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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