Another year of hand wringing by civil servants followed after which further campaigning forced a decision from the present minister John Denham. He acknowledged all the problems caused, apologised and then announced that the case was closed.

Politicians of all colours talk of the importance of communities being empowered. Indeed the ministers I mention call themselves Secretary of State for Communities, and the civil servants I mention are in something called the Community empowerment directorate. But when, as in this case, a community took them up on their offer, the response was embarrassment and obscuration. Councils have (in my view correctly) been granted powers to compulsorily purchase land and buildings to improve conditions for the community. But where that fails communities have the right to demand redress. This community was let down first by its council and then by its government. I said it was dispiriting! But ironically there’s something uplifting here too. Despite all the obstacles the community didn’t give up and indeed still hasn’t. I’m a true believer that persistence pays. The desire to get something done is almost always greater than the desire to stop it. In the end if they are right they will prevail. I believe they are and they will.

Replacing Cities with Farms

Sir Peter Hall has had a remarkable career. For many years he was a government planning adviser, he led regeneration of the Thames gateway and the building of the channel tunnel, was a member of the urban taskforce and the Barker review of housing supply. But if anything proves pre-eminence it is the ability to be proved right. He has achieved this many times, and it looks like he has done it again over his prediction of the fate of the city of Detroit. Back in 1998 in his book , “Cities in Civilization,” he said that Detroit “has become an astonishing case of industrial dereliction; perhaps, before long, the first major industrial city in history to revert to farmland.”

Detroit has a claim to be the world’s vacancy capital. In its motorcity heyday in the 1950s it was the was the fourth most populous city in the United States. Today it has slipped to eleventh. The decline is not simply that others have overtaken it; Detroit’s population has gone backwards. The impact of this is dramatic. A survey last month showed a vacancy rate of a staggering 35% . Meaning more than 100,000 homes are standing empty.
There has been much soul searching about what can be done, but this week it appears Sir Peter Hall correctly predicted what would happen twelve years ago. Yesterday AP reported that new city Mayor Dave Bing is set to announce that 10,000 houses are to be cleared to make way for farmland.

Of course we know something about this idea in the UK with similar announcements having been made about the future of post industrial cities in the north of England at the end of the last century. The programme that ensued (housing market renewal) originally planned to clear 400,000 houses under rather pessimistic sounding terms like “managing decline” As far as I can recall nobody at the time suggested that the land should be used for farming (an industry that appeared to be in terminal decline itself at the time) But in the decade that has followed the language and the aspiration has subtly changed and now housing market renewal talks about rebuilding housing markets and communities. Some even claim that objective now is for the programme to increase population and housing supply. This is a low point for Detroit, and at such times getting rid of the problem might seem to be the best idea. In the UK it turned out the doomsayers were wrong. With national population increasing our post-industrial cities have begun to recover. The concept of clearance merely as a method of reducing housing supply has been mercifully ditched. Sir Peter Hall may have predicted the response correctly, but hopefully in the end he will be proved wrong.