Monthly Archives: March 2013

Going, going, gone! Empty Homes for £1, but at what cost to community?

by Matthew Thompson, PhD Candidate, School of Environment and Development Venmore St, Anfield (source Share the City blog)

Venmore St, Anfield (source: Share the City blog)

Voelas Street, Welsh Streets, Toxteth (source Share the City blog)

Voelas Street, Welsh Streets, Toxteth (source: Share the City blog)

What to do with street upon street of beautiful period properties dating from the Victorian and Edwardian eras – the architectural heyday of the city in which they once proudly stood – but which now stand empty, derelict, and apparently unwanted? Well it all depends which city you are in of course. In London, these empty terraces would be snapped up in the blink of an eye – in the speculative feeding frenzy driving the epicentre of the FIRE (Finance-Insurance-Real-Estate nexus).

But this city is obviously not London. It’s Liverpool, where such demand is simply nonexistent. Or at least that’s the story we’re told by those behind the Merseyside Pathfinder programme, one of nine Pathfinders rolled out across Northern UK cities in New Labour’s massive £2.3 billion Housing Market Renewal (HMR) scheme initiated in 2003, which condemned some 400,000 homes nationally. In Merseyside alone, around 18,000 houses were targeted for clearance and redevelopment; a huge physical restructuring not seen since 1960s urban renewal.

In this blog post I question the rationale for HMR and unpack some of its contradictory effects in Liverpool, in opening up the space, so to speak, for experimentation in community-led self-help housing.

The policy narrative goes something like this. The so-called ‘wicked’ problems of long-term economic decline, emptying out of the inner-city, and increasingly concentrated deprivation – a downward spiral of demand, falling prices, rising vacancies, dereliction, and abandonment – requires a drastic solution: whole-scale restructuring of ‘failing’ housing markets and replacement of ‘obsolete’ terraces with a ‘sustainable’ mix of tenures for 21st century urban living.

Yet this is a city apparently going through a cultural renaissance: European Capital of Culture in 2008; its urban core transformed through culture-led regeneration and speculative development. In fact, despite a glut of empty apartments left over from the noughties building boom, Liverpool has successfully attracted new residents back into the city for the first time since the 1930s, after decades of decline.

History repeats itself. First as tragedy, then as farce. HMR made the same tragic mistakes of post-war modernist planning, but without the earnest paternalism of social democratic aspirations and welfarist goals. It came at the height of renewed state ambitions for socio-spatial engineering – albeit New Labour’s zombie-like resuscitation of the long-dead-and-buried political taste for comprehensive public planning, with the added ingredient of ‘roll-out’ neoliberalism. And it was of course overseen by a public-private partnership which in true QUANGO style was given the farcically slick name of ‘NewHeartlands’, clumsily flailing at rebranding a new place identity.

Through its focus on solving ‘market failure’ – by reconnecting local to regional markets plugged into global circuits of capital – it is not difficult to see HMR as a classic case of that powerful process of neoliberal capitalist urbanisation made infamous by David Harvey as ‘accumulation by dispossession’. And dispossessed they were. Compulsory purchase orders have displaced many residents of Pathfinder clearance zones to assemble large land banks. The eviction of an 88 year old Bootle woman who had lived in her terraced home all her life is just one of the more controversial examples sensationalised by the media.

Regeneration on this massive scale might be seen as the new extractive industry for our post-industrial age: mining speculative value from urban land through the successive recycling of our built environment. The new-build suburban houses with which Pathfinder replaced some of the Victorian terraces represent a downgrading of both urban density and build quality, with built-in obsolescence part of their very raison d’être.

It may seem all too easy to denounce HMR along these lines. At best a shambles, at worst a scandal. Its fiercest critics accuse it of state-led gentrification tantamount to class cleansing; a direct transfer of wealth from public funds into private hands. Yet even Grant Shapps, in a statement to Parliament, alluded to an intentional strategy of ‘managed decline’ for the financial benefit of developers and the state. Demolition plans teleologically set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy of blight.

But there’s a reason why policymakers and researchers call the socio-economic problems targeted by HMR ‘wicked’. There is a long and complicated history of complex structural forces, policy interventions and cultural conditions interacting and compounding in often unpredictable ways to produce the multifarious effects of decline with which HMR was designed to tackle. Had the programme been seen through to its 25 year conclusion in 2019 it may well have produced beneficial socio-economic transformation. But we will never know.

The Coalition government’s cancellation of HMR in 2011 – coinciding with the worst economic downturn and property slump in almost a century – has left the programme only part-finished. Owing principally perhaps to these capricious political and economic conditions, HMR has undeniably generated more blight. Dense urban neighbourhoods have been flattened or reduced to something resembling a warzone; swathes of wasteland aggressively fenced off from surrounding streets stubbornly still bustling with activity; hundreds of crumbling empty houses boarded up, left to rot. And all without the funds for either rebuild or refurbishment for reuse.

Unsurprisingly, various community and campaign groups – led by the likes of Empty Homes and SAVE Britain’s Heritage – have been vigorously campaigning for bringing these tinned-up terraces back into community use. Channel 4’s ‘Restoration Man’, George Clarke, helped kickstart a national debate in visiting several ex-HMR Liverpool neighbourhoods in his popular TV documentary – and is now championing community-led refurbishment projects as newly appointed head of the government’s Empty Homes Review. The Coalition government have introduced a £100million Empty Homes Fund and a £50m Clusters of Empty Homes Fund alongside a £75million Transitional Fund, specifically intended for refurbishing previously-condemned ex-HMR properties.

However, SAVE have highlighted in a judicial review how the Transitional Fund is being illegally misspent to demolish a further 5,000 houses. This follows the controversial decision to save Beatles drummer Ringo Starr’s birthplace amidst the clearance of hundreds of surrounding houses in the Welsh Streets area of Granby; sparking angry accusations of being a ‘tokenistic smokescreen’ for civic vandalism.

And so it was into this fray that Liverpool City Council recently announced its ‘homesteading’ plan to sell off 20 ex-HMR houses for just £1. The plan follows a pioneering project in Stoke-on-Trent, in which 70 empties are being sold to local people for £1 with a low-interest £30,000 loan made available for DIY renovation, but with the crucial condition that buyers commit to living in them for a minimum of 5 years without subletting.

The demand has been so high – over 2,000 people or 100 per house registering interest – the council has extended the deadline and is considering making more empties available. This raises serious questions that need to be answered over the fundamental logic of HMR in writing off otherwise desirable housing as ‘obsolete’. It also signals more promising prospects for campaigns across Liverpool’s ex-HMR neighbourhoods to establish Community Land Trusts (CLTs) and housing cooperatives for community acquisition and reuse of empty homes.

In one of the three homesteading neighbourhoods, Granby residents have come together to form one of the UK’s first urban CLTs, Granby 4 Streets; a charitable organisation capable of bidding on publicly-owned assets for community ownership. One of these four streets, Beaconsfield Street, witnessed the start of the Toxteth riots in 1981, and has been condemned by council demolition plans ever since; wilful neglect which some residents feel is punishment for ‘the uprising’. But in the last few years, community activism in the form of ‘guerrilla gardening’ has transformed the tree-lined streets from desolation into a verdant display of ownership and pride of place. Communal street gardens, colourfully-decorated frontages, and wildflower meadows are enjoyed by residents and visitors alike in the popular monthly Cairns Street Market.

Granby 4 Streets mirrors similar campaigns across Liverpool to establish CLTs for the community ownership of ex-HMR housing; together representing a radical new model of urban regeneration through grassroots community asset acquisition. Their successful development might contain the blueprint for a small-scale bottom-up alternative to fill the gap left by the retreating state in our emerging era of ‘Big Society’ austerity urbanism.

It remains to be seen, however, whether the £1 houses in the homesteading plan will end up under local stewardship, owned and managed by CLTs, which are, in principle at least, democratically controlled by member residents for the mutual benefit of affordable housing in perpetuity. Or instead flogged off individually to more socially-mobile residents looking for a bargain with little stake in community life.

But the picture is more complex than this simple dichotomy. The conditions of the homesteading plan require that individual buyers live in their new homes for at least 5 years without subletting out to tenants, which may well protect against landlordism and ensure local people affected by HMR become the principal beneficiaries. However, there is no reason why homeowners, after this short period, would not simply sell up and move on, cashing in on their sweat equity to pocket the difference. This not only amounts to a considerable transfer of public assets into private hands, but may also stoke gentrification processes, further displacing original residents.

The positive potential of CLTs and other forms of mutual ownership lies in their unique ability to protect these assets under a trust structure to ensure that housing remains affordable and accessible to successive local residents for generations to come. Covenants and constitutional conditions built into the CLT governance model limit the resale value of houses and ensure a minimum equity stake is retained under CLT ownership so that homes remain tied to the locality and controlled by members through accountable governance processes.

Local authorities are nonetheless apprehensive to simply hand over entire terraced streets to CLTs for a number of reasons. First, individual ownership is perceived as a tried-and-tested model reflecting deep-seated ideological biases for homeownership and owner-occupation. Individuals appear more reliable in renovating one house at a time at a more manageable scale. CLTs must therefore do more to demonstrate their long-term financial and organisational viability as well as their expertise in housing management.

Second, CLTs produce a different set of tensions and contradictions within their own practices as well as in their relationship with the state, the market, and the surrounding local community. They must similarly demonstrate their capacity for inclusive democratic governance and fair representation of all local residents. Inward-looking or tightly-bounded groups may make CLT membership exclusive to certain people: emancipatory for some, but divisive for others. Owning assets in trust for the entire community, both present and future, is ultimately a matter of trust. CLTs must also first gain the trust and support of public and other external partners in order to access their most fundamental resource of all: land.

Finally, the biggest barrier appears to be politics. The transfer of public assets into CLT hands represents a considerable shift of power from local government to local communities. It is unrealistic to assume that councils would jump at the chance to divest their power to potential competitors for dwindling public resources at the local level. This is all too evident in the refusal of Sefton Council to support the otherwise successful £5.2million funding application to DCLG that would have enabled Little Klondyke CLT in Bootle, north Liverpool, to acquire and refurbish 120 homes for community reuse. As it stands, the CLT cannot access government funding without approval from the local authority. And so Little Klondyke remains derelict.

But the tensions do not end there. Even if Merseyside CLTs were to receive public funding to become institutionalised as housing providers there still remains the grave danger of co-optation into housing association structures. Large commercially-driven yet publicly-funded RSLs with profit-making development arms have been heavily involved in Pathfinder redevelopment schemes – and yet ironically formed out of the charitable housing cooperatives that emerged from 1960s grassroots community resistance to municipal urban renewal. Now contending for the £1 houses, these huge housing companies not only present stiff competition for CLT campaigns in the acquisition of empty homes, but also pose the threat of incorporation into increasingly professionalised and commodified social housing markets. Whether contemporary CLTs will be swallowed up into marketised forms of housing provision like their historical non-market antecedents – including many of Liverpool’s 1970s cooperatives – will be the greatest test for community-led self-help housing. Tragic the first time, farcical the next; it begs the question: will history repeat itself?

The relationship between large-scale regeneration programmes like HMR and community-led self-help housing initiatives is complex and ambiguous, and therefore one requiring deeper research. Ironically, it took the threat of dissolution posed by top-down spatial engineering to crystallise deprived yet diverse neighbourhoods into more cohesive place-based communities. Embedded in the ashes of HMR are the seeds of exciting institutional innovations in local asset ownership. The successful development of CLTs may herald a shift toward more mutual social relations and cooperative forms of citizenship that do far more to regenerate deprived localities than expensive top-down tinkering with markets. The real test for Localism – or dare I say it, the Big Society – is whether these embryonic seeds will be tended to politically; and given sufficient institutional nutrition to grow into financially-sustainable forms of inclusive local governance.

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Safe to breathe yet?

by Andrew Speak, PhD candidate Geography

Remember the hole in the ozone layer?  It’s amazing how little discussion is given now to what seemed like a major global crisis just 20 years ago, but such is the nature of the media.  A huge hole in the Earth’s protective ozone layer was discovered over the Antarctic in the mid 1980s which prompted a ban on refrigerators and aerosol sprays that contained the culprit – CFCs.  It was another example, of which there are many in recent years, of how the whole of the developed and developing world was forced to wake up to the consequences of altering the composition of our atmosphere, and the media was full of cartoons of giant hairspray cans burning a hole in the planet.  Well the good news is that the hole is repairing itself since the CFC phase-out, albeit very, very slowly but a whole generation are coming along now with no idea that it ever existed.  This brings home the fact that environmental issues, that no longer seem important, can get neglected from media coverage and thus escape the attention of the majority of people.  So what about urban air pollution?

The UK has a long history of urban air pollution, with laws introduced as far back as the 13th century to regulate the use of coal in London in a bid to reduce smoke pollution.  In Manchester in 1792, the town hall emphasised the need for industrial chimneys to reduce smoke from coal combustion.  Many of Manchester’s buildings were covered in a layer of soot and grime, which undoubtedly found its way into the lungs of Mancunians.

View from Blackfriar’s Bridge over the River Irwell, 1870’s

View from Blackfriar’s Bridge over the River Irwell, 1870’s.  Engraving by Charles Roberts (Evans Picture Library)

The Clean Air Act of 1956 was introduced as a reaction to the Great London Smog, caused by burning low grade, sulphur-rich coal in a winter temperature inversion period, which caused an estimated 12,000 excess deaths.  Since then, the quality of the air in our cities has gradually improved thanks to a switch from coal to gas, industries moving out of city centres, and improvements in the technologies that reduce emissions.  So now, air pollution feels like something that happens far away in LA with its daily photochemical smog cycle, or in the permahaze-shrouded megacities of China where coal is still a major energy source and car ownership is increasing exponentially.  Well don’t breathe too deeply when walking down Oxford Road just yet.  The reason is road traffic, which is responsible for most of the main urban air pollutants – carbon monoxide (CO), benzenes, oxides of nitrogen (NOx) and particulate matter (PM).  The latter consists of fine particles, smaller than 10 micrometres in diameter (a human hair is about 50 micrometres wide) which can penetrate deep into the lungs, causing inflammation and allowing harmful substances present such as lead and copper to exert effects.

Illustration of the size of particulate matter fractions, PM10 and PM2.5

Illustration of the size of particulate matter fractions, PM10 and PM2.5

Car ownership in the UK is still increasing (DfT, 2009), despite efforts to convince people to cycle or use public transport, and this is offsetting the impact of vehicular emission controls.  These emissions are linked to 50,000 premature deaths a year in the UK, and shorten our life expectancy by an average of seven to eight months.  They have also been linked to childhood asthma and even type II diabetes.  So the effects of air pollution are a bit more profound than just a blackening of bogies, personally experienced in London, a place not lightly called ‘The Big Smoke’.  Just because it is invisible, and only infrequently mentioned in the newspapers, does not mean the problem has gone away.

Monitoring stations have been set up around Manchester to provide information on the urban background air quality.  Ever wondered what that little building is in Piccadilly Gardens?  The website www.greatairmanchester.org.uk provides online access to these air quality data.  Most days the air quality is acceptable but there are spatial and temporal patterns to be aware of.  For instance, there is a peak twice daily coinciding with rush hour traffic, and this appears to be strongest in the city centre and on a Monday morning.  Also, roadsides are places to avoid being in for long periods of time.  Interestingly, a study in Lancaster found that if you are walking on an inclined road it’s better to walk on the side of the road that cars goes downhill because trees on the side of the road next to cars driving uphill were found to have higher loads of PM pollution on their leaves from the increased emissions of cars struggling up a slope (Maher et al., 2008).

Urban air quality monitoring station in Manchester city centre

Urban air quality monitoring station in Manchester city centre

This particle-capturing property of vegetation is being exploited to improve the air quality in cities.  Strategic roadside tree planting can remove a large amount of pollution by trapping it on the leaf surface where it is subsequently washed off by rains.  This is yet another example of the benefits of urban greenspace, which include keeping people cool in heatwaves, reducing the risk of surface flooding, and simply lifting people’s spirits and making them feel better.  Tree-planting schemes are hindered, however, by a general lack of space within cites, and the fact that there is a considerable dollar sign attached to urban land.  For example, the site of the old BBC would make a lovely park but we all know it is destined to be a glass and steel multi-purpose hotel/supermarket/student accommodation/leisure complex.  Or something.  So it would appear that air pollution is here to stay, as technologies to reduce vehicle pollution at its source seem to have stalled.

One solution is to use the space afforded by rooftops and install green roofs.  Recent research in Manchester has shown that they can make a not-insignificant dent in the PM concentrations in the city centre, with 0.2 tonnes being removed a year in a scenario that involved all flat roofs getting a sedum green roof (Speak et al., 2012).  Larger plants, such as grasses and shrubs, would have a bigger impact, but are a bit more expensive to install and maintain than an ‘extensive’ sedum green roof.  See A (Green) Roof Above Your Head? for my other blog on green roofs in the UK.

An extensive green roof on the Number One First Street building, Manchester

An extensive green roof on the Number One First Street building, Manchester

A helping hand also comes from that seemingly permanent fixture in Manchester – the rain.  The rain droplets scavenge pollutants from the air as they fall, and recharge the capture efficiency of urban surfaces by giving them a good wash.  This, along with frequent strong westerly winds, means Manchester’s air quality isn’t as bad as in some other European cities, especially those in central and southern Europe.  However, the European Commission recently gave the UK a final warning over failures to meet limits for PM in London.  Perhaps it’s time to see urban greenspace as more than just an optional design feature for our city centres.  When combined with a decrease in car usage, maybe then we can ‘safely’ forget about this invisible threat.

References

DFT 2009. Department for Transport: Transport Trends 2009 Edition. London: HMSO.

MAHER, B. A., MOORE, C. & MATZKA, J. (2008) Spatial variation in vehicle-derived metal pollution identified by magnetic and elemental analysis of roadside tree leaves. Atmospheric Environment 42: 364-373.

SPEAK, A. F., ROTHWELL, J. J., LINDLEY, S. J. & SMITH, C. L. (2012) Urban particulate pollution reduction by four species of green roof vegetation in a UK city.  Atmospheric Environment 61:  283 – 293.

Feeding the City: The Politics & Promise of Urban Food

cities@manchester are organising a public panel debate on Tuesday 13 March, 6pm at the Anthony Burgess Foundation on ‘Feeding the City:  The Politics & Promise of Urban Food’. The event is free (but please book your place here) and will be followed by a drinks and food reception.

Feeding the City:  The Politics & Promise of Urban Food

Cities around the world are emerging as key locales for growing food. A variety of approaches are being piloted to enhance health and well-being, encourage local economic growth and self-sufficiency, enrich social cohesion and community development, and diversify urban greening and resilience. In this research forum, we will discuss the opportunities and barriers of urban agriculture and speculate on the future of growing food in cities.

Our panellists will give us their perspectives on these issues on Tuesday. A short preview is given below.

Debbie Ellen,  Independent Researcher

There has been an upsurge in interest in ‘local food’ and urban growing in recent years. The BIG Lottery Local Food fund stopped accepting applications after a year of a 5 year programme due to the high number of bids received.  Allotment waiting lists across the country are long, with waiting times in some areas of Manchester between 5 and 10 years.

Amid this wave of enthusiasm for local food and grow your own there are some significant challenges in parts of Manchester where poverty and a lack of skills, particularly cookery skills mean that a range of different aspects of food need to be addressed.  The increase in the cost of fuel and the increase in food prices means that a choice often has to be made between staying warm and eating a healthy diet.

Debbie will talk about these issues and provide some examples of projects in Manchester that are working to enable communities to grow, cook and eat sustainably.

Liz Postlethwaite, Director – Small Things Creative Projects

Cities as we know them, and associated urban spaces are dead. The economy continues to flounder with models of economic urban regeneration that we have come to rely upon looking increasingly out of place in the world that we are now living in. Alongside this levels of urban deprivation are soaring, and levels of unemployment, especially in young people, continue going up and up. Once grounded urban communities are finding it tough to hold together, and unrest and dis-satisfaction bubble close to the surface of many neighbourhoods, waiting to erupt.

At the same time as this the climate is changing, natural resources are becoming scarce, and acres of land and industrial building space lay vacant in urban locations, awaiting economic growth to return tin a way hat seems increasingly unlikely with each new day – and each new news report.

In view of all these challenges is urban agriculture a key way for us to reinvent community, location and place within cities? And to reconnect to the natural world in a way that has been long ignored in urban contexts, much to the detriment of quality of life. Drawing on examples from the UK, and other parts of the world including Cuba and Detroit, Liz will consider the part that UA can play in forming our cities of the future, and the potential it has to make them cleaner, more abundant, and more attractive places to live.

Graeme Sheriff, Manchester Architecture Research Centre

Food brings a set of quite special challenges to the planners and designers of sustainable cities. Food is essential for life: we need to eat, and we need to eat often. We consume it, if we are able, several times a day and we buy it daily or weekly. Personal choice, taste and preference are hugely important, and these are bound up in our cultures, religions and social contexts. Food requires a great deal of end-user knowledge. We need to know what to buy, how to plan meals, how to store food, how to cook it, and these things can mean the difference between a healthy relationship with food and a destructive one, making education and awareness on food issues extremely important.

Yet food is full of contradictions. Whilst the relative frequency with which we interact with it might suggest we could make rapid changes, we often have little control over it; often not knowing where it comes from, how it’s been produced, what elements have been introduced into the food chain. Our choices may be limited by where we live or how much we earn.  And whilst we may feel that we have an intimate relationship with the food we eat, we rarely know the full extent of the chain of social and environmental impacts that our choices trigger, at home and globally.

Urban food growing is at once a way to try to reign in and reduce this chain of impacts, and a way to develop a more intimate relationship with food. At the same time as attempting to ‘feed the city’, we are equipping city residents to engage with food. Recent research has suggested that it is these less tangible benefits that have been most prominent in community food projects in the UK: the awareness raising, education, skills development, physical exercise and socialising. But this is not to belittle the potential to produce much more food in UK cities. We should be asking how we can maximise this, recognising that urban food is not only about growing, but also about making connections with the wider food system, perhaps through local trading systems and stronger relationships with regional and UK producers. There are many challenges and unanswered questions: What will be the role of the supermarkets? How do we win over the price-conscious consumer? Can food compete with other demands on space such as housing, transport and energy generation?

Chris Walsh, Kindling Trust

Urban Food growing has many advocates and is getting a lot of press. But is it the best way to increase food access and should it be the focus for establishing a sustainable food system for our City?

Manchester is not Hong Kong or New York with dense high-rise communities. There is a lot of land in Gtr Manchester and we has easy access to prime agricultural land just a few miles from the city centre. Green belt land is under ultilised and rural farming communities live and work just half-an-hour away.

Technological fixes or urban planning have a crucial role to play, but for scale, sustainability and efficiency, we need to rejuvenate our peri-urban farming, establish the UK’s first Farm Belt and focus on enterprising solutions that find fair markets that improve food access and create jobs and training.

The Kindling Trust is working to reconnect urban and rural communities and Chris will be spending ten minutes exploring projects like Manchester Veg People; Greater Manchester Land Army and  FeedingManchester.

The debate will be chaired by Carly McLachlan (University of Manchester)