Liverpool planning consultant Jonathan Brown urges the new housing minster to ‘re-learn’ lessons of local involvement in design
‘…you pass perhaps twenty or more front doors coming to your own; with children playing in the roads, parents chatting on the pavement and sitting in doorways, and the old peering through windows…the 19th century solution seems more dynamic than later planning solutions for mass housing.’
Like a voiceover for Nick Broomfield’s 1971 documentary ‘Who Cares’, this was Liverpool-trained James Stirling’s contemporary take on Britain’s terraced streets, then being torn down in the noble cause of slum clearance. Liverpool was a zealous convert to wrecking-ball renewal, targeting 36 per cent of all its houses, and 70 per cent of the inner-city, for demolition.
By the mid 1970s, 160,000 people had been decanted to overspill estates and expanded towns like Runcorn – where exiled dockers could peer through the portholes of a new planning solution for mass housing, Stirling’s own psychedelic Southgate estate. Based on the classical proportions of Georgian Edinburgh, but resembling a movie set from Barbarella, it sailed on concrete stilts over Cheshire countryside, 15 miles from the sea.
Vivid folk memories of the results are summed up best in pop culture, like the Jam’s vitriolic lyrics of ‘piss-stenched hallways and broken down lifts’ in ‘The Planners Dream Goes Wrong’. Just how quickly dreams became nightmares can be apprehended in Lord Denning’s electrifying 1977 judgement in Liverpool City Council vs. Irwin, when he describes his ‘appalling’ visit to an Everton tower block already notorious as ‘the Piggeries’, and surmises flats were unfit for human habitation within 18 months of construction.
Tired of being experimented on, the public wished a plague on planners and architects alike. They left the professionals to fight over blame and formed a settled view unchanged since, that mass housing clearance tends towards social disruption, and often ends in disaster. Mindful of the backlash, politicians embraced notions of community, consultation and conservation, with Labour’s Environment Minister Peter Shore promising to ‘pension off the bulldozer’ on a visit to ravaged late 70s Liverpool.
These experiences still matter now, lying at the root of subsequent regeneration and urban policy. Improvement grants, housing associations, neighbourhood planning, heritage and statutory consultation structures - all spring from these times, and it’s worth reminding new ministers to refresh their housing and regeneration history before they tear the whole edifice down anew.
The spectre of mass clearance has again stalked Liverpool’s streets
Experiences get forgotten as institutional memories fade. The spectre of mass clearance has once again stalked Liverpool’s streets, this time in the 21st century guise of ‘housing market renewal’ – what Owen Hatherley called ‘slum clearance without the socialism’. Like a recurrent nightmare, established neighbourhoods that once successfully fought back the bulldozers, awoke in the early 2000s to find 400,000 homes nationally condemned by a zombie policy, ‘Pathfinder’, exhumed from the graveyard of 1960s excesses.
There followed groundhog days of campaign work, public inquiries, high court cases and evictions. Having spent the Blair boom being bought up and boarded up, many streets were reduced to twilight zones. As the money ran out, large scale demolition was officially slain for the second time less than a year ago, when Housing Minister Grant Shapps announced an end to Pathfinders in Parliament. Gratifying though it is to see Hansard reference my ‘Pathfinder Post-Mortem’ report for SAVE, it is frustrating to hear a direct echo of Peter Shore become so urgently necessary again 35 years later.
During the ten year reign of Pathfinder, thousands of people were shifted from their homes, often against their will. Some towns like Bootle and Liverpool had entire inner city communities dispersed, with predictably dire outcomes. In areas targeted by the policy, symptoms of deprivation and dereliction have multiplied like dry-rot, while much of the £2.2billion spend was soaked up by speculators, social landlords and consultants - the very lobby groups that shaped the programme. This era produced its own Nick Broomfield, Big Issue and Guardian journalist Ciara Leeming, who documented stories of ‘regeneration refugees’ on her ‘Street Fighters’ website.
So, are terrace-dwellers now at least safe for another thirty years or so, free to play in the roads, chat on the pavement, sit in doorways and peer through their windows? Will the design dreams of local people be given influence equivalent to the architects and academics brought in by the powerful?
‘Voiding’ for site assembly is still in business
On the ground in Pathfinder’s ghost streets, initial facts aren’t promising. Coalition policy has shifted towards re-use of empty homes, but ‘voiding’ for site assembly is still in business, refuelled by a new £70m ‘Transitional Fund’. This will result in 5,125 more demolitions by 2016, almost half (2,350) on Merseyside.
‘But on the front-line in Toxteth’s tinned up Welsh Streets, artist and resident NIna Edge invented a peace proposal. She called it ‘Design Diplomacy’ and presented the idea to the Welsh Streets Home Group – the local residents group she co-founded with her neighbours.
The group hired local architects Constructive Thinking, to produce a set of designs which offer costed alternatives to the demolition proposed by social landlord Plus Dane.
Nina described how access to design expertise allowed all parties to move beyond confrontation towards discussion: ‘By engaging Constructive Thinking we are able to reply to drawings with drawings. Their eco-retrofit work on existing Victorian terraces in Liverpool allows them to provide current costs based on local supply chains. Use of design to mediate opinion means we can offer a menu of creative solutions - this produces a different response to attacking what is being proposed.’
Even more remarkably, they are being listened to. Channel 4 ‘Restoration Man’ and architect George Clarke was appointed to head the Government’s Empty Homes Review in April. He has offered to champion any viable resident led refurbishment scheme in his discussions with civil servants and council officials. With private finance and DCLG funds available, new ministers may be taking a close interest in ‘Design Diplomacy’ as a rapid way to revive the dynamic housing solution Stirling recognised almost 50 years ago.