Britain's best known architect, Lord Richard Rogers, critisised the UK government's plans to demolish thousands of homes in England

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British government under attack over plans
to demolish thousands of homes in England

By Brian Baker

2 May 2005: The UK Government policy of selective demolition of thousands homes in areas where housing markets have collapsed as part of a vortex of long-term decline and social difficulties has come under attack from its former advisor Lord Richard Rogers. The advisory body English Heritage commented that it was always more sustainable and up to 60 per cent cheaper to refurbish existing properties rather than to demolish old ones and replace them with new houses.

When the Government established nine Housing Market Renewal Initiative pathfinder projects in 2003, it promised long-term support for interventions over 10-15 years. Financially, so far, the money has matched the words. In 2005/6 half a billion pounds of dedicated finance, additional to other public programmes, is being made available in the pathfinder areas and the projected allocations for the subsequent three years match this sum.  

However, when it emerged earlier this year that the proposals of the partnerships set up to implement initiatives included large-scale demolition of late 19th century terraced homes in some areas there were protests from residents groups and national figures. Various numbers of homes have been cited, some in the hundreds of thousands. However, Ian Cole of Sheffield Hallam University, who assessed the prospectuses of the nine pathfinders in late 2004 suggests the number of demolitions is unlikely to exceed 80,000 homes.

Lord Rogers, who chaired the Urban Task Force, on whose 1999 report the Sustainable Communities policies were based, told the Daily Telegraph newspaper that his team had not proposed any homes demolition. He said re-use of existing buildings strengthens the concept of the livable city.

And the Government appointed Audit Commission, which has a scrutiny remit over the HMRI programmes, warned against excessive public intervention where housing markets show signs of recovering of their own accord.

However, the teams of public officials established by the local authorities and their partners to lead and deliver the pathfinder programmes have responded strongly to critics.

Many point out that the mix of properties in the areas which have experienced decline and stress did not meet contemporary aspirations or encourage mixed income and tenure communities and that in several of the intervention areas traditional localised refurbishment based regeneration schemes had been tried and failed several times.

All the nine projects cross local government boundaries and focus on specific neighbourhoods within larger sub-regional markets. On Tyneside, in north east England, the Newcastle and Gateshead pathfinder project has so far been responsible for 400   demolitions. It has attracted some criticism of a different kind from the Audit Commission which warned that its plans for a net increase of 6000 homes over 10-15 years risked over supply within a region experiencing a reduction in population.

The pathfinders are expected to be innovative and to focus on both social and environmental sustainability. Bridging Newcastle Gateshead has sought to echo the process which led to the 1960’s Byker Wall development in the east of Newcastle which is one of the few lasting successes of Britain’s last era of large-scale public sector led demolition and construction. The five design companies short-listed in a competition for two land parcels in that area were asked to set up a base in the area for three months to fully take on board the views of the local residents. Byker Wall architect Ralph Erskine used this approach 40 years ago.

Merseyside has earmarked 20,000 homes for demolition , the highest number of any of the pathfinders. However, Peter Flynn, Communications Manager of the New Heartlands programme, says that the proposals will be monitored each year in line with the housing market behaviour. If property values in streets or small areas close to those where early intervention is implemented recover then those proposals will be amended and some of the suggested spending on areas of compulsory purchase and demolition will be switched to other forms of intervention.

Mr Flynn emphasises the need for radical change. “ We are working in areas where the majority of housing associated with the maritime industries was built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. There is a preponderance of 2 bed-roomed properties and these are the vast majority of those we are talking about demolishing over the next 15 years.”

“ There will be substantial refurbishment as well,” he says. “ We are acting in the worst areas first and the rationale is that these interventions will lead to beneficial effects in adjoining areas. Its all about diversifying the product mix in the locations which have experienced low demand for several years.”

The new-build properties will be financed by the private sector. In New Heartlands, which is addressing parts of the Wirral, Liverpool and Sefton administrative areas, the local authorities have selected long-term developer partners though Flynn emphasises these arrangements are not exclusive.

But the decision to not spend the public funds on construction underlines the key aspect of this new-style approach. As Flynn says “ properties will only be built if the demand is there. If we want to re-structure we have to listen to the market.”

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