A chance to escape the spiral of neglect

What do you do with homes worth only a couple of thousand pounds? There are various ways to revitalise housing stock
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The Independent Online

Poor housing is at the heart of most city regeneration schemes. Think of a run-down neighbourhood and you usually consider the housing before the people – the boarded up windows, peeling paint and neglected gardens are classic symbols of urban decay.

Poor housing is at the heart of most city regeneration schemes. Think of a run-down neighbourhood and you usually consider the housing before the people – the boarded up windows, peeling paint and neglected gardens are classic symbols of urban decay.

The biggest problem is a loss of property values as a spiral of neglect sets in. It can happen with remarkable speed and for many reasons: local housing markets collapse, no one wants to live in decaying neighbourhoods, properties are rented out on short-term lets and houses are abandoned. A cycle of neglect and diminishing value sets in.

It can affect new properties as well as old, individual houses or whole streets. In some parts of the Midlands and the North, houses are unsaleable with a price tag of only a few thousand pounds, while around the corner, demand and prices may be rocketing.

New Deal for Communities (NDC) schemes have adopted a variety of approaches to the problem, depending on local circumstances. In some areas, simple and inexpensive measures to curb crime and improve the environment can be enough to stop the rot. In others, whole streets are being cleared and rebuilt.

Elsewhere in east Manchester, 250 properties in one street are being compulsorily purchased and the area redeveloped because there seems no other prospect of revitalising the area. Redvers Street, which has been dubbed "the worst street in England", is only one example of east Manchester's poor-quality pre-1919 housing stock.

"The options available are really limited," says Sean McGonigle of east Manchester NDC. "In Redvers Street half the properties were owner-occupied and half run by housing associations, but those who could move out have done so, leaving those who couldn't basically trapped. But we were not prepared to pour a lot of money into improving the housing stock in an area where there is no demand."

Instead, the NDC has essentially bought out the owners, arranging home swaps in other parts of the area and moving people to neighbouring areas while the street is redeveloped. Eventually local people will be able to return when affordable houses are built.

In Middlesbrough, the Central Whinney Banks area is being improved in a £20m project that is adopting a rather more piecemeal approach to the problem, adapted to local circumstances. One in eight houses in the area is abandoned, compared with only four per cent in Middlesbrough as a whole.

Plans could include improving some houses, demolishing others and building better quality houses, as well as carrying out environmental improvements. Nearly three quarters of local people said they would like to stay on the estate if the improvements were made.

"The only way to deal with this is a step change," says Andy Snowden, chair of the Middlesbrough NDC. "But a central core of residents who have lived here their entire lives have a loyalty to the area, so this will not be a clearance." Residents and tenants are being invited to participate in decisions about remodelling the estate and updating its facilities.

Housing expert Brendan Nevin, a senior research fellow at the University of Birmingham and an adviser to the Commons Select Committee on empty homes, is the first to admit that the problem of housing in deprived areas is huge and will take time to overcome.

"This is really about social and economic change on a large scale," Nevin says. "The basic residence structure of our cities has been in place for 40 years and is frozen in time. You get thousands of pre-1919 properties in the same area and when they all become unwanted at once, you have a problem.

"It is also, strangely enough, a problem of affluence. As income has increased in the Nineties, first-time buyers have been able to leapfrog over the old housing stock and buy new. That leaves the older areas held together by people who are too poor to move away, or a generation that has lived there all their lives and is gradually dying off."

Case Study: Hartwell Close

While in much of Britain house prices are rising, in parts of east Manchester values are tumbling. In Hartwell Close, a development of modern semi-detached homes in Beswick, only decisive action by residents and the Manchester New Deal for Communities (NDC) team saved the street from abandonment and dereliction.

Hartwell Close is a cul-de-sac of 56 attractive brick houses built in 1989. Originally they were sought-after properties in an area surrounded by older terraced housing, but as inner-city decay mounted around them, they began to lose value. Over three years their value dropped from around £45,000 to just £15,000. Two years ago two-thirds were empty, up for sale or to let.

With the support of the NDC, remaining residents decided to act before it was too late. They formed a residents association to fight for the interests of the neighbourhood, increase security and tackle crime. With environmental and cosmetic improvements, the street began to regain some of its community pride.

One of the problems for residents was an alley at the end of the street that provided an easy access and escape route for burglars and thieves. The Hartwell Close Residents Association fought for the right of way to be closed and successfully had it incorporated into gardens. CCTV cameras were installed and linked to police and council offices.

With no easy escape route for criminals, crime in the neighbourhood dropped dramatically. Residents went on to work for estate improvements, including landscaping, grass cutting and clearing bushes. Traffic calming and better street lighting completed the job. Over the last 16 months, almost all the houses are filled again and prices have begun to rise.

"It shows you what can be done without spending a lot of money," says resident Steven Woollon, who moved to the area from London with his Manchester-born wife Gwen. "The area suffered badly from negative equity and there are still quite a few people who bought at the height of the market and then found they were stuck with a property worth much less.

"When we bought, the prices were ridiculously cheap, but then the area began to decay," Woollon says. "There were lots of burglaries and car crimes. We approached the NDC for help and they helped us to find all sorts of grants for improvements. Now word has got round, the infrastructure and job prospects in the area are better, and people are moving back to get in at the bottom of the housing ladder again."