Death of The Street

In the Coronation Streets of England, two-up-two-downs are being sold in pubs over pints for just pounds 300. In Salford, they're so desperate to be shot of property they're offering `buy two, get one free' deals to attract buyers. And in Reservoir Road, the few remaining residents eke out a life among the ruins of a once vibrant community
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Fred, the old soldier, who has lived alone at one end of Reservoir Street since his wife died, chews his jaw and lips until his entire face is churning. "I don't know what happened," he says, his gaze drifting down the deserted, sad little street he has lived in for 40 years. Now ugly patchworks of hardboard and corrugated iron, held together with rusting nails, cover window frames, and once-respectable houses have become charred, hollowed-out shells, victims of a long-running arson campaign which has seen seven properties set ablaze in the past 10 days.

"People just started moving out," says Fred, still struggling to explain why more than three-quarters of the street's 80 homes (built in 1919 and until the 1990s mostly owner-occupied) lie empty. "They just kept leaving ... more and more". He trails off, shell-shocked at the breath-taking speed of decline.

Welcome to the two-up, two-down, red-brick terraced rows of Salford, a few miles from Manchester city centre, whose slate roofs provide the opening shots for the country's best-loved television soap, Coronation Street. Ah, the tight, little gardenless terraces of Salford. The image is of cosy, respectable working-class life up north - but the reality has an edge which is sabre-sharp.

For Reservoir Street is dying. Indeed, is all but dead. Houses bought for pounds 36,000 nine years ago are selling for pounds 1,500 at auction, and for a rumoured pounds 300 in the local pub. "You can't sell 'em and you can't give 'em away," whispers a nervous, middle-aged woman before scuttling into her home.

Outside, the street is deserted except for the pigeons and a boy kicking a rusting hub cap, but the woman insists she can't talk - because the "newcomers", who have flooded in to rent abandoned properties, "think nothing of putting your windows in" should you speak out of turn. Worse, their kids, who run in packs and terrorise the area, might break in or burn down your house.

Small wonder that one local estate agent is quietly running a buy-two- get-one-free special promotion. What is more incredible is that this terrible slide began just five years ago.

Fred is bereft of explanations, but his few remaining neighbours - those who now weep at night about how they missed their chance to sell up and get out - are not. They say Reservoir Street was the epicentre of the decay which has since leaked into the four neighbouring "tree streets" (which bear pretty, aspirational names like Ash and Laburnum) whose proximity to the park made them popular with Manchester's middle class: the teachers and the nurses, and the foremen who once co-ordinated the labour of the thousands who toiled in steel and heavy manufacturing at Trafford Park and laboured at the nearby Manchester docks.

On a map in the office of the local urban-regeneration group, SALI (the Seedley and Langworthy Initiative), empty properties are marked in black. The tree streets - where abandoned back courts are ankle-deep in discarded beer cans, clothes and the occasional soiled nappy - are now almost entirely black, and the dark ink is seeping south-westwards, popping up in patches elsewhere. District wide, 25 per cent of Seedley and Langworthy's houses lie empty.

Bob Osborne, an assistant housing officer with the council, points to outside forces that have ganged up on Salford - the nationwide collapse in the housing market, the general drift away from the inner city to the suburbs and the recently confirmed migration from the north to the affluent south. "People have become trapped in their houses as values dropped," he says, and as crime and vandalism have risen.

But those marooned in Reservoir Street place the blame far closer to home. Salford Council, they insist, is the orchestrator of their misery. Residents claim that the council's strengthened powers to evict "neighbours from hell" from council estates has visited a plague of alcoholics, drug addicts and criminals upon them.

With their rent guaranteed by housing benefit, these incomers are catered for by more than 100 private landlords who swooped like vultures into Langworthy to buy properties at bargain-basement prices from the owners who were smart enough to see the writing on the wall.

In particular, residents blame the council for the single mother, with her "uncontrollable" children, who moved in five years ago. Within weeks, they claim, she was operating as a prostitute from home. Sure, they say, outside economic and social forces had made Seedley and Langworthy vulnerable. But the boards only went on the first windows after the woman moved in. The ghettoisation of the area was underway.

"The woman's immediate neighbours were the first to move," remembers local resident Sue Copeland. "Then other neighbours moved out because of the people she was bringing into her home and the fact that her kids were out of control." The woman has since moved on to a new neighbourhood - where, it is reported, the havoc has begun all over again.

The prostitute was followed by the drug dealers. Two set up, apparently in competition, on opposite sides of the street. Neighbours Elaine and Audrey (not their real names) say the irony was that initially there were no thefts or fires in their part of the street. But before long adults "as high as kites" were spotted swinging from the little trees the council had planted in an effort to cheer the street up.

"The dealers didn't want any attention from police so they kept the area quiet," says Elaine, who would love to get out but can't as long as her second-hand car, for sale at pounds 1,700, is worth more than the house she bought for pounds 26,000 in 1989.

Eventually police raids on the dealers' homes began. "We didn't need to watch the TV," says Elaine. "We could just look out the window." Reservoir Street was rechristened Beruit. More owner-occupiers left. They walked into building societies and handed back their keys. Private landlords again mopped up at rock-bottom prices, and the council's human rejects kept coming. "You have never seen an area go to hell so quickly," says Audrey.

It seems impossible that one family could be the catalyst for the disaster which engulfed an entire street. But the Rev Andy Salmon, the local vicar for almost eight years, watched it happen. "One difficult family can have a devastating effect on a street," he says, while also agreeing that the rise in council evictions has blighted Langworthy. "The council was using its new powers of eviction but the evicted still have to live somewhere. That somewhere became here. We were saying we had a problem here, but Salford Council was looking at the council estates. That was its focus."

After witnessing the alarming decline of his parish, Mr Salmon asked his congregation and bishop for permission to move into politics, and last year he became a Labour councillor. "The problems were so in-your- face that you couldn't just give people pious words," he says.

There is a light on the horizon. In the next few weeks, Salford is expected to win a pounds 25m regeneration grant from government - with pounds 13m allocated for Seedley and Langworthy. Many residents hope the money will raise the neighbourhood from the ashes, and that property prices will be restored. Others , particularly speculative landlords, are rumoured to be praying for the issue of compulsory purchase orders as a precursor to any regeneration masterplan.

While a SALI survey shows the majority of people in Seedley and Langworthy are still tremendously loyal to the area, for Sue Copeland and her husband the only issue is compensation. They blame the council for making their homes worthless, and insist it could have done more to tackle private landlords and the criminals who moved in. The tax breaks suggested yesterday by Lord Rogers might, they say, have kept residents here, and saved the area. Instead they have paid full council tax all this time.

The Copelands bought their "starter home" 16 years ago for pounds 10,000. Without compensation they cannot afford to move. "Why should we have to start again?" asks Sue, who has somehow managed to maintain a neat and bright home in the midst of the squalor. "It is just not fair."

Blame is the issue of the day. Mr Salmon agrees that private landlords have profited. But he warns that if the forces which brought Langworthy to its knees are to be beaten, we must all accept responsibility for the disaster. "British society has allowed this to happen," he says. "People are content to live in comfort in the suburbs and are not concerned about the problems in the inner cities. They are just places to be edgy in when they drive through them on the way to work. Yet those people's decisions have a huge effect on us. For example, whether they choose to employ someone who lives here once they see his or her address.'

Mr Salmon says a concerted, collective effort is required to save areas like Langworthy, along with a plan that tackles unemployment and deep- rooted social problems, such as delinquency and truancy, as well as housing. But he warns that if the families that have flooded into Langworthy are simply moved on, they and all the havoc that they wreak, will simply descend upon another neighbourhood.