Magazine article The Spectator

Demolition Crazy

Magazine article The Spectator

Demolition Crazy

Article excerpt

While Tony Blair was making his valedictory speech to the Labour party conference in Manchester on 27 September, 60-year-old Elizabeth Pascoe was ecstatic. Not because she was impressed by the Prime Minister's self-composed list of glorious achievements, but because the High Court had just stopped the government from running a bulldozer through her house.

Miss Pascoe's misfortune had been to live in Adderley Street, Liverpool, in one of 500 homes scheduled for demolition in Liverpool under the so-called Pathfinder scheme. The Liverpool Land Development Company, the quango responsible and misleadingly disguised as a private company, had argued that the area needed to undergo 'regeneration' because many homes were lying empty and abandoned. True, many were; but that rather ignored the fact that some of the properties were still used as homes, and that kicking out long-established residents is a pretty perverse way to start the regeneration of a community.

Unfortunately, although the High Court has put a temporary halt on the demolition of Miss Pascoe's home, it will not necessarily mean the end of the Pathfinder scheme, which blights thousands of homes earmarked in nine different inner-city areas in the Midlands and the North. Remarkably, the government persists with the scheme in spite of the fact that its original purpose has been wholly undermined by rising property prices.

When Stephen Byers, followed up by Gordon Brown in his Budget a week later, announced the scheme in April 2002, many inner-city areas were still suffering the aftereffects of the early 1990s property crash.

Some of the classic Coronation Street-style terraces in Salford which had been bought by young couples in the late 1980s boom for £30,000 had collapsed in value to £10,000 or less. There were even tales of houses exchanging hands in pubs for a few hundred pounds each. Stuck in negative equity, many homeowners had simply abandoned their properties. One small grid of streets off Langworthy Road, Salford -- where just a few residents remained among the boardedup properties -- became almost a byword for urban decay, attracting latter-day George Orwells from all over to opine on the state of the nation.

Salford and such places, went the government's reasoning, were entering a cycle of decline due to falling population. So why not buy up the empty properties, demolish them and replace them with a reduced number of more modern and desirable homes? That way, property prices would stop falling, negative equity would dry up and scenes of dereliction would be no more.

In the words of the bumf, Pathfinder would 'restructure failing housing markets in areas of low demand'.

The supposed surplus of property in northern cities, however, soon turned out to be illusory. At the same time as the government was proposing to demolish large swaths of inner-city housing, adjacent city centres were suddenly attracting new commerce and industry -- and with them new residents. Almost immediately, the property boom which was already evident in the South spread northwards. Between the second quarter of 2002 and the second quarter of 2006 the average price of a terraced house in Greater Manchester more than doubled from £49,420 to £104,131 -- a rise echoed in Liverpool and Newcastle.

Houses which wouldn't sell for £10,000 are now selling for £40,000.

Small wonder: for the most part they are good houses. While the Pathfinder scheme at first appeared to shadow the slum clearances of the 1960s, these were far from slums: they were solid, late-Victorian terraces, some of them built from solid stone, and remarkably similar to houses which in the South sell for £150,000 or more. …

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