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Home and Heritage
Last year deputy prime minister John Prescott unveiled a massive English package to build 200,000 new homes in the south east, and to remedy the collapse of housing demand in parts of the north. Lynne Walker argues that creating ‘new sustainable communities’ need not mean demolition
In 2001 the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) were asked to look at proposals for designation of a conservation area in Whitefield, Nelson, Lancashire. The map accompanying the submission outlined a block of terraced houses. Yet on the same map, seemingly identical adjacent streets were labelled clearance areas 1, 2 and 3. Was this a mistake? No. These houses were indeed marked for compulsory purchase orders and demolition. Most had been judged unfit by the local authority.
When we visited the site, we saw modest Victorian houses conforming to local board regulations of 1853 for light, heat and ventilation. Their grid layout with cobbled back alleys had been carefully designed to allow access for coal deliveries, and for removal of rubbish. We could stand in a uniform street. On one side were houses proposed for conservation, and on the other for demolition.
It had started as a ‘Regeneration Project’, with positive talk of renewal that mentioned in passing an option to demolish some of the worst buildings in the Whitefield area. About 400 homes were judged ‘unfit’. The local community, backed by heritage organisations, had decided to fight. So we joined the fray, and asked Pendle Borough Council for the proposed conservation area to be extended.
Three years and two public inquiries later, the 30 families that held out against the council and stayed have seen the secretary of state acknowledge the strength of the community, the historic merit of the Victorian terraces and their contribution to the townscape. The houses will no longer be demolished, but repaired and adapted.
For the people of Whitefield it is a victory against authority. ‘How many locals can claim that as a string to their bow?’ asks resident Sylvia Wilson. ‘The rest of the country needs to arm themselves against local authorities and government who think they can take our homes and history away from us against our will’.
In the meantime they have lived with growing numbers of boarded-up houses and the fear that their homes would be demolished. Little investment in even the most elementary maintenance or improvement has taken place. Yet the structures are robust, and we now wait to see what Pendle Council, who own around 120 empty properties, are going to do.
Whitefield, Nelson is fortunate in that Heritage Trust North West is ready to restore blocks of houses using local builders and craftspeople. When ready, houses will be offered for sale to former residents. The Whitefield Conservation Action Group has a list of people waiting to move back into the area.
14 Maurice Street is an example of the trust’s work. Comprehensive refurbishment has upgraded the exterior, inserted new sash window frames and an over-light to the panelled door, and replanned the interior to provide two bedrooms, an upper floor bathroom and toilet. Room heights on the ground floor (10 ft/3 m) were sufficient to allow a suspended ceiling over the kitchen to take the service runs. Period features such as a door to the bottom of the stairs and lobby partitions were retained, and a flag floor reinstated. The best of the old was combined with adaptations to accommodate modern living.
Whitefield is also lucky that all parties (including residents, Pendle Council, English Heritage, the CBA, the Prince’s Foundation and others) are working together. An Area Development Framework is being drawn up for the long term Strategic Plan for the East Lancashire Area (part funded by English Heritage, Pendle Borough Council, Elevate and English Partnerships). This is Nelson’s planning document that considers not only housing, but also employment, transport patterns and regeneration.
There is a wider picture to this story. Research maintains that to sustain the market in the North and West Midlands, 250,000 houses have to be lost over the next 10-15 years. Nationwide 2,000,000 houses were lost in the 1950s and 60s, and 100,000 pre-1919 homes between 1996 and 2001.
Nine areas of deprivation, abandonment and low demand for housing have been identified for Pathfinder Projects by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (ODPM). They are Newcastle and Gateshead, Humberside (Hull and East Riding of Yorkshire), South Yorkshire (Sheffield, Doncaster, Barnsley, Rotherham), Birmingham and Sandwell, North Staffordshire (Stoke on Trent and East Newcastle under Lyme), Manchester and Salford, Merseyside (Liverpool, Sefton and Wirral), Oldham and Rochdale, and East Lancashire (Burnley, Blackburn, Hyndburn, Pendle Rossendale).
Each area has been given £2.66 m to help them develop improvement schemes over the next 10-15 years. The intention is to create areas where people will want to live and where communities will thrive. A Market Renewal Fund will provide a further £500 m across the areas, with funding from other sources (see www.odpm.gov.uk/stellent/groups/odpm_communities/documents/page/odpm_communities_page.hcsp).
There will be demolition, not all of it of pre-1919 housing. The Birmingham and Sandwell Pathfinder, for example, recently demolished three tower blocks on the Lyng Estate, whilst two others were refurbished. The Manchester and Salford Pathfinder plans to refurbish 13,400 homes, build 1,000 houses and clear 1,700 obsolete properties.
What is important is that good quality and respected housing, no matter what age it is, is retained across the 120 North and Midlands local authorities concerned. Heritage Counts, the annual historic environment audit conducted by English Heritage, found in 2003 that houses built before 1919 were worth on average 20% more than equivalent houses built more recently. It found the long-term maintenance costs of a Victorian terraced house to be cheaper than for 1980s houses, and it found strong support from local people for safeguarding their local heritage.
Each of the Pathfinders is at a different stage, but they share in common the drawing up of a 10-15 year plan and the appointment of a consultant who will create their own Area Development Framework. The intention is that once an ADF has been submitted to the ODPM, with areas identified for demolition, public consultation will take place.
Obviously the CBA would prefer to be in at the start. It is important that we identify what is of merit for present generations to enjoy, and worthy of passing on to future generations. English Heritage did this for Nelson, and intend to do rapid surveys of Pathfinder areas to inform the debate.
Lessons were learnt from the public inquiries into Nelson: the importance of wide consultation and making informed decisions, and the townscape merit of historic terraced housing in accommodating living communities, as evidence for the past, and as plain good housekeeping. Where settled and thriving communities exist and the quality of the housing is robust, let the call be for refurbishment (if necessary), rather than demolition and loss of local housing and history.
See By Industry & Integrity: Nelson a Late 19th Century Industrial Town (English Heritage).
Lynne Walker is the CBA historic buildings officer
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005