Sunday, 21 November 2010

Path to nowhere?

Two big stories in the news this week centred on housing in the UK. Firstly, the Government signaled it would scrap the remaining phases of the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder scheme (here). This was a policy much trumpeted by John Prescott in the early days of New Labour as a way to regenerate huge swathes of Northern cities. The Pathfinder scheme identified 9 areas where the housing market had seemingly failed and large-scale government intervention was required to kick-start it. The scheme was specifically tied to the North of England and neighbourhoods struggling to cope with the loss of manufacturing employment.

The normal practice was for the Council to produce a map to identify those premises earmarked for demolition, usually red-brick terraces. Owners would then be compensated and plans drawn up for the replacement housing. But the process rarely went smoothly and Council (and national Government) delays often left resi
dents in limbo - unsure whether to invest in their home or not (see here). Some people moved out the area, whilst others (and often the most vulnerable) were left isolated in a community devoid of life and services.

However, this should not be a reason to finish the Pathfinder scheme through to the conclusion. I agree with Owen Hatherley, writing in The Guardian, that the scheme acts as gentrification and fails to serve the original working-class communities. Large-scale demolition and Government incentives have allowed developers to enter these neighbourhoods to produce housing far too expensive to the local community. The impact is that the local community is split up and dispersed across the city as they search for replacement accommodation, as described by Anna Minton in her excellent book Ground Control. The Pathfinder scheme was too quick to condemn neighbourhoods as blighted and the Government must look closer into whether the existing stock could be refurbished first.

The other housing story in the news was the decision by the High Court to quash the move taken by Eric Pickles MP to revoke Regional Spatial Strategies. In layman's terms, Labour imposed housing targets on Councils whilst the Conservatives want to scrap the targets and allow Councils to decide their own housing levels, as part of the drive towards localism. Therefore not long into his job as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, Pickles revoked the regional tier of planning. However, he didn't. Because to revoke regional planning requires primary legislation, as stated by the High Court last week.

The end result? Planning, like the Pathfinder residents, is once again in limbo. Should Councils use the old targets or devise their own (lower) targets?

This episode raises two points about the Government's approach to housing. Firstly, Pickles has an arrogance towards the planning profession where he thinks he can make major changes without going through the due process. Secondly, housing targets will be scrapped eventually and many Councils across the country will use this as an excuse to stop any house building in their area. Most local Councillors are elected on the basis of promising less development. So, will the incentivised approach favoured by the Conservatives work instead? The Localism Bill is due out next week so stay tuned for a review. In the meantime, get your planning applications submitted now, who knows when things will change again!!

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