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