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Running on empty

One-fifth of UK houses left uninhabited by the scrapping of HMRI are in Liverpool. So what now, asks Laura Brown

Published on June 15th 2011.

Running on empty

ROSA Smith lives on Beaconsfield Street in Toxteth. She is telling me about the street market held last weekend. It was sunny and it was hot and she muses that people probably headed to the beach rather than the humid city streets. 

Then she sighs. “You know, some people here have spent their whole lives not knowing what's going to happen to their home.” 

Years of fighting and battling, coordinated campaigns and articulate lobbying have made the residents of the Granby Three Streets (Cairns, Beaconsfield and Jermyn) synonymous with a refusal to give in. 

'It's almost as though they wanted
to get their hands on as much money
as they could without really looking
at the scale of the problem'

From the initial fear of demolition in 1994 to the launch of the Housing Market Renewal Initiative in 2003, this tight knit community has learned how to cope with snippets of news, visits from government ministers with moments in the spotlight followed by months of no one answering the phone. 

Granby StreetGranby StreetAnother week, another snippet of news. 

Liverpool City Council announces it is looking for a developer to refurbish 177 empty terraced houses in Kensington, Granby and Picton. It's no change in policy, assures the local authority when we rang earlier this week, only in Arnside Road in the Kensington Renewal Area, just off Wavertree Road where 23 houses will now be refurbished instead of being demolished. 

Policy aside. Arguments aside. What happens now? 

Housing campaigners David Ireland is the chief executive of Empty Homes, an independent, national charity  providing practical advice to communities who want to tackle the problem of empty dwellings in their neighbourhoods. 

He last visited Liverpool in the autumn when he met with the Granby Residents Association. 

David Ireland: 'Policy was flawed'David Ireland: 'Policy was flawed'“If this news represents a pilot scheme or a reassessment of the strategy then it's good news,” he says. “But, what about the others?” 

Empty Homes put a Freedom of Information request into every local authority who had successfully applied for funding through HMRI, had earmarked the cash, drawn up plans and begun work. They asked how many properties were empty and had been due for demolition under the scheme and now are left with an uncertain future with the funding gone. 

Liverpool responded in May this year. Slightly re-worded from the original, its response was that the number of properties now empty, which had been earmarked for either demolition or refurbishment in the city, stood at 729 in the Stanley Park estate and 1,462 elsewhere in the city. That's 2191 houses. 

Across the whole of the UK, based on the responses Empty Homes received, there are around 10,000 properties that were meant to be demolished or refurbished and are now left empty. That means a fifth of them are in Liverpool. 

And the biggest issue with those empty houses? Well, apart from the crime and the blight on neighbourhoods and communities, they don't appear on official figures. A property that is publicly owned and was due for demolition is not included in government stats. The national tally on empty houses is based on properties where council tax was due to be collected. No council tax is expected from a property a local authority has bought to knock down. 

So Empty Homes asked another question. How much does it cost to secure the empty properties against all risks? 

Brightening the blightBrightening the blightFor Wavertree the total cost to secure against all risks, including monitoring between April 2003 and March 2011 (the period of HMRI) is £1.7m based up an average cost of £1,658.55 and applied to the number of properties acquired. In Stanley Park the figure is rougly the same again. 

It was a vastly expensive scheme, argues David Ireland. The sheer cost of looking after these properties is huge. But the original policy, he believes, was flawed. “I don't think it was ever going to work”. 

But of all the local authorities they have spoken to, he believes Liverpool is in a greater mess than the rest. 

“Liverpool bit off more than it could chew,” he says. “If Liverpool had just said 'let's just do Anfield', had enough to invest and do something different, everything could have been working to a single point. 

Yet with projects all over the city, all of them were behind schedule. It's blighted the area. It's almost as though they wanted to get their hands on as much money as they could without really looking at the scale of the problem.” 

There's a lot of frustration. And it would be unfair to suggest the buck stops at the doors of the Town Hall. 

A council spokesman talks to me about Anfield. Funding is secured up to Phase 5. Those living in Phases 6 and 7 better get used to being in limbo. The withdrawal of funding from HMRI was swift and it cut deep. 

What were they supposed to do? the council argues. Not put these plans together? The money was signed off. Do you wait until it's in your account before you start work? No, because that's not how funding works, anyone who runs their own business or is part of a public sector organisation knows that. They were screwed over. No one could have anticipated the change in the political landscape over the last five years. 

We were promised that money, they tell me. Now it's not there. 

Dorothy Kuya. Picture by Dan KenyonDorothy Kuya. Picture by Dan KenyonDorothy Kuya laughs when she remembers how her mother thought it was a bad idea for her to buy her house on Jermyn Street when she moved back up from London. It was, she reflects, a really fantastic area. Over 100 shops on Granby Street, including Mattas which is now on Bold Street. Two storey flats above the shops where many of the shopkeepers lived. Huge, well built terraces which, as her surveyor nephew tells her whenever he comes to do the odd repair, they just don't build anymore. 

“The Victorians knew how to build houses,” she says. "High ceilings, plenty of light. No poky, tiny rooms."

The council says part of it's policy is to provide the city with a more diverse stock of housing. There are too many terraced homes built pre 1919. Homeonwners want diversity.

Dorothy isn't convinced. “People want to live here.” 

A few years back they sent a survey out online asking how many people would want to come back. They received 700 responses. The Housing Officer they spoke to said that's great but if those people move what about the empty houses they leave?

On Granby StreetOn Granby StreetThey might be paranoid, they might be battlescarred, but never far from the conversation in Granby is the fear that there's a hidden agenda.

Dorothy's voice does change when she reflects on the letters they all received back in 1994 when they were told their houses were going to be demolished. In the 1980s the housing associations had refurbished the houses.

The council had paid millions in improvement grants for homeowners. A public enquiry found the houses were fine, they didn't need to be knocked down. HMR in Granby Three Streets, the council may argue, was never earmarked for demolition but really what they were planning to do with the houses is not important. A complete breakdown of trust has a far more dangerous effect. 

Diverse housing replaces terraces in L8Diverse housing replaces terraces in L8Dorothy tells me of a recent victory. The council's Planning Committee met on Tuesday 7 June. The plan was to build four, two-storey semis demolishing two houses on Kingsley Road and two houses in both Cairns Street and Beaconsfield Street (the former to make way for car parking spaces, Dorothy says). 

The large family houses being demolished on Kingsley Road would be replaced by smaller houses. Off-street car parking doesn't exactly encourage interaction and doesn't fit in with the council's green agenda.

Around 180 residents signed a letter objecting to the plans on the grounds that demolishing the two houses on Cairns Street would weaken the structure of the remaining terraced properties, would be “detrimental to the visual amenity and heritage of the area”. There has been no statement on the environmental impact and they claim the new houses won't last as long as the houses already there. The committee decided they need to see for themselves so a site visit is planned for June 21.

That's a different matter, argues the council. But for the residents it's not. It might not be HMR, the details might live in different folders or filing cabinets and have different councillors and ministers poring over the details, but for the people who live there, it's still their world. It's about trust and it's about faith. 

For Dorothy, and lot of her neighbours, it's left her disillusioned. She's stopped voting. She doesn't see the point. 

Looking to take control of empty housesLooking to take control of empty housesThere is a fundamental difference in the attitude of the residents and of the council. While the council says it's reviewing what to do after the removal of HMR funding, at the heart of their strategy is the need for diverse housing. The terraced houses, they say, aren't good enough. 

But for the residents, they're more than good enough. The residents association in Granby is currently looking at ways the local community can take control of the empty houses themselves. 

Is this latest decision to find a developer for Granby Three Streets, Kensington and Picton victory, I ask Dorothy. “No, it's not a victory”. She says, “it won't be a victory until they withdraw and leave us alone.”


*You can follow Laura Brown here on twitter

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GezzJune 15th 2011.

Good balanced article e Laura. There is nothing wrong with these lovely terraces. They are five minutes out of the city centre, can you imagine this situation in a city in the south east?

William PalinJune 15th 2011.

Laura, excellent piece. SAVE has just purchased the last private house in Madryn Street, Welsh Streets (read our blog http://bit.ly/m69sTq). The house is now occupied by guardians and we are planning to refurbish it - to reverse the council sponsored decline and demonstrate that these houses can be brought back to life as good homes at relatively little cost. Of course, no matter what the council says, these clearances were never about the quality of the housing stock, it was all about the land - they wanted (and still want) the land to honour agreements with developers. It's a land-grab pure an simple.

Kenny LadJune 15th 2011.

Yep, HMR is a good old fashioned land-grab, on an obscene scale. £300m has been wasted on the mess you see in tinned up streets across the city. Working class owner occupiers and tenants have been evicted so their terraces could be handed free to the very social landlords who ran down the neighbourhoods in the first place.

One person who has grown rich off evicting the poor is the scheme's overlord, Professor Brendan Nevin, paid almost a grand a day while the warzones and wastelands expanded across inner Merseyside

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