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Housing: Victorian Terraces

Volume 696: debated on Thursday 15 November 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they have issued any instructions or guidance to local councils to demolish rather than restore Victorian terraced houses.

My Lords, the Government have issued no instructions or guidance of this nature. The housing market renewal programme involves a limited amount of demolition in some areas where the housing market has collapsed, but this is part of a wider range of measures with the greater emphasis on refurbishment. Decisions on the amount of any demolition required in any of the places covered by the programmes are for the local authorities concerned.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I am speaking about the pathfinder scheme. A report in the Sunday Times on 9 September said that councils were,

“forced to sign contracts with government departments”.

The article says that the documents were slipped out in the Recess in replies to Written Questions, and that councils were forced either to,

“bulldoze or compulsorily purchase a certain number of properties each year … or face having funds cut”.

It also points out that:

“The documents state that a ‘grant is payable … on condition that the Pathfinder achieves the programme targets specified for that year’”.

If there really is a specified programme, is that not some guidance from the Government?

My Lords, I am sorry to say that the newspaper report is wrong. The funding agreements, to which the noble Baroness is referring, are the normal funding arrangements that have governed the pathfinder programmes. The targets are set by each local pathfinder; the Government obviously give some guidance, but in no sense impose anything on local authorities, which know their areas very well. Each of the nine pathfinders is very different—some have low levels of demolition—but in each case it is for the local authority to decide.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a councillor actively involved in the pathfinder project in my area and as a member of the Whitefield Regeneration Partnership. These pathfinder projects are now in year four of what was promised as a 15-year programme when it was first announced. I agree with the noble Baroness to the extent that there is too much top-down micromanagement of these projects. However, is it not the case that where people who live in the intervention areas, in particular, have been given firm promises of a transformation not just of the housing market but of their neighbourhoods, what is required from the Government is a firm commitment that the programme will continue for 15 years and will not simply be turned off when there is a new political fad?

My Lords, no one will know better than the noble Lord what a challenge it has been to turn around some of those low-demand areas. He knows that from his own area. It is gratifying that so much progress has been made; not just 40,000 refurbishments against 10,000 demolitions, but a funding programme of £1 billion over the next few years. That funding will continue the regeneration which, as the noble Lord knows, is not just about housing but about environmental improvements, bringing new jobs and skills into these areas, and generally making them desirable places to live where people are proud to bring up their children.

My Lords, do the Government recognise the great virtue of Victorian terraced housing in this country? It is extremely attractive. Enlightened councils, such as the one for Battersea, where I live, have made many Victorian terraces into conservation areas. There was a tendency under the former Deputy Prime Minister to take a broom and sweep them away. The buildings which have been put in their place are often, I am afraid, of extremely indifferent quality. Victorian terraced housing can be the kernel of really good urban housing. Do the Government recognise that, and will they try to encourage its conservation?

My Lords, I agree with much of what the noble Lord says. There are absolutely beautiful Victorian terraces. Many of the demolitions—as I say, there have only been 10,000—have been nothing to do with Victorian terraced houses, but post-war flats. They have also been the sorts of terraces in which local people have said in overwhelming numbers that they do not want to live: they were unfit “two-up, two-downs”, unlettable properties. Over the years, we have become much more concerned about heritage. English Heritage is working closely with pathfinders to ensure that they make proper assessments, so that what is built has character and culture, as well as some memory of the past.

My Lords, in view of the enlightened remark by my noble friend, can she confirm that local authorities have an obligation to consider the design of the whole community when they review these plans?

My Lords, yes. We have found that the pathfinder programmes often start with neighbourhood renewal, improving public and living spaces as well as the houses. Indeed, the recent NAO report found that the pathfinder programmes were committed to good quality design of new houses, many working with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment.

My Lords, it is quite pleasing to listen to the noble Baroness explaining this programme, but it is equally clear there is real concern among the affected communities about the possibility of a discontinuity in the schemes because particular criteria are not being met. Is there not at least a case for reviewing the information which the Government give out about these programmes, so that the communities concerned better understand the ground they stand on? There might also be a case for reviewing the criteria to ensure that they do not impose the sort of rigidities implied by the questions put to the Minister this morning.

My Lords, how nice it is to see the noble Lord back in his place after a long absence. He raises an important point about community engagement. One of the features of these programmes as they have developed is that community engagement strategies have become so much better; a lot of innovative programmes have involved working, not just street by street, but closely with households, house by house. People in these areas are well aware of what is planned, and have the hope arising from that. The business plans are currently being reviewed for the next three years. The noble Lord is absolutely right that we will have to keep those under review.

My Lords, I had some responsibility many years ago for the urban programme. There was an imaginative scheme called “enveloping”. It recognised a problem with terraced housing: you may be willing to maintain your house, but if your neighbours cannot repair their roofs, the situation rapidly becomes uninhabitable. It was an imaginative scheme in which the whole street would be done up with government support, recognising that it was cost-effective. Do the Government continue to support that scheme and increase the funds available for it?

My Lords, I am not aware of that scheme, but there are other schemes which have the same impact. In the “Homestead” scheme, for example—I think it is in north Staffordshire, but I am not sure; I will write to the noble Lord—people are given money to do up their own homes rather than move. That is proving very successful. Refurbishment is often absolutely the best way forward, particularly when it means keeping the community together, but we need larger homes so that larger families can move into these areas and stay there.

My Lords, I hope the Minister will allow me to say that enveloping is alive and well and is now called “group repair”.