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Housing Demolition: Liverpool

Volume 670: debated on Thursday 10 March 2005

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asked Her Majesty's Government:

How they plan to replace the Victorian terraced houses in Liverpool, due to be demolished as a result of their strategy document Moving Forward: the Northern Way.

My Lords, where terraced homes are demolished, they will be replaced with good quality housing of mixed tenure and mixed price, in full consultation with residents to keep communities together. Building work on one location in Liverpool will start in a few weeks. Moving Forward: The Northern Way is a document produced by an independently chaired regional development agency-led group. It does not propose a particular level of demolition; it simply quoted a report by the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies that talked about the need for possible demolition.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his helpful reply which gives more clarity to the situation. Given that Liverpool is due to be the European Capital of Culture in 2008 and that the motto for that year—"Liverpool, The World in One City"—is epitomised by the Granby Street district, one of the oldest multi-racial communities which goes back well over 100 years. does the Minister agree that the desire of many homeowner residents in the remaining Victorian houses in that part of Liverpool to remain in their homes and preserve the value of their homes rather than see them demolished should be considered?

Since English Heritage and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Rogers, an architect of world repute, advocate that the refurbishment of these buildings is the better, cheaper and more environmentally friendly option, cannot the Government at least do something about the absurd VAT rule which zero-rates new build but imposes the full rate for the maintenance and refurbishment of traditional city dwellings such as these?

My Lords, I certainly take the noble Baroness's latter point on VAT. There is a paradox and it looks like a contradiction in policy. We are constrained by the VAT directive, of course, so unless a specific derogation is in place, we would have to apply the minimum rate of 5 per cent. But it is true that the policy is to build on brownfield rather than greenfield and yet the tax treatment is the same. In some areas of the north-west where projects are under way to convert two terraced houses into one, the VAT rules have actually required a bit more demolition than would otherwise have been the case.

The noble Baroness cited Liverpool as an example. I invite her and, indeed, my noble friend Lord Rogers and others, to visit Mary, in Powis Street in Toxteth— as I did on Monday, on my fourth visit to the Pathfinder. She has lived in that street for 66 years and in her current home for 45. The house is 124 years old. It was given a 30-year lease of life in the 1960s when there were large slum-clearance programmes. That 30-year lease is up. One has to think about sending good money after bad. In the past three years, she, with her neighbours, has worked very hard on consultation for new dwellings five minutes' walk away in order to keep the community together. I should add that those are on land that was occupied by 1960s maisonettes which were not built or constructed in a sustainable way.

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's confirmation that the Northern Way documents do not refer to a specific number of houses which may be demolished in the north of England. However, last year, the Deputy Prime Minister announced that he wanted to see 400,000 such houses demolished. Can the Minister confirm that that figure no longer applies but has been superseded by the documents and that there is no specific target of terraced houses in the north of England that the Government want to knock down?

No, my Lords, there is no specific target, which is why the Deputy Prime Minister said no such thing.

My Lords, having lived in a terraced Victorian house in Cambridge for several years—it was kind of updated with a bathroom, which it did not previously ha ve—I wonder whether the Minister agrees that variety of architecture is what makes the beauty of a city, rather than having uniform rows and rows of characterless houses.

Yes, my Lords. But I do not understand the problem. We have a programme not for clearing terraced houses but for redeveloping communities. That requires a mixture of refurbishment of houses, clearance and new build. Indeed, in the Pathfinder areas of the north-east and north-west over the next few years, there will be far more refurbishment than demolition. It is planned that 20,000 houses will be refurbished as opposed to some 10,000 removed, and those will be removed only where it does not make sense to send good money after bad. As I say, homes that were built sometimes without foundations in the century before last cannot, with the best will in the world, provide modern living for people. Therefore, they have served their useful purpose.

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the previous housing policies for general improvement areas, where all across the country there have been endless examples of terraced houses such as these being put back into good order, in exactly the same position as that which the Government are aware of? Can the Minister say whether these houses could be preserved in something like the general improvement areas, rather than being knocked down and making people homeless as a result?

My Lords, I reject that outright. There is not a shred of evidence in the housing market Pathfinder areas of people being made homeless. Again I say to the noble Baroness that there is no presumption of demolition. I could take noble Lords to terraced housing which has been gutted and rebuilt internally to modern eco-standards—far better standards than those for modern houses. That was done for experimental purposes for lighting and heating. So there is not a programme for the demolition of these houses. Where they can be remodelled, we will do so, including knocking two into one by joining one to the back and one to the front, so that we can get decent quality housing.

One of the problems with some of this monotone housing is that it was all built the same—the same size housing in street after street. When young couples living in these very tiny houses start having children, they move out. We do not get sustainable communities in those areas. In the general improvement areas and under the plans of the 1960s and 1970s, many houses that were saved from demolition were given a 30-year makeover. Thirty years have passed. You have to ask about dwellings which are that old and cannot be made sustainable: would it be throwing good money after bad, or should we work with the community to provide more modern community areas in which they are involved? But there is no large-scale programme of demolition of terraced housing.

My Lords, is not house price inflation the biggest spur to house restoration and rehabilitation?

My Lords, a quite specific policy objective of the housing market Pathfinders—it has never occurred in any other programme, whether the general improvement areas, the housing action areas or the urban renewal areas—is to raise property values. In the past that has happened almost as a by-product of other work. We need to raise the values of these properties. It is unusual in the south-east to talk about falling house prices, but that is still the case in parts of the north-east and north-west where house values have not got back to what they were 10 years ago.