Monday, January 23, 2012

Pathfinder - and you thought it was over

Housing minsiter Grant Shapps has made his views on Housing Market Renewal very clear. He didn’t like it. In fact he disliked it so much that he brought the whole programme to an early end last year.... Or so we thought.

Housing Market Renewal or Pathfinder as it was more commonly known was a large government programme that aimed to regenerate the housing market in nine of the poorest areas of the North and Midlands of England. Between its inception in 2003 and its end last year it spent £2.3bn on demolishing 30,000 houses and causing 15,000 to be built.
Quoting SAVE Britain’s Heritage Shapps said “From the start, pathfinder showed an appetite for destruction....The classic English terraced house was demonised as “obsolete”. Whole neighbourhoods were declared surplus at the keystroke of a consultant’s laptop. Bureaucratic arrogance reduced communities to inmates of a “Zoo”—Zone of Opportunity—for house builders. Statisticians assumed compulsory purchase and eviction for demolition were acceptable measures for householders in a property-owning democracy. Quite predictably, the cure turned out worse than the disease.”

The decision to end Pathfinder was one we supported, although public investment in some of the poorest communities in England should be welcome, the use much of it got put to was in our view counterproductive. The programme that was originally intended to regenerate communities ended up demolishing them. It was also ineffective in reducing the levels of empty homes, despite that being one its major aims.  There are still about 40,000 empty homes in pathfinder areas, about the same as when the programme began.

But stopping Pathfinder has not proved as easy as it sounds. Local authorities had a pipeline of properties lined up for demolition. First an area was “red-lined”, many residents moved out voluntarily, owners were then bought –out , the reluctant ones subjected to compulsory purchase. This land assembly process took years, and so to stop it any point left thousands of people and homes part way through the process.

After strong lobbying from pathfinder councils, the government eventually agreed that simply turning the funding tap off was not enough. They agreed a transition fund that it announced would allow an orderly wind-down and allow people stuck in the middle of it to be re-housed. The fund originally £30m (later topped up to £35m) was agreed for the five worst affected areas: East Lancashire, Hull, Merseyside Stoke, and Teesside. Applications were approved late last year. 

Announcing the funding Grant Shapps was again strident in his criticism of the pathfinder programme:“Under the previous controversial scheme, local communities in some of the most deprived areas of the country were told they would see a transformation of their areas. But in reality, this amounted to bulldozing buildings and knocking down neighbourhoods, pitting neighbour against neighbour, demolishing our Victorian heritage and leaving families trapped in abandoned streets. This programme was a failure and an abject lesson to policy makers."

Given the language and the tone that surrounded this fund, you might very well expect that it would be made available for reversing the pathfinder policy. But to most people’s astonishment the government’s funds are to pay for more of the same. Charles Clover writing in yesterdays’ Sunday Times said   "The bid for Merseyside, which Shapps approved, goes far beyond rescuing isolated households. Under this “exit strategy”, councils on Merseyside will demolish another 2,369 homes by 2018, on top of the 4,489 destroyed already. There are no proposals for refurbishment.”
The approved Teeside bid sets out its ambitions clearly the individual local authority forward strategies for the majority of these areas in the short-medium term is demolition followed by grassing over until market conditions improve.”
 Pathfinder it seems is far from over.