Sunday, September 19, 2010

For Art's Sake

I’d have loved it if Banksy were making a point about the immorality of leaving homes empty. I don’t think it’s him. But somebody is. Whoever they are they have turned an empty house into an artwork contrasting the number of empty homes in the area to the number of homeless. Pots of imitation flowers now adorn the house, and in the front garden a cut out couple appear to be enjoying an alfresco meal. A notice board on the garden fence simply says Homeless 9,500  Empty Homes 7,600.

The house is one of several on Burntwood lane in Wandsworth belonging to the local health authority. All have sat empty for as long as I can remember. I lived near them fifteen years ago and they were empty then. Nothing has changed.
Over the years I have written to the health authority, to the council, and to the MP  asking why these houses could not be used. Only the council bothered to reply and their answer was so wet they might as well have not troubled themselves.  They said they didn’t want to put undue pressure on the health authority because they were considering closing the local hospital. 

Wandsworth is an area with acute housing need, one of the highest affordability problems in the country and yes over 9,000 households on the council waiting list.
One might hope that this artwork might at least pull at some heartstrings in the health authority or the council. But apparently not, a rather sour faced council response said:

Monday, September 13, 2010

Say it With Flowers

There are places in Liverpool that make your heart leap and others that make you want to weep. These two adjacent roads in Granby manage to do both at the same time. Granby is the very essence of a deprived community, on almost any indicator of poverty it does almost unbelievably badly. 94% of children living in poverty 70% of the resident Somali population are unemployed, cancer and heart disease rates are 250% of the national average. Why you might think would anybody want to live here? With over 11% of the houses long term empty, it might appear that they don’t. But nothing in Liverpool is ever simple. Problems have been simmering here for many years. 25 years ago they blew up. This is where the Toxteth riots took place. Last week, walking along these streets I was stopped by a life long resident. “This is their punishment for the riots” she said commenting on the row of bricked up vacant houses on her street “For daring to protest they’ve decided to grind the life out of this area.” She claimed that a deal between council and housing association meant that every house that becomes empty is bricked up rather than re-let. “We’re all getting old here” she said “in a few years we’ll all be gone, then they’ll come in and flatten all the houses.” It was enough to make grown man want to weep. But the resident’s response to the perceived war being waged against them was unexpected and extraordinary. Residents had painted the brieze blocks that replaced the windows on empty homes in Cairns Street and Beaconsfield Street. There were brightly painted curtains where windows had once been, a painted cat peeping out onto the road, butterflies, even a Tuscan castle. The front gardens of abandoned houses were neatly tended, along the length of the street every conceivable receptacle had been used as plant pots; car tyres, a water tank, a couple of old trailers, even a small chest of drawers overflowing with flowers. Most of the houses in these roads were empty, but none were unloved. In the circumstances where most communities would have given up, this one was showing a strength that truly made the heart leap.

Wednesday, September 08, 2010

Last Days of the Welsh Streets

These are the last days of the Welsh Streets in Liverpool. The area was built in the 1880s by and for Welsh construction workers, with  streets named after towns and villages in Wales they came from. Wynnstay, Voelas, Rhiwlas, Powis, Madryn, and Kinmel. In 2005 a decision was made by the council to demolish an area of 300 houses encompassing most of the Welsh Streets. In the last five years the houses have been systematically emptied out and acquired by Liverpool City Council; leaving what must be the largest area of empty houses in the country. Baring a last minute reprieve, the bulldozers are set to roll on October 14th. Yesterday, a warm late summers day I took what might be a last look.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Sows ears and silk purses

It’s hard to believe it now, but in the 1970s when I grew up the glamour football team to support was Ipswich town. It happened to be my hometown club, but their support spread far and wide. The team was filled with well-mannered, clean-cut role-models like Paul Mariner, George Burley and Mick Mills. But if you were a bit rebellious and liked your footballers cut a bit rough, there was nobody better than Eric Lazenby Gates; a grizzled and aggressive forward who always managed to look a mess but play with astonishing skill. He was the type of man who even if you dressed him in a Saville Row dinner suit would somehow still look like a tramp.

When I was ten my parents paid for me to go on a summer football course, coached by Ipswich Town players. I found myself in a group coached by Gates. His thick Northeast accent proved too impenetrable for most of the boys, but with Geordies in the family I understood it perfectly. So did my parents who asked me to be moved into another group to get away from the torrent of smutty jokes and filthy language that were part of his coaching style.

Eric Gates disappeared back to the North East with a transfer to Sunderland a few years later and for many years I thought nothing more of him. That was until earlier this week when I found myself outside the house he was brought up in, in the ex colliery town of Ferryhill in county Durham.

Ferryhill has the curse that has befallen many so-called regeneration hot spots. Its renaissance has been put-off or petered-out. The plans were ambitious. In 2006 a ten year plan was announced by the council that would have seen 400 hundred ex miners cottages demolished and hundreds of new homes built in their place. The works started with the flattening of a chunk of houses in streets named after the great industrial men of their day Stephenson, Watt and Faraday.  But then nothing, the money ran out and with the 2008 market crash, investment slipped away. Far from regenerating the area, the talk of demolition caused, those that could, to move away. Today Gates’ house stands among many others empty and forlorn overlooking a few acres of wasteland.  There is no plan B for Ferryhill, or indeed the many other similar areas where ambitious renewal plans have stalled or been shelved half way through. As we await the Comprehensive Spending Review, there seems little prospect that help will come from elsewhere, or that budgets will be replenished to enable stalled regeneration plans to start up again. The age of demolition and rebuild is, for now at least, over.    

But all should not be lost. These houses could be homes again. Creative thinking like the approaches used in Salford or Anfield can remodel terraced housing and make it appealing and attractive to people looking for homes. Regenerating an area doesn’t have to mean flattening it and starting again.  The great news for places like Ferryhill is this approach is cheaper and therefore more financially viable than the plans that have been abandoned. Places can reinvent themselves, just like people. Eric Gates today earns his living travelling around the Northeast as an after dinner speaker , dressed no-doubt in a Saville row dinner suit.