Charles Clover denounces empty homes scheme as “housingshambles”Eric Pickles, Grant Shapps, housing market renewal, Liverpool
If your faith in this government has been knocked, prepare for it to be knocked again. For I can reveal that another legal shambles, not so very different from the West Coast main line fiasco, is slouching towards a denouement. Let’s call it Pathfindershambles, or housingshambles. I have picked up signals that the government’s defence is on its knees in a High Court action in which it has been, incredibly, defending Labour’s discredited Pathfinder regeneration scheme to demolish perfectly good homes in northern cities.
Grant Shapps, now Tory party chairman but then housing minister, told the Commons last year that he had killed off Pathfinder. But, inadvertently, he has let the scheme go on. A small charity that claims Shapps and Eric Pickles, the community secretary, acted incompetently and unlawfully appears to be gaining the upper hand in the court case. This was a ministerial decision and someone should resign. You may not hear calls for this from either government or opposition benches, because both are deeply compromised.
The Pathfinder programme, devised for John Prescott by Professor Brendan Nevin, was meant to address the supposedly inevitable emptying of great northern cities such as Manchester and Liverpool, which would lead to derelict boarded-up terraces. Final proof that Nevin got the trends wrong came last summer when census returns revealed that these cities have been growing for the first time since 1945. Liverpool’s population is up 5.5% and Manchester’s has risen 19% since 2001.
Pathfinders advocates asserted that the market had failed and housing was in over-supply, so what was needed was fewer, better homes. People were told they would see a transformation. What happened was that buildings were bulldozed, neighbourhoods torn apart and families trapped in abandoned streets.
Shapps admitted the policy’s failure in the Commons on November 24th last year. He also criticised the demonisation of the traditional British terrace by the previous government. He identified the perverse incentive for councils and housing associations to run down areas to build up land-banks they could hand over to their developer cronies, causing enormous damage to our heritage. He told the Commons he was ending Whitehall’s obsession with demolition, taking steps to refurbish empty homes and winding up Pathfinder.
Then Shapps did something astonishing. He signed off a further £35m of his department’s money, which brought into play £35m of council money – apparently without reading the small print of what this proposed “exit strategy” entailed: the destruction of 5,000 additional homes and the continuation of the most controversial, locally opposed, schemes: in the Klondyke area of Bootle, and the Welsh Streets of Liverpool. When the charity, SAVE Britain’s Heritage objected, Shapps and his officials said that, while technically unlawful as Shapps had not been informed of the demolition proposals, their decision could not be quashed as the state has no power to demand repayment from councils. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to them not to send the cheque. Then Shapps organised a photo opportunity to say he had saved Ringo Starr’s birthplace, one of 16 homes saved out of 400 perfectly good terraces that will be knocked down.
So the zombie policy, Pathfinder, staggered on, evicting old ladies from homes in which they were born and blighting half empty terraces that might otherwise have found buyers. All a department spokesman would tell me on Friday was “We are not yet in a position to confirm whether we are, or we are not, going ahead with [defending] this case.” Privately I gather the department’s defence is suffering.
Why did Pickles authorise spending taxpayers’ money on fighting a court case about upholding his department’s promises to parliament? What does this case say about Shapps fitness to be party chairman, already damaged by the disclosure that he has used a pseudonym to conduct business affairs? Why did Shapps and Pickles send the television architect, George Clarke to try and save the Welsh Streets only for him to be strung along by cynical housing association apparatchiks?
Ministers alas have no idea what to do about Prescott’s baleful legacy of derelict streets, in which many vulnerable people still live. David Cameron went to Pathfinder areas in opposition and said he was baffled by the policy. What has he done? George Osborne, the Chancellor, says housing and growth are priorities, so why is he spending a penny of our money knocking down houses and not bashing his opponent Ed Balls for his disgraceful part in wasting £2.2 billion on Pathfinder? Brave local groups have devised private finance schemes and alternative designs that would refurbish the Welsh Streets and parts of Bootle at no cost to the public. So far Pickles has washed his hands of them.
If Pontius Pickles wants true localism, he needs to help local people help themselves and stamp his authority on mega-councils who don’t care about residents and build up land banks to get power and money. Pickles should use his powers to make councils sell homes to ordinary people provided they do them up. A good street has many owners, not one.