Engines of Change
Lord of the Hrungs
Editor Simon Denison
Stop wrecking Victorian terraces
As thousands of 19th century terraced houses are earmarked for demolition in northern towns, we may be about to repeat mistakes of the 1960s, writes George Lambrick
Whenever I get my shoes mended, the distinctive smell of the shop always reminds me of a traditional cobblers in the former 19th century suburb of Oxford called St Ebbes. That was in the 1960s, just before the area of closely packed terraced houses was knocked down in the interests of 'progress'.
What followed was a long, slow process of piecemeal redevelopment for a mixture of uses. The original community was shipped out to a new estate on the outskirts of the city, near the Cowley car plant. Similar projects were occurring all over the country, and now, only 30 or 40 years on, some housing developments created then have become 'sink estates', themselves threatened with demolition.
One would hope that the lessons had been learnt from these experiments in social engineering and urban redesign, but the signs are not good.
Housing provides some of the clearest evidence of the North-South divide. While greenbelt land remains under constant pressure in the South-East, many northern industrial towns and cities are proposing to clear large areas of old terraced housing because of problems of urban abandonment and an associated collapse in the housing market. Liverpool is considering clearance of 11,000 homes affecting 150,000 people, and the North-West Region as a whole plans to spend £2.5 billion to deal with 74,900 'unfit' homes that are 'uneconomic' to repair.
But are these dwellings really incapable of being made fit to live in? And what does 'uneconomic' mean?
By the time this article appears, the result of a public inquiry into proposals for compulsory clearance of extensive areas of 19th century workers' housing in the Whitefield area of Nelson in Lancashire should be known (BA April 2001). The local council plans to demolish over 400 houses in blocks immediately adjacent to almost indistinguishable streets protected as a conservation area. The predominantly Asian local community, supported by English Heritage, the CBA and others, strongly opposes the compulsory purchase of houses for demolition; and the council's claims that houses are unfit and not worth refurbishing have been strongly contested.
Terraced housing has many intrinsic merits. After the cholera and typhoid outbreaks of the mid-19th century, it was realised that the physical design and condition of housing played a crucial role in public health. New regulations were introduced requiring greater room heights, better light and ventilation, separate kitchens, minimum widths for roads and back alleys and proper drainage. It now turns out that many aspects of 19th century terraced house design (such as wall to window ratios, room spaces, limited external wall exposure) accord well with modern principles of energy efficiency. The density and great variety of terraced house sizes and designs means that they are space-efficient and adaptable - including capacity for simple enlargement by amalgamation.
It is not the intrinsic character or age of the buildings that is the problem. In parts of prosperous York, small two-up-two-down terraced houses with a small rear yard fetch £80-90,000, and even more in London and the South-East. The threatened areas have houses of similar physical character - but they have totally different social and economic conditions. The value of the threatened houses at Whitefield averages about £9,000, and in some parts of northern Britain such housing is virtually worthless.
Incentives to demolish
National policy is meant to favour community based planning and sustainable regeneration, but mixed messages are being sent out. Planning policies promote redevelopment of brownfield areas; the new tax on aggregates is intended to encourage use of recycled building materials; and new building is tax-free while a heavy burden of vat is levied on maintaining existing buildings - altogether, a package of incentives that could almost be seen as promoting demolition.
It is time more attention was paid to the total social and environmental costs of clearance. Demolition and rebuilding not only squanders the 'energy costs' already encapsulated in old buildings, but also costs new energy: the equivalent of a barrel of oil is needed to make just eight new bricks.
True regeneration focuses on investment - assisting the growth of businesses to provide suitable employment; adapting existing housing, with a limited amount of new building; and making better social and educational provision. When regeneration is truly sustainable, communities and society at large will be the beneficiaries.
George Lambrick is Director of the CBA
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005