Norman

Some years ago I heard Michael Palin being described as ‘the nicest man in England’ and he may well have been given an award to that effect. At the time I thought yes I can see that, you can’t think of Palin doing anything but good.

But in politics few people are thought of as being nice, yet one man stands out for me – Norman Lamb MP. Now don’t get me wrong, like many other Remainers, I have struggled with Norman’s struggles over whether he would back a Brexit Deal. His agonising over Johnson’s deal, which from an economic assessment perspective was worse even than May’s deal, befuddled many of us. Why on earth was Norman drawn to the deal in any way? Sadly, some folks frustration with this lovely man boiled over and things were said about him which clearly hurt.

We say we want MP’s who are independent thinkers and who don’t just slavishly follow the party line but when we then see such MP’s in action, particularly when they are drawn to supporting/not supporting a cause which means a lot to us, we get upset.

Former Lib Dem MP for Southport John Pugh

Locally, the former MP for Southport John Pugh could be said to have approached his time in politics with an independent mind and at times he caused frustration in Liberal ranks for that independence of mind. The problem with being a Liberal MP is that Lib Dem supporters expect those MP’s to have libertarian views about every subject, but of course we are all flawed so sometimes a Liberal MP will come up with a stance which makes other Liberals stand up and shout at them.

But back to Norman Lamb because other than his agonising over Brexit deals which virtually no other Liberal could get their head around he really is the kind of person anyone would want for their MP. His work to raise the profile of metal health issues whilst being an MP has been tremendous and it’s clearly such a big matter to him that he will be continuing to campaign for those less fortunate after he steps down from Parliament at the December General Election. Indeed, he’s already set up a mental health charitable trust primed with a significant amount of his own money to get it going.

I met Norman when he visited Liverpool in 2017 and he really is the kind of person who has time to talk with people. He’s pictured above with my daughter Jen. Here’s a link back to my previous posting about that visit to Liverpool:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2017/10/21/norman-lamb-the-mp-who-gives-voice-to-mental-health-issues/

MP’s like Norman are sadly few and far between with so many of them being sheep following the crowd and/or their party. What we need are more independently minded MP’s who despite driving us mad when they, in our view, go off the rails on a particular matter are actually sound, decent and will stick two fingers up to the political charlatans rather than fall in behind them.

Norman Lamb MP

By the way what is Palin’s flaw, he must have one?

PS. I’m presently Reading Palin’s 2018 book ‘Erebus – the story of a ship’, it is as you might expect a great read.

Nodding Donkeys – The Pacer, a bus on railway wheels, is still sadly with us

A Pacer at Preston Station

I came across the You Tube video (see link below) pretty much by chance even though it’s on a matter I have blogged about a number of times before i.e. the infamous ‘Nodding Donkeys’ of the railway world made from bus bodies and freight van trucks. However Southport rail campaigner Eric Woodcock is on the video explaining in straight forward terms how the much derided Pacer trains came about. It’s an interesting watch……

www.youtube.com/watch?v=ucA5xIgjZBc

Inside a down at heel Pacer on the Ormskirk Preston Line

My good friend and former MP for Southport John Pugh campaigned to rid us of these terrible trains and here’s a link back to his work on the matter:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2018/02/07/pacers-are-thankfully-on-their-last-legs-or-is-that-wheels/

Bootle – Newheartlands Pathfinder housing initiative – A look back

Some 16 years ago the then Labour government launched an initiative to try to tackle the problems of some northern urban areas where the housing market had all but failed.

On Merseyside schemes were brought about to tackle this problem in Liverpool, on The Wirral and in the Bootle part of Sefton Borough. The Liverpool scheme and the demolitions and controversy surrounding it still rumble on to this day but Bootle did not hit the national headlines so profoundly.

So why am I looking back on it now? Well the memory jogger was an out of the blue approach from someone wanting to interview me with regard to a thesis they are writing about the housing initiatives of (New) Labour. My connection with the matter is due to me being the Leader of Sefton Council from 2004 to 2011 when the Pathfinder housing renewal scheme called Newheartlands was redeveloping land in the parts of Bootle where it was deemed the housing market had failed.

We are Old Labour

I think the first thing to say is that Labour members of the day on Sefton Council would probably be best described as Old Labour, so they were in general more than a little sceptical of Blair’s shiny New Labour. Indeed, at Council meetings it was not unusual for a Labour member to shout out ‘We’re Old Labour’ if some reference was made to the government of the day. It was as if they felt the need to distance themselves from their own party in government and I make this point not to point score but to set the local political scene of the time in the Borough.

My guess is that the Labour council members (the Council was in fact balanced at the time with the Lib Dems being the largest party*) were on the one hand glad that housing investment was being brought into the poorest parts of the Borough but on the other they were suspicious and cautious about the objectives of New Labour. Putting it bluntly they would just rather have built council houses and be done with it but that was not on New Labour’s housing agenda.

I would add that the Sefton Council wards where the Newheartlands project had the biggest impact were represented by Labour Councillors.

The Lib Dem perspective

From our Lib Dem perspective, we too wanted to see far more social housing being built as that was what we saw as being the real housing crisis of the day. Of course it still is, in fact it’s now a much bigger housing crisis than in 2003.

If I understood the philosophy of the Pathfinder schemes properly, they were aimed at making the local housing market viable again in those locations where it had broken down. This was to be achieved via a combination of demolitions/rebuilds of areas of Victorian terraced houses and improvements to the public realm. If memory serves it also worked alongside government funding which enabled the hugely costly decontamination of former industrial land to be undertaken. Unsurprisingly housing and contaminated land sites in such areas are often side by side as the housing was built to serve the now long gone industries.

That the Pathfinder schemes were controversial goes without saying; any housing demolitions will always be. But did Pathfinder actually work in dragging localities back into a functioning housing market? My feeling was the results were at best patchy although I have little doubt that the promoters of such schemes were well intentioned. However, my memory of the mechanics of getting and keeping the Bootle Newheartlands housing market renewal scheme going is one thing but what about the actual outcomes as opposed to those which were planned/hoped for?

I went back to look at some documents of the time written by:-

* Sefton Council – HOUSING MARKET RENEWAL DEPARTMENT DEPARTMENTAL SERVICE PLAN 2006 – 2009 of April 2006
* Merseyside Civic Society – Housing Market Renewal Briefing Note for DCLG Select Committee 12th December 2012
* House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts – Housing Market Renewal: Pathfinders 35th Report of Session 2007–08

to both refresh my memory and to see how the outcomes were shaping up.

Sefton Council’s view of Pathfinder/Newheartlands in 2006

Firstly, let’s have a look at what Sefton Council were saying in their April 2006 report, which has some very useful background information about the Newheartlands operation in Bootle:-

During 2003, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM) established nine ‘low demand pathfinders’ across the northern and midlands regions of England. The aim of the pathfinders was to tackle problems associated with ‘housing market failure’. Briefly, housing market failure occurs where local housing markets do not operate as effectively as those in nearby neighbourhoods. Typical symptoms of housing market failure include;

• Rented housing which is in low demand • House prices which fall behind prices for similar properties in adjoining neighbourhoods • High turnover of households (IE households that do not stay in the areas affected long-term ) • High numbers of empty properties • High levels of property abandonment • Concentrations of ‘obsolete’ housing which do not meet the requirements of modern households • High level of criminal activity • Anti-social behaviour • Poor quality environments and fly-tipping

The Merseyside pathfinder – named ‘Newheartlands’ comprises the eastern side of the Wirral Peninsula, parts of central and northern Liverpool and south Sefton. Each of the three affected Local Authorities are funded from a cocktail of sources and have established their own delivery teams in order to tackle the problems of housing market failure.

In Sefton’s case, the response has been to establish a separate department – the smallest in the Council with just 14 full time staff – reflecting the importance placed by Sefton Council on tackling the problem within the south of the Borough. Funded directly from ODPM as well as Corporate Capital allocations (plus many other public and private sector funding streams, the HMR Department has established five neighbourhoods within south Sefton in need of investment;

• Bedford Road / Queens Road / Worcester Road • Klondyke • Linacre • Knowsley /Peel • Seaforth / Waterloo

With a life span of approximately 15 years, the housing market renewal initiative in Sefton will see the demolition of about 1200 low demand and obsolete houses and the development of 1400 new houses for rent, shared ownership or outright sale. Additionally, a range of measures aimed at improving the quality of local neighbourhoods will be implemented, including a team of neighbourhood caretakers, together with other measures aimed at tackling crime, anti social behaviour, poor quality environments and other problems related to housing market failure. Whilst the majority of the physical re-development will take place in the Bedford / Queens and Klondyke neighbourhoods, all of south Sefton will see activity aimed at re-structuring local housing markets.

In order to achieve this objective, HMRI will link with mainstream Council Departments and attract funding from a cocktail of public and private sector sources to improve the quality of local services, as well as facilitating the coordination of transport, health, education and economic development policies in the south of the borough. This will ensure the delivery of sustainable, high quality regeneration with housing markets that are competitive, popular and attractive to current and future residents.

In order to effectively deliver it’s regeneration activity and to ensure excellent co-ordination with other related services, Housing Market Renewal is positioned within the Council’s Regeneration and Environmental Services Directorate along with Planning, Economic Development, Leisure and Environmental Protection functions as well as other sections delivering regeneration activity.

Within the Council’s structure, the Department reports to the Cabinet Member for Regeneration.

The Council then went on to talk about what it saw as its project achievements 2004 to 2006:-

In April 2004, Sefton’s HMRI Department received it’s first allocation of Housing Market Renewal grant from the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. £16.4 million was allocated to Sefton for the period April 2004 to March 2006. In return, Sefton was required to establish some key outputs and outcomes in furtherance of it’s HMRI activity, as well as committing to contributing financially to the initiative. The key achievements of the HMRI department during this period are outlined below;

• Entered into long-term agreements with Bellway PLC and Keepmoat PLC that will see the development of about 1600 new homes in our priority housing market renewal neighbourhoods over the next 15 years

• Entered into agreements with Registered Social Landlord partners – Evolve and Breathe+ – which will ensure that sufficient social rented housing is provided within these neighbourhoods over the life of the project

• Entered into agreements with RSL partners in all five HMRI neighbourhoods in south Sefton which will ensure the delivery of a range of activity aimed at improving local neighbourhood management

• Assembled 13.3 hectares of land for housing / mixed development (enough for around 600 new dwellings)

• Remediated 0.9 hectares of land to facilitate re-development

• Started work on remediation of a further 3.6 hectares of land to facilitate re-development

• Purchased 448 properties as part of Sefton’s land assembly programme

• Improved a further 330 dwellings in south Sefton

• Carried out improvements to parks, streets and management arrangements benefitting 3981 households in south Sefton

• Made two Compulsory Purchase orders in order to assemble land for re-development

• Started work on the construction of 110 new homes as part of HMRI masterplans

• Refurbished 18 properties as part of HMRI masterplans

• Achieved all spend and output targets established by the Department by Sefton Council, Newheartlands Pathfinder and the office of the Deputy Prime Minister

So in April 2006, 3 years into the project, all was seen to be going well seemingly by both Sefton Council, who were managing the project locally, and the ODPM who were funding it and keeping Sefton on track. But then I turned to the Merseyside Civic Society report of 2012, some 6 years later and the pictured had changed substantially:-

Merseyside Civic Trust view of Pathfinder/Newheartlands projects in 2012

The Housing Market Renewal (HMR) demolition programme was expensive (£2.2bn) and self-defeating (30,000 homes cleared in England during a housing crisis). The vast spending consolidated individual home owners assets into large land banks, obtained via aggressive council / social landlord CPO and eviction. This throttled natural processes of recovery, as streets of acquired properties deteriorated. It has smothered local regeneration by creating monopolies & denying market entry to families / small firms. It has proved counter-productive to urban regeneration in places like Merseyside, working against more sensitive design and planning policies like the Albert Dock & Liverpool 1, which have led to Liverpool’s first uplift in population since the 1930s (+5.5% since 2001). In this broadly positive regeneration context, the HMR policy’s ‘managed decline’ targeted 18,000 of the city’s Victorian terraced properties for purchase & clearance. As in the 1960s, clearances proved profoundly damaging, imposing terrible blight on inner urban communities, & preventing natural market uplift during the city’s recovery. The Coalition’s analysis has been broadly sound, thanks to quietly effective work by former Junior Minister Andrew Stunnell MP. Policy was set out by the then Housing Minister Grant Shapps MP a year ago in Parliament. He condemned clearance programmes that ‘increased deprivation, undermined the market & left families trapped in abandoned streets’:

So it looks like the wheels had clearly come off according to Merseyside Civic Society. I then turned to the House of Commons report of 2007/2008 to see if what Merseyside Civic Society were saying 4 years later was becoming apparent. It seems it may well have been – here are a few extracts from that HoC report which interestingly did have a Sefton Borough MP on it – John Pugh (Southport):-

View of House of Commons Committee of Public Accounts – Housing Market Renewal: Pathfinders 2007–08

The Programme has refurbished over 40,000 homes, acquired and demolished 10,000, yet built only 1,000 new homes, creating a risk that demolition sites, rather than newly built houses, will be the Programme’s legacy.

and

‘After five years and an investment commitment of some £2.2 billion, the gap in demand in housing between pathfinder neighbourhoods and surrounding regions has started to close but the Department is unable to assess whether this is due to pathfinder-led interventions or wider market factors.’

and

The needs of those who wish to remain in an area should not be overlooked in developing more mixed and sustainable communities.

and

The average shortfall between the compensation received by existing residents under a Compulsory Purchase Order and the cost of a suitable alternative property is £35,000, with the risk that existing residents are priced out of the housing market altogether.

So what do we conclude about the effectiveness of Pathfinder/Newheartlands projects in Sefton Borough?

Pathfinder was in my view well intentioned but ultimately largely neutral to negative in its effect on the housing problems it was trying to tackle. To be fair though, with so many unmanageable/variable factors in play such as the state of the local and national economy (the economic collapse/recession struck in 2007), housing costs/prices in surrounding areas and employment availability assessing the outcomes was always going to be a challenge. Did it work? In general no (by the standards set for it) and of course it was cut short as much by austerity (promoted by all 3 major political parties in the 2010 GE) as by it’s record of success/failure across northern urban communities.

One additional comment here is that the associated loss of government money to remediate polluted sites was a big loss as private developers would not and still will not touch sites that need high levels of investment to make them safe to build houses on. Arguably, this had another unfortunate knock-on effect some years later when Sefton said it needed to allow house building on Green Belt/high grade agricultural land in the Borough because there was not (in its view) sufficient brownfield land to meet local housing needs. The Council’s view was not supported by environmental campaigners but the detail of that argument is not for this posting and I have covered it anyway in previous blog articles.

Anyway back to the main issue, should Pathfinder projects have been updated/changed following the 2007/2008 HoC report? Yes almost certainly, but then of course you run into the will of governments who never like to admit when a policy initiative is failing. Of course the flip side is also true because new governments will almost certainly say a previous government’s policies were rubbish even if they were not!

Lack of sufficient social housing is the root cause of our UK housing crisis

But as I mentioned a while back the real housing market problem in the UK back in 2003, as indeed it still is now some 16 years later, is the lack of social housing. New Labour were on the wrong track because they were trying to rebuild the private sector housing market rather than admit that the failures in that market were associated with a lack of decent social housing. Yes I know that New Labour brought in the Decent Homes Standard for social housing, although many years later those standards (under some social landlords and housing associations) are yet to be reached! However, trying to bring existing social housing up to a good standard is one thing but not tackling the vastly insufficient numbers of social housing is quite another.

I remain convinced that pretty much our whole housing market crisis can be put down to not building more/enough social housing, following the sale of large numbers of council houses. Why governments of all colours have been so blind to this since the early 1980’s beats me. And Pathfinder? – an expensive public housing policy dead end I’m sad to say. However, don’t get me wrong, it was worth trying but it should have been significantly reviewed and changed when the expected outcomes were looking unlikely.

Note:- The documents which I have read and quoted from are available on the internet.

* Sefton Council being balanced led to 3 party governance i.e. all 3 major political parties were represented on the Council’s Cabinet – an unusual solution in our oh so tribal UK politics. In turn this meant the Tories had a hand in running the Council. My recollection is that they did not take a great deal of interest in the Newheartlands issues.

Pacers are thankfully on their last legs or is that wheels

www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-42937218

The BBC has the story on its web site – see link above

An alternative title for this posting could ‘Well John Pugh are you happy now?’ because during his time as MP for Southport John fought to get the appalling Pacer Trains replaced. To be fair many, many other people were on a similar track (sorry about the pun) but John made it onto a BBC North West TV programme about his fight to rid the rails of Pacers.

John has now returned to his political roots as a Sefton Councillor and leads the opposition on Sefton Council.

My previous relevant posting (amongst many!) about Pacers, because it links to the BBC TV programme that John Pugh appeared in, is accessible via the link below:-

tonyrobertson.mycouncillor.org.uk/2013/01/01/calling-for-the-end-to-the-use-of-class-142-pacer-trains-on-our-railways/

John’s contribution to the programme is at about the 12 minute mark.

And here’s a video of the new trains being built in Spain:-

www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-42946339/northern-to-replace-pacers-with-21st-century-trains

Southport – It’s rail link to Manchester is vital if our tourist town is to fulfill its potential

I have commented on this blog site many times about the importance of the Southport – Wigan – Manchester railway line but a recent reading of Nigel Dyckhoff’s book ‘Portrait of the Cheshire Lines Committee’ really does press home why this is the case.

Southport Station at night with a 507/508 EMU awaiting to depart for Liverpool.

Southport Station at night with a 507/508 EMU awaiting to depart for Liverpool.

This quote from the 5th chapter of Nigel’s book (published in 1999) says it all:-

‘Modelled on the exclusive resorts of the South of France and laid out as a garden city, Southport became known in publicity material as the ‘Montpellier of the North’. A fashionable watering place and residential area for the businessmen of Manchester and Liverpool’

Of course in 2016 we would say ‘businessperson’ but what Southport really, really needs (and soon) is the return to the fast train services into Manchester which were lost in the 1960’s. To achieve that the line needs to be electrified before we enter the next Ice Age rather than on the vague goodness knows when Network Rail timetable that presently exists.

Departure board at Southport Station.

Departure board at Southport Station.

It stands to reason, especially with our choked roads/motorways and the lack of an east/west Ormskirk road bypass, that if folks are to live in Southport and have quick and comfortable access into Manchester (like they have into Liverpool) that upgrading of the railway line has to be a top priority for the Town. It will also need a decent park and ride station on the eastern edge of Southport with a significantly large car park.

A Southport bound Class 156 DMU at Burscough Bridge Station on the Southport - Wigan - Manchester Line.

A Southport bound Class 156 DMU at Burscough Bridge Station on the Southport – Wigan – Manchester Line.

This is surely an important way of improving the economy and indeed the retail offer of Southport. It will mean that wealth generated in Manchester can more easily be spent in Southport by people who depend on their income by working in Manchester but who love to live by the sea in Southport.

It’s really not rocket science just a look back to the way Southport used to be so much better rail connected to Manchester.

Southport Rail Transport Forum logo

Southport Rail Transport Forum logo

The present campaign to save the Southport rail services into Manchester Piccadilly is of course an important part of developing better rail access to Manchester from Sefton Borough’s tourism Town. The work of OPSTA, Southport Rail Transport Forum and John Pugh MP is vital but where are Merseytravel and Sefton Council in all this?

OPSTA logo

OPSTA logo

Merseytravel had to be dragged into including the Southport – Manchester Line in its Long Term Rail Strategy not so long ago but credit to them for accepting the arguments put forward at the time. But if Southport is to flourish as Merseyside’s tourism capital, which is surely in all our interests, then we will need to see some real, determined and positive campaigning by our Sub-Regional Transport Body and Borough Council, potentially over a number of years, to make serious change happen.

Without an electrified railway offering fast services into Manchester Piccadilly and Victoria Stations Southport will not be able to regain what it once had and so desperately needs. Just read that quote above once more; the railway answer to Southport’s eastern transport link problems is all to obvious!