THE BLOG
29/11/2012 11:09 GMT | Updated 28/01/2013 05:12 GMT

Britain's Empty Homes: The Unlearned Lessons

This week offers a chance to celebrate the progress made in bringing some of Britain's 710,000 empty homes back into use. Unfortunately, there is also reason to fear some of those responsible for 'regenerating' our towns and cities remain overly-fond of bulldozers and land-banking deals with developers.

This week offers a chance to celebrate the progress made in bringing some of Britain's 710,000 empty homes back into use. Unfortunately, there is also reason to fear some of those responsible for 'regenerating' our towns and cities remain overly-fond of bulldozers and land-banking deals with developers.

The good news first. Earlier this week those attending the National Empty Homes Conference heard the number of properties going to waste has been cut by more than 19,000. Much of the good work owes something to the overdue realisation Victorian terraced housing in England and Wales is well worth maintaining, improving and retro-fitting for future generations.

The ingenuity and determination offered by so many excellent community ventures up and down the country - many now supported by local authorities beginning to think more realistically about their own housing stock - means a fifth of all new homes come about as a result of empty houses being refurbished and returned to use.

Speaking at the National Empty Homes Conference on Monday, communities minister Don Foster MP pledged to help "stop the rot" and announced a £300million fund now open to projects bringing empty homes back to life. Foster hopes 5,000 more empty properties can be refurbished and put back onto the market over the next three years.

And yet, the very day after his speech, representatives of Foster's Whitehall department were at the High Court opposing a heritage charity trying to save Victorian property in the Klondyke area of Bootle, a few miles north of Liverpool. As part of a separate judicial review, SAVE Britain's Heritage is also fighting against the misallocation of central government money still being spent by council bosses on bulldozing entire streets of terraced housing, mainly in Merseyside.

The nightmare stretches back to John Prescott's now discredited £2.2bn 'Pathfinder' demolition programme, part of a misguided top-down plan launched in 2002 to 'renew' the housing market in deprived areas. It involved clearing everyone out, demolishing structurally sound buildings tainted by the perception of poverty, and handing over land to developers keen to build in the hope ever more young professionals would have ever more money to spend living in overpriced flats (it was very much boom-era thinking).

Coalition ministers appear to believe they've drawn a line under the failed New Labour policy. Don Foster this week repeated former housing minister Grant Shapps' criticisms, referring to the "destructive Pathfinder programme (that) undermined once vibrant communities".

Yet Freedom of Information requests by campaigners revealed 'transition fund' money from the communities department - totalling £70m when matched by councils - has been earmarked for 5,000 more demolitions, mostly in Liverpool and Bootle, where Pathfinder wreaked the most havoc.

Government lawyers have conceded Grant Shapps signed off the fund unlawfully, having "not been informed" that it allowed for large scale demolition. But they continue to argue the decision should not be quashed, and that the Department for Communities and Local Goverment has no power to demand repayment from councils.

Eric Pickles, the secretary of state now ultimately responsible for the ongoing fiasco, is perhaps best known for his party's 'localism' agenda. Cynics have suggested the idea of devolving power to local government allows the Westminster government to shirk the blame when things go wrong. It certainly shouldn't be used as an excuse to abandon local groups with workable alternatives to deeply-flawed council plans.

Architect and Channel 4 presenter George Clarke surely now speaks for something like the consensus view on empty homes when he recommends demolition "should always be the last option after all options for refurbishment are exhausted".

Thankfully there is no shortage of good ideas and proposals (many of which can be found on the website of the increasingly influential Empty Homes agency), and much to be positive about as more and more local authorities see the benefits of working with community groups.

But it is worth remembering the lessons of the recent past have not yet been fully absorbed by those in power.

It is even worth paying a visit to the ghost communities of Merseyside - the silent Victorian terraces around Anfield, Toxteth, Bootle and the Welsh Streets - to see why such deliberately-inflicted dereliction must never be allowed to happen again.