The media coverage of John Prescott's Pathfinder housing regeneration projects has not been kind.
As the government pumps millions of pounds into the nine housing renewal areas in the north of England, criticism of the 15-year plans continues to make the headlines, even though many of the schemes have barely got off the ground.
Demolition programmes in Bootle, Liverpool and Nelson, Lancashire - where a raft of pre-1919 terraced houses, including Ringo Starr's former home, are to be bulldozed - have come up against heated opposition from residents.
Conservation group SAVE Britain's Heritage has entered into the debate, raising questions in the House of Commons about 'whether demolition is necessary' and labelling the local authority's efforts to 'halt the decline of the housing market' in Nelson as 'misguided'.
The AJ has also been involved. Last month we reported on a television documentary which revealed that scores of 'uninhabitable' homes in the north could be renovated just as cheaply as it would cost to knock them down (AJ 12.05.05). A project featured on Tonight with Trevor MacDonald proved that it was possible to renovate an abandoned terraced house in Liverpool for less than £24,000. The building is still earmarked for flattening.
However, this is not the full story of the Pathfinder projects. Not all of these housing renewal schemes rely on widespread demolition;
this is not the equivalent of post-war slum clearance.
In many of the areas targeted for Housing Market Renewal Initiatives in the north-east, Yorkshire and the Midlands, these schemes offer the only real hope for dying communities. In parts of Lancashire, nearly a quarter of the houses under review have been classed as 'unfit', compared with only 7 per cent across the country as a whole.
As the ODPM's website states: 'These areas are characterised by limited market choice, the departure of economically active households, poor condition of unpopular housing, poor facilities and inadequate local services.' And, perhaps surprisingly, there are plenty of architects who are willing to get involved in the Pathfinder schemes - and many of those entrusted to draw up these early masterplans are battling to prioritise good design.
Andrew May and Anita Howard of Leeds-based practice Allen Tod Architecture have been asked to mastermind the revival of three estates in Edlington, near Doncaster, South Yorkshire.
The former mining town needs a 'radical improvement in the character and diversity of its neighbourhoods' and the practice is determined to put quality design at the centre of its 10-year plan.
May says: 'It's early days so far? [but] I'm confident that we have proposed a framework for development that follows good urban-design principles and offers sufficient flexibility for the changes that will develop over the period of regeneration.' May insists current schemes will not fall into the same trap as previous attempts to improve struggling communities. He says: 'Pathfinder is very different from early mass-housing schemes because they were social programmes taking place outside of the market.
'With Pathfinder, the whole process is driven by the need to give people on failed estates the opportunity to enter the market and take advantage of the choice that entails. The 'Holy Grail' is the scheme that successfully enables those who can't be in the market to mix in with those who can, and for a progression route to exist from one to the other.' The yardstick for measuring success can therefore be calculated in terms of improving property values.
'We will know that the project has worked if Edlington's house prices generally get closer to those of nearby successful settlements and it develops good-quality housing and public space? and the community begins to regain a sense of self-esteem, ' says May.
May also acknowledges the importance of having residents on board, a factor that admittedly seems to be lacking on the Merseyside Pathfinder developments.
He says: 'We didn't have a vision that was separate from consultation. We expected considerable resistance to some of the more radical proposals.
However, I think the lead-in work to these proposals, which involved residents and others, enabled a sense of trust to be developed.' Of course, there are going to be risks. Martin Crookston of Llewelyn Davies Yeang, who is working on the Walker Riverside project in Newcastle's east end, is well aware of the potential pitfalls. Among them is the ability to maintain long-term commitments to quality design, whatever the good intentions of the 'clients' at the outset.
Crookston says: 'As ever, there is a danger that the aspirations of the masterplan will end up as the same old UK '80s to '90s stuff.
'Newcastle City Council [for example] talks the talk, but is hard work because of its inability to a hold a consistent design line.' Only time will tell if all the Pathfinder schemes are vital regeneration tools, or just monumental and expensive flops. In the meantime, prepare to read plenty more stories about bulldozers.