What goes up if it all comes down?
Government plans to regenerate ailing east Lancashire communities are slow, says David Conn. Painfully slow
‘ This area has great qualities,” Max Steinberg is insisting, from behind the chief executive’s desk at Elevate, the somewhat optimistic title given to the organisation charged with reshaping battered housing across a swathe of east Lancashire. Mr Steinberg doesn’t attempt to spin away the problems Burnley, Blackburn and the other former textile towns face; he marshals a lorry-load of statistics to prove them: half the wards are among the 10 per cent most deprived in the country, a third of the population have no qualifications, heart disease is 26 per cent higher than the national average. Of 85,000 houses in the affected areas, a quarter are unfit and 15 per cent stand empty.
This blight, and its causes – economic collapse, and fl ight by locals with better prospects – are bleakly familiar across all nine northern and midlands regions designated by the Government as “Pathfinders”, but Mr Steinberg fervently accentuates the positive. Elevate, with an initial budget of £103 million up to next year, has demolished 800 houses already and improved 1,200, and has also commissioned extensive research, including a report from Anthony Wilson, the North- West pop impresario who established the Hacienda nightclub in Manchester’s 1980s music heyday.
Mr Wilson, with his partner, Yvette Livesey, described their task as “imagineering”; to envisage a social and cultural reinvention around which housing
g redevelopment can take place. Proposals include making prouder use of the towns’ stone industrial architecture, regenerating
g the Leeds-Liverpool Canal, building a “Fashion Tower” as a cultural rallying point, public squares and green spaces to attract commuters, “ creatives” and the aspirational middle classes. They even propose rebranding the region as “Pennin
Surprisingly, perhaps, Mr Steinberg says
s the proposals have not been dismissed as self-indulgent, Didsbury whimsy. “People have shrunk back from each other, becaus
se of the problems they’ve had. We need to create more thriving, connected communities, otherwise any improvement
ts to the houses themselves may not be sustainable.”
All of which sends you out of Elevate’s mart offices full of hope for “Pennine
ancashire”. A short trip to one of Burnley’s hree worst-affected areas, Burnley Wood,
owever, hammers home the immensity of he task. Here, since 2000, they have
lready demolished – “ cleared”, to use the
uthorities’ preferred description – 456 wo-up, two-down, terraced houses, in arying states of emptiness and neglect.
Nationally, the Pathfinder initiatives, which have a budget of £ 1.2 billion between
004-08, have been criticised for being mass demolition exercises. The House of Commons Planning, Housing, Local Government and the Regions Committee eported in March this year that 200,000
ouses could be cleared – a figure the Government denies because it claims it is oo early to say – and called for clearer
rocedures on earmarking houses for
In Burnley, however, demolition itself is
ot controversial. There have been few ampaigns to save houses for their historic
rchitectural merits – mostly the ranked erraces tell only of a history in which millowners cared too little about how their workers lived. Here, instead, the main concern is the time it is taking to replace the terraces with anything better. In Burnley Wood, a prominent row has been “facelifted”, a statement of confidence in the area, but with the cleared space awaiting development, and pockmarked rows still standing, you feel there can be nowhere in Britain more desolate than this.
That, however, would be wrong, as a trip to Daneshouse confirms. Home to Burnley’s community of Pakistani and Bengali origin, it is the sixth poorest ward in the country, bedevilled by drug problems and anti-social behaviour, and with seven British National Party councillors now elected in Burnley, residents feel embattled. Here, 1,300 houses have been pulled down, but, inexplicably, little landscaping has been done. A SureStart nursery and community complex have been built, but otherwise there are still boarded-up houses awaiting clearance, and derelict tracts in between.
“The people can’t see any improvement,” says Syed Ibrar ul Hassan, 28, a resident, who works for the Jinnah Community Development Trust. “We’re told there are plans, but we have piles of rubble, rotting away, and no sign of the radical change the community needs.”
Michael Wellock, Burnley Borough Council’s Elevate manager, explains that the awesome scale of the problems means the council can’t do it all at once. “We’re looking at 10, 15 years, to transform these areas and it takes time to assemble the land.” Mr Steinberg agrees, but admits, too, that there is “no excuse” for not landscaping and says it must be put right.
Elevate is still waiting to confirm how exactly the areas will be improved. Each will have a new public park, some housing will be refurbished, and some will be newly built to provide greater variety than two-up, two-down. The council hopes building will begin in Burnley Wood next year, but Daneshouse
could have to wait for two years after that.
In Trinity Ward, south-west Burnley,
several blocks have been cleared, and
some improvements already made,
which do gladden the soul. There is a healthy- living project, new NHS dental surgery, an attractively landscaped green space and children’s playground, a site readied for SureStart. Around Westmorland Street is a “Homezone”, roads pleasingly re-paved, planters installed with pansies, bollards keeping cars away.
“It is working,” smiles Wendy Graham, 43, a mother of four and lifelong resident who lobbies relentlessly for the area. She says houses fell empty when old people passed on, private landlords moved in and the usual story followed: drug abuse, litter, petty crime.
Now, Mrs Graham is impatient for the next phase, for some “ empties” to be refurbished so that people whose homes are pulled down have somewhere to move into. “If it works here, we can be a model of good practice.”
In Burdett Street, a row of five terraces teeters on what looks like the edge of collapse. John Macauley, 67, a retired precision engineer and former school governor, lives with his wife Kathleen in the only house still occupied.
“Horrible,” he shudders, pointing to the fly-tipped debris in backyards, the vandalised shell next door, the guttering which fell off the previous week.
“We need to be relocated, but the council won’t give us a date. We’re worried that one night the kids will burn next door down and we’ll go with it.”
As we talk, an old lady bustles up: “If you think this is bad, come and look at mine.” She doesn’t want to give her name but, grey-haired and prim in a purple flowered dress, she’s lived here for 50 years, alone since her husband died. Next door to her is the same picture: torn-down boarding, an abandoned fridge, a heart-rending mess. “This used to be a lovely area,” she says.
Michael Wellock sighs; clearing flytipping is the council’s job, and it wants to prosecute, but it’s happening all over.
“You’ve seen for yourself the size of the problems. We sympathise with our residents’ impatience, but redevelopment cannot happen overnight. Now, at least, we have massive investment coming, longterm commitment and a vision. We can be more optimistic than ever.”
It is, in other words, harder to make the changes happen, brick by problematic brick, than to “imagineer” a rosy future.
Green and pleasant: ( above) the Scott Park area of Burnley, a promise of things to come? Clockwise from top left: unlovely Daneshouse and Villiers Street; crazy for cricket in the town’s back streets; Mic chae
Wellock, Elevate project manager for Burnley Borough Council; ‘ no improvement’ – local resident Syed Ibrar ul Hassan; ‘ it is working’ – community volunteer Wendy Graham ( and below) with her children, Dominic and Alice, brightening up Athol Street