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.