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It isn't really a surprise that the government's Pathfinder programme has been so controversial.

The mass house-clearance and refurbishment projects, mainly in the Midlands and Northern England, threaten to change the face of some areas beyond recognition.

Under John Prescott, head of the now-defunct ODPM, any criticisms of the government's proposals were played with a straight bat.

The ODPM insisted it knew what it was doing; that the schemes would go ahead and that they would succeed.

But as soon as Ruth Kelly took charge of the newly formed Department for Communities and Local Government, stepping into the void left by Prescott, tongues started wagging. Would Kelly continue with these housingmarket-renewal initiatives even though there appeared to be no real political gain in doing so?

Earlier this week, the -rst signs emerged of a slight change in Kelly's stance from that of her predecessor.

It was in Liverpool - where verbal wars have raged over Pathfinder projects in Edge Lane and Bootle - that critics of the government's approach caught an unexpected glimpse of hope.

In a letter to Liverpool City Council, issued through the Government Office of the North West, Kelly ordered the local authority to stop sitting on property which was to be demolished with Pathfinder cash and put it up for sale on the open market.

The property in question is the somewhat ironically named Prescot Drive, a row of onceimpressive Victorian villas (pictured) overlooking the historic Newsham Park - houses that have been deliberately left to stand derelict by the council for years.

Because the authority admitted it had no immediate plans for the buildings, a group of local campaigners asked Kelly to make use of a littleknown piece of legislation known as a PROD, or a Public Request to Order Disposal.

As a result of Kelly's decision, developers will be able to snap up each of these decaying hulks and renovate them. For the campaigners it was a major victory and will mean the 'demolition by stealth' of the houses has been averted.

Whether other worried residents in places like Darwen, Lancashire, and Gateshead will be able to make similar PROD applications to scupper Pathfinder programmes is unclear. Not every authority has banked property like Liverpool.

But there have been other developments signalling a cooling of commitment to Pathfinder. In Sandwell, Birmingham, there have been rumours that the government has withdrawn funding for the local scheme following criticism from the Audit Commission about the success of the programme.

Elsewhere, a public inquiry is about to be launched into Bootle's Bedford Road/Queens Road Pathfinder area - a scheme understood not to have the blessing of CABE.

Perhaps Kelly's Liverpool decision marks the start of a new direction for Pathfinder?

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