09/10/2006 - Battle to save homes in the North
By Marcus Binney, Architecture Correspondent - The Times
THE Government’s brutal plans to continue evicting tens of thousands of people from their homes in the North of England are at last meeting serious problems.
In Liverpool one resident, Elizabeth Pascoe, has won a High Court victory ruling that English Partnerships, the Government’s national regeneration agency, has acted unlawfully in pursuit of a compulsory purchase order on 367 houses in the Edge Lane area. In Darwen an inspector has ruled in favour of residents, refusing to accept the argument that the area was suffering from “market failure”.
NI_MPU('middle'); The battle against the Pathfinder projects is being repeated in dozens of northern towns. Government-paid consultants earn up to £40,000 a week attending public inquiries at which eviction and demolition proposals are examined; local residents, hard pressed to take time off from jobs, are mostly without legal representation or help.
Sylvia Wilson, who runs a group dedicated to combating Pathfinder, says: “We just can’t find solicitors who are independent enough to help. A lot of local solicitors won’t take on the work as they regularly act for the local councils who promote these schemes and say there is a conflict of interest.”
Ms Pascoe’s case was a rare exception, won on legal aid by Robert McCracken, QC, who, in one of few commendable moves from the government side, the Department for Constitutional Affairs has appointed to act for Oldham residents at a forthcoming public inquiry.
An inspector’s decision is expected within a month on 1,200 houses in Liverpool. Only about a third of these houses are empty. Once again residents lacked legal representation, but one of them, Steve Ord, took two weeks off work and cross-questioned Pathfinder proponents with effective results. He was helped by Griff Parry, a surveyor who challenges the claims of market failure. Mr Parry says: “We were able to rebut claims that the houses were obsolescent and get them to withdraw claims that there was anything seriously wrong with them.”
The tragedy is that, even in areas where local residents win against district councils and Pathfinder bodies, the councils refuse to co-operate. In the Whitfield area of Nelson, Lancashire, the inspector rejected a plan to demolish 165 houses. All but three of these houses were occupied before the “winkling out” began, a process by which houses are condemned on the basis of superficial external surveys. Residents are allededly offered compensation inadequate to buy a similar home near by, but told that if they do not accept it will be even less. Just 35 of the houses in Whitefield remain occupied, and despite the inspector’s decision, Pendle District Council refuses to offer the empty houses for sale, saying that they are unfit.
Ms Wilson, whose personal battle this is, says that “in nearby streets similar houses which go on the market will sell in a couple of days even if boarded up”.
Yet, as Sir Trevor McDonald’s Tonight programme brilliantly demonstrated last year, a typical terrace house in Liverpool condemned for clearance could be repaired and modernised to an impressive standard for just £24,000 (It sold for £60,000). If other houses in the street had not been boarded up, it is thought that they would have fetched £80,000, which contradicts the Pathfinder argument of market failure.
Yet these typical simple terrace dwellings make excellent starter houses and, equally, are the treasured homes of many long-term residents. In many northern towns houses that may have cost £25,000 three years ago when Pathfinder bodies made their calculations now regularly sell for £60,000, thanks to increasing demand.
The latest figures prepared for the Labour Party conference estimate that 57,101 houses will be demolished under Pathfinder.
Marcus Binney is the founder and president of SAVE Britain’s Heritage
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