I don’t know whether many of you saw the article in last week’s Inside Housing from SAVE about the Welsh Streets. I have never read such absolute twaddle since I read one of Grant Shapp’s speeches on housing.
SAVE and Grant have the same problem. They cannot understand that housing is not about buildings and money (although these are, of course, vital). Housing is about people, neighbourhoods, communities and life chances.
Let’s look at the Welsh Streets and the Housing Market Renewal Initiative. The HMRI was started not as the result of some nasty plot by the Labour Government but as a result of discussion in Liverpool with the government in which I led for us and Charlie Falconer led for the government. It was predicated on a fact – Liverpool has too many two up two down Victorian properties for which there would not be a market to the current extent even if they were modernised.
We actually went and asked a vital group of people a simple question in 1998, “Why did you move out of Liverpool?” The answer was complex but compelling. They were moving because our services were crap and the housing did not meet their aspirations. They wanted to live in 3 bed roomed detached and semi-detached homes in a nice clean area with a good school. We didn’t provide any of these things.
On that basis we looked in detail at who owned what housing and what the demand for it was. The answer was also clear all over the city there was a preponderance of poor quality terraces. Terraces like those in the Welsh Streets that had been built in the 1870s quite shoddily for a 50 year life and we had renovated them twice. We had preponderance at the other end of newish concrete monstrosities – particularly maisonettes which had been damp from the day they were built. So we published the facts and went to discuss them with the communities where there was an oversupply of the wrong type of accommodation. They overwhelmingly supported limited demolition. In the Welsh Streets for example after a 3 year consultation process 68% of local residents voted for a demolition programme and only 15% voted against. That’s democracy in action. In total only 10,000 out of 220,000 properties were scheduled for demolition over 12 years. This implies that current housing in Liverpool will have a 200+ years life span. Even in those areas where demolition proceeded they were a minority of the areas’ housing.
Included in the demolition programme discussion were clear agreements about what we would do for those whose homes would go. We agreed that if they wanted we would move them in the area with their friends, we would safeguard their existing equity and would take responsibility for most of the drudgery of moving.
In their place we would create demographically balanced housing with different types of accommodation and different tenures for different people at different times of their life. In other words we would build housing inside which communities could form and neighbourhoods would flourish. In Liverpool 8 if you brought up your children well, gave them a good education there was almost an inevitability that they would move out and take your grand children with them. In other words we had housing policies which by accident or design broke up families and communities because we allowed no flexibility of provision.
Poor Grant has lived a very sheltered life in which he hasn’t been exposed to the fact that some housing is valueless. We can see that in the context of the Welsh Streets. Great play has been made of the fact that in about 2005 an ITV programme did a makeover on one of the homes and claimed it could be renovated for about £36,500. This caused great damage because it was completely untrue. The programme never came back to explain why this property, improved to that level was unmortgageable. People wanted to buy it but couldn’t. Even then it would have cost almost twice as much to bring back to a sustainable condition.
So now we have a government policy which is designed to destabilise the poor. Short life tenures will mean that those in most need will get a property – then if they can stabilise themselves at the end of two years they will be forced out to make way for another family in need. That might be an effective use of short term cash but not long term. What Grant is doing is creating ghettoes. Areas which will only consist of poor people, largely inhabited by people with problems they will become problem areas. The life chances of those within them will decrease and the likelihood is that for many of them they will stay ghettoised for the rest of their lives.
People who can move out already do but they do it when the time is right for them. It is a gradual change and a gradual move with many choosing not to move out but to add to the life of the community by volunteering. This is called in Tory circles “Big Society” but it will never flourish in poorer areas if we introduced small minded measures which remove the most capable from the community and thus reduce the community’s ability to cure itself.
Now is the time for a real debate about housing. The government is absolutely right to challenge us about over dependence on benefit, about better use of housing assets and about housing associations and councils becoming more efficient and reaching out more holistically into the community. But they are wrong to impose southern suburban solutions on inner city and northern problems.
I keep challenging Grant to spend some time in a council area on a fact finding visit and not a royal tour. Little Grant is too small minded even to respond to my letters – but I will keep on trying. Perhaps one day Mr Shapps will realise just how little he knows.