The Mayor and Liverpool City councillors are cursing Eric Pickles for suspending their decision to demolish the Welsh Streets. Pickles won’t care about their curses of course, the fact that this is the third time ministers have directly intervened in this decade long saga might say something about ministers commitment to localism, but it also says a lot about the way this case has been handled by the council too.
The council like to paint opposition to the Welsh Streets demolition
as outside interference by heritage zealots, but they understate the
case. No housing scheme in England has proved more controversial or more
divisive, and few can have been as eye wateringly expensive. Whatever
you might say about Pickles he is no heritage zealot. The truth is he
has plenty of other reasons for questioning the decisions made in this
He may well feel that the scheme fails to meet housing need.
Demolishing 439 houses and building perhaps as few as 153 is a huge loss
of the city's housing capacity. A city with a growing population
shouldn't be settling for less. Less housing means fewer homes for
people. With household sizes in Liverpool getting smaller and housing
association rents rising, demand for larger houses is in decline, small
houses are what the city needs. Old terraces may be unfashionable but
they provide good homes for people on modest incomes. Without them more
people, unable to buy homes, become reliant on social housing.
Pickles may think the scheme fails to promote economic growth. A
drop in housing capacity means local services and shops struggle, and
people have to drive elsewhere to get the services they need. In a city
that should be striving for growth this scheme is the opposite - managed
He may wonder what the scheme has done to the community. Over the
last ten years 1200 residents have been lured or driven away. The
council may claim community support for demolition now, but the truth is
after a decade of attrition there is hardly anybody left to oppose it
He no doubt thinks the scheme is incredibly inefficient. When you
add up all the public subsidy this scheme has absorbed over the last ten
years it totals £35million. A sum of money that could have easily have
paid outright for building twice as many new houses on some of the
city’s many vacant plots of land, or a programme of refurbishing 1,000
of its empty homes.
Perhaps he will also pause for thought over what caused the problem
this scheme seeks to fix. The Welsh Streets were never a wealthy part of
the city, but they were home to a functioning community that was far
from being in decline. The Welsh Street's demise was artificial,
calculated and imposed from above. The last government's ruinous
pathfinder programme paid councils vast amounts of money to buy up and
demolish old houses.
Nowhere greeted this policy with more eagerness than Liverpool
council. Even the minister in charge at the time, John Prescott thought
the council's enthusiasm for demolition was obsessive. "They knocked the whole bloody lot down so you had bomb sites everywhere" he said. The
huge scale of Liverpool's demolition programme was far beyond its
capacity to deliver and the Welsh Streets are a victim and a legacy of
Much has changed in the decade since this scheme was first imposed
on the Welsh Streets, but the scheme itself has remained rigidly
unaltered. To the council’s credit it has, in recent months, sought some
more imaginative solutions for dealing with empty homes, but it refused
to consider them here.
Its unwillingness to compromise has left a scheme that, if
unaltered, would manage the decline of a large community into a small
social housing estate. With Pickles picking up the tab, there can be
little wonder as to why he is questioning it. Liverpool Council and Plus
Dane Housing Association should use this opportunity to fix this flawed
scheme, not in order to placate Pickles, but because the people of
Liverpool deserve no less.