[The views expressed in this article are the views of the author and not those of the Empty Homes Network]
It's back to the drawing board for the powers that be in Liverpool following Eric Pickles' decision to over-rule his Planning Inspector and refuse the CPO and planning permission that would have allowed the redevelopment of the "Welsh Streets" to go ahead.
The redevelopment scheme in question, proposed back in 2013, involved saving some of the homes originally scheduled for demolition, including the (apparently) vital childhood home of Ringo Starr, the noted composer, singer, film star and erstwhile performer with the long-defunct pop group "The Beatles". Despite these saving graces, the scheme would have meant demolishing 439 dwellings (to be replaced by 229 new homes) and retaining only 37, giving a net loss of 210 dwelings according to Pickles (paras 26-7).
The Pickles' decision gives a lot of emphasis to the "heritage" aspect. This is not, as one might first suspect, just to rub salt in the wound by emphasising that Liverpool's destiny is controlled more by heritage campaigners than by the people of Liverpool: it is because it allows reference back to parts of Liverpool's own planning policy regarding the importance of heritage assets. Local planning policy is naturally a key factor in a planning inquiry.
The emphasis on heritage also allows opponents of the scheme to pay relatively less regard to the views of the current local residents in favour of the possible views of a ghostly series of future generations who might want to know what some fairly ordinary red-brick terraced workers' houses look like or might really, really want to get to grips with the whole setting into which Ringo Starr was born and lived for a short period of time.
To many an outside observer, on the evidence cited, the heritage arguments against demolition are less than compelling, though SAVE certainly made a strong case. But in the context of meeting government policy, the "empty homes" grounds for refusal actually look more solid, less subjective: indeed it is fair to say that many of the SAVE arguments themselves are less about "heritage" as such and more about urban design and what could and should be done with empty homes.
Empty homes policy
The Planning Inspector, Christine Thorby, certainly seems to have done herself no favours in the way that she dealt with government empty homes policy. Eric Pickles raises the following points in his decision letter:
27 Demolition or re-use of empty homes: The Secretary of State has considered the cases put forward by the Council, the applicant, SAVE and other interested parties, including George Clarke, the independent empty homes advisor appointed by the Government, and the Inspector’s conclusions at paragraph 225-231 of Annex D to the I[ nspector's]R[eport] The Secretary of State has considered paragraph 51 of the [National Planning Policy] Framework and the documents listed at paragraph 27-31 of Annex D to the IR including Laying the Foundations’ A Housing Strategy for England DCLG 2011 (Laying the Foundations) which sets out the Government’s intention to increase the number of empty homes that are brought back into use as a sustainable way of increasing the overall supply of housing. The Secretary of State acknowledges that neither Laying the Foundations nor the Council’s H[ousing]S[trategy] preclude demolition of empty homes and their replacement as a method of achieving better housing (paragraph 227 of Annex D to the IR). However, the Secretary of State considers that the proposals have to be considered in light of the Government’s position as set out in the Written Ministerial Statement of 10 May 2013 and the acceptance of the recommendations in George Clark’s Empty Homes Review which makes clear that refurbishment and upgrading of existing homes should be the first and preferred option and that demolition of existing homes should be the last option after all forms of market testing and options for refurbishment are exhausted.
28 The Secretary of State accepts that all the options assessed in the Princes Park Neighbourhood Renewal Assessment Review and Update Report (‘updated NRA ) have a funding deficit and require a level of grant or gap funding to proceed on the basis of the assumptions made (paragraph 226 Annex D to the IR). However, in this case, the options assessed in the updated NRA did not include approaches such as that advocated by SAVE (paragraphs 121 – 123 of Annex D to the IR) or an intermediate scheme involving more selective demolition within a scheme of mass refurbishment as advocated by George Clarke in his letter to the Inspector of 24 June 2014. Whilst the Secretary of State acknowledges that not all possible forms of market testing and options for refurbishment necessarily need to have been considered he is not persuaded that the NRA was sufficiently broad in its scope and analysis, and therefore he considers that it did not adequately take forward George Clarke’s best practice recommendations on empty homes.
29 Overall, although some demolition within the Welsh Streets may be justified, the Secretary of State is not persuaded that the scale of demolition proposed in this case - has been demonstrated to be necessary and that sufficient forms of market testing and options involving more refurbishment have been exhausted. Consequently, though the proposal does not conflict with the Council’s HS and EHS (paragraph 31-32 of Annex D to the IR) and nor therefore does it conflict with paragraph 51 of the Framework, he concludes that the proposal does conflict with the policy set out in the May 2013 Written Ministerial Statement to take forward George Clarke’s best practice recommendations on empty homes.
George Clarke's recommendations
In the context of this response, what stands out in the Planning Inspector's Report is that she makes no specific mention of George Clarke's best practice recommendations on empty homes in contrast to the emphasis given to them by Eric Pickles. This can hardly have been an oversight because George Clarke made a submission to the Inquiry opposing the scheme and citing the specific recommendations that were being ignored. In addition, David Ireland made similar points (though not on behalf othe Empty Homes Agency, which at that point in time he had already left to move to the Building and Social Housing Foundation). One would have expected the points to be addressed one-by-one: had the Inspector done this, she would certainly have found it harder to justify the proposed scheme. As a minimum a more thorough balancing exercise would have been indicated.
It is hard to resist the thought that the best practice recommendations were ignored by the Inspector precisely because she knew they would be difficult to comply with. On the other hand, perhaps the Inspector had concluded that they did not constitute government policy but were merely part of some kind of joint Channel 4/gov.uk media circus.
In this regard it may be relevant that the library of documents referenced in the Inquiry includes "George Clarke's 12 Empty Homes Review Recommendations" at CD6 - document reference CD6.20 (see http://www.programmeofficers.co.uk/Liverpool/ to find your way to this). These are the original recommendations as published independently by George Clarke and containing no evidence of endorsement by DCLG . Separately, at CD6.19 is Mark Prisk's Written Statement to Parliament of 10th May 2013. This merely acknowledges that the government is "working with our independent adviser George Clarke to take forward his best practice recommendations on empty homes", which is not quite the same as saying they had been officially adopted or endorsed.
What is not apparent from either of these two sources is that the recommendations were added to the DCLG website in a news item associated with an announcement by Don Foster (then the Under-Secretary with responsibility for empty homes) on 20th June 2013, in which the 12 recommendations had been substantially reworded and reduced to 10 in number. It is fair to surmise that from this point onwards, these have constituted official policy. But as policy goes the 10-point version of the recommendations is pretty hard to find unless you know where to look. To be fair, SAVE did point out at the Inquiry that the goverment had "accepted" all of George Clarke's recommendations but without offering a direct reference. In short, there are some grounds for doubting whether the Inspector was clear about the status of the recommendations and thus the finer details of the official policy she was supposed to be working to, given that she does not cite them anywhere.
But now we know: George Clarke's recommendations need to be treated as government policy. The developer, social landlord Plus Dane Group, did claim to have consulted with George Clarke about its plans and to have made some changes to the scheme as a result (see Liverpool Echo story here) but perhaps there was a degree of wishful thinking about how signed up Clarke was to the scheme, or they just assumed that minor changes would be an adequate sop to mitigate his concerns. If they proceeded without any written confirmation from him of his response to the amended scheme then that would, in retrospect, seem naive.
At the time of writing, George Clarke himself seems not to have made a public comment on the success of his intervention and the support for his recommendations, other than via a tweet.
Locals left in the lurch
The Planning Inquiry was a major exercise that took detailed evidence from many different sources on both sides of the argument. The three-week hearings started in June 2014 and it will be a major blow to most of the remaining residents to discover that they must now await the development of yet another plan for the area.
Even last June, there were protests against the the Planning Inquiry with residents holding signs that read "All I wanted was a new home. Instead I got a new placard". Depending what papers you read, it is easy to overlook the fact that there has been strong local opinion in favour of the scheme and its demolitions from the Welsh Street Community Champions, who wrote a very aggrieved letter to George Clarke when they discovered he was now opposing the Plus Dane proposals.
Now, after a further six-month wait those protestors are back to square one, caught between the (not quite) unstoppable force of Liverpool Council and Plus Dane Group on the one hand, and the immoveable object that is Eric Pickles on the other hand.
Originally strongly opposed to the demolition scheme, and the focus of the first attempts to resist it, the Welsh Streets Homes Group, led by Nina Edge, decided reluctantly not to oppose the latest plans put forward in the LCC/Plus Dane Group application—not because they thought it was the best solution imaginable but because they thought they and their neighbours had suffered enough over years of uncertainty and, like the Planning Inspector, could not see where the money would come from to sustain mass refurbishment. Their response to the Pickles decision was "shocked and speechless" and they issued the following press statement:
Eric Pickles refusal of planning consent for the Plus Dane proposal comes as shocking news to residents today. We have no way of knowing what will become of us now, or how long rebuilding our area will take. We call on the authorities to immediately resolve problems for residents in damp homes, and urgently progress with new plans for the Welsh Streets until they are restored or replaced. Our biggest worries are the continuing community stress, and the antagonism between LCC and central government that this decision creates. We hope all parties will find some common ground and come together swiftly. We need a plan to end our 11 year purgatory
A tale as tangled as this one does not lend itself to simple judgements by people who do not have the full range of evidence available and do not know their Toxteth from their Croxteth. Unfortunately, at this point in time, it is debatable whether anyone could have the full range of evidence available, partly because it may never have been collected in the first place: the shadow of flawed consultation exercises hang over this story.
What is clear is that something needs to be done and that EHN does not oppose demolition in principle, whilst we certainly are opposed to homes sitting empty unnecessarily and blighting communities.
What is tricky is working out how to balance the history of the scheme, the current situation, and the possible future.
- What weight do we give to the views of displaced residents who have long moved on?
- What, in any case, do we really know about their views based on consultations, flawed as they may be, from many years ago?
- To what extent do we hold LCC and PDG responsible for the long-term neglect of the properties they acquired (or already owned), given that they expected them to be demolished?
- As regards future generations, how do we really weigh the supposed value of the Welsh Streets as "heritage assets" and as a focus of tourism- who was right, Eric Pickles and SAVE, or the Inspector?
- And for any given heritage value, how many more years of despair for local residents might be justified in order to maintain that value?
- Are the heritage standards being applied in this case consistent with those normally applied?
- If there were lessons to be learned on the development side, how much longer should LCC and PDG be left in the pillory? To what good purpose?
- Was the minimal degree of retention proposed by LCC/PDG in their latest scheme a reasonable response to viability issues, made in good faith, or was it a political act of defiance deserving to be slapped down?
- Were LCC/PDG somehow led to believe that their proposal would be acceptable (and it was, after all, acceptable to the Planning Inspector) only for them to suffer betrayal at the hands of Eric Pickles, or was it entirely predictable and therefore essentially negligent in the context of the impact on the remaining residents?
- How do we assess the self-interest of LCC and PDG as "social landowners", seeking to maximise the value of their asset, as against their roles as custodians and protector of communities and as "social landlords"?
- How do we balance the interests of owner-occupiers (often the only voices to be heard on the pro-retention side) against those of almost-invisible social and private tenants?
These are the sorts of questions that someone looking to arrive at a balanced view would need to find answers to: there are many more.
The responsiblity of central government
It cannot be overlooked, in the case of the ten-year Welsh Streets saga, that Liverpool CC and Plus Dane have gone down one route on one set of assumptions and within one policy context then had the rug pulled from under their feet by the withdrawal of funding and the introduction of another policy context following the change of govenment in 2010. These twists and turns will also have affected the views of local people about what they have thought was or was not possible.
The "final cause" of the current impasse may well lie in the long shadow cast by flaws in the sheme that was originally proposed, with its widely-derided "neo-liberal" focus on "housing market renewal" (rather than just "housing renewal") and with the highly dubious programme of "managed decline" which so incensed George Clarke and others, a programme the full implications of which may not have been apparent or spelled out to local people until it was too late. (David Ireland pointed out in his evidence specific and important ways in which Welsh Street consultation exercises seem to have been flawed by not painting an holistic picture of what the different options involved).
In our policy document we seek to counter unduly top-down approaches by stressing the need for truly effective consultation that really does look at all the options and their implications: this is along the lines proposed by George Clarke. The "design diplomacy" promoted by WSHG is a commendable exemplar in this regard.
But the "efficient cause" of the blight in 2015 must now be attributed to the refusal of planning permission for the proposed scheme, combined with the (apparent) absence of funding for alternatives that might be more to the government's liking.
Government funding to unlock the impasse?
A relatively simple and appropriate solution, therefore, would be for the government to work with LCC and Plus Dane to provide the funding that these government-preferred alternatives seem to lack. In other words, Eric Pickles should put his money where his mouth is.
Lack of adequate government funding to support housing renewal is entirely down to decisions of the current government: it cannot possibly be laid at the door of a previous government that had allocated money to the renewal programme, a point which George Clarke and the entire heritage lobby, in their love affair with Eric Pickles, never quite seem to get round to making.
In our policy document's support for George Clarke's recommendations we have added the important proviso that any additional costs attached to retaining existing dwellings as opposed to demolition and redevelopment should be borne by the government. That seems a reasonable ask and particularly in a case such as this one. Common sense would suggests that if Clusters of Empties funding can save 37 homes, then further Clusters of Empties funding could save yet more dwellings: there doesn't seem to be anything about the dwellings scheduled for retention that makes them inherently more salvageable than others that are scheduled for demolition.
Perhaps further market testing of different scenarios will demonstrate— as Pickles and SAVE want to suggest—that actually there is no funding gap, only a gap in creative thinking. But there needs to be a commitment in principle from the government to give such practical assistance as might be required to achieve viabilty and draw the saga to a close and an acceptance of responsibility for the consequences of funding decisions it has made. At the very least, Eric Pickles could offer to fund the drawing up of a costed scheme by whichever guru - George Clarke or otherwise - has convinced him that viable alternatives were possible against the views of his Inspector. Perhaps the Homes and Communities Agency could be jointly tasked by the government and LCC/PDG with producing costed alternatives.
But for their part, it would seem appropriate for LCC and PDG to take the George Clarke recommendations and the Eric Pickles ruling seriously. It is hard to believe (though lawyers may think otherwise) that a judicial review would find that the Pickles decision is flawed. The criticism that the LCC/PDG plans do not explore possible variants involving less demolition is hard to refute. It would defy common sense to suggest that demolition on this scale is the only solution (leaving current funding issues aside), that other schemes could not be developed. And if more money is required to alter the balance between demoliton and retention it is not likely to arrive unless LCC/PDG ask for it.
A ray of hope may lie in what looks to be a very interesting forthcoming Ph.D thesis by Gareth Carr on the Welsh Streets architect Richard Owen. According to SAVE this will indicate that the Welsh Streets are of national and even international signficance in terms of master-planning of workers' terraced housing. This might unlock some heritage funding and give the financial boost that might enable the heritage lobby to demonstrate the practicability of its stance, perhaps allowing the government to inject more money without seeming to renounce its own economic policies. It might certainly help clarify the policy context because currently significant decisions are being made about retaining "heritage assets" that do not even constitute a Conservation Area, which one would have thought would be unusual.
As regards EHN's developing policy position, the key element in the context of national policy would be our belief that it would be advantageous for the government take genuine leadership of a national empty homes initiative rather than proclaiming "localism", pulling funding and then imposing central control whenever the mood suits it. Supporting 12 (or 10) recommendations without any practical framework to implement them does not constitute a strategy.
Housing Renewal Policies
Eric Pickles took the opportunity of hiswritten statement to Parliament (reproduced below) not just to announce his Welsh Streets decision but also to cancel any existing guidance which gave any support to demolition. The eye-popping list of cancelled DCLG/ODPM documents seems to include every single major piece of guidance on housing renewal in existence leaving a more or less blank sheet of paper with the exception of George Clarke's 12 (or 10?) recommendations. One might conclude from this that the government no longer sees neighbourhood regeneration as falling within its policy brief.
Whereas the heritage aspect was the key focus of Pickle' decision lettter, the main emphasis of the Written Statement was on the government's empty homes policy.
Yesterday, as Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, I issued decisions on a called-in planning application and a related compulsory purchase order in relation to an area known as the “Welsh Streets” in Toxteth, Liverpool. The proposal was for demolition of 439 small Victorian era terraced homes. After a public inquiry and careful consideration, the planning application is refused and the compulsory purchase order is not confirmed.
The decision letters fully explain the reasons for these decisions. Issues covered in the planning decision letter include: the heritage value of the Welsh Streets—including the effect on the appreciation of Liverpool’s Beatles heritage as the application site includes the birth place of Ringo Starr; the impact of the proposal on the setting of nearby listed buildings and a conservation area; design issues including local character, history and distinctiveness; and the extent to which the proposal is consistent with national planning policy on bringing back empty homes into residential use.
Revocation of outdated guidance
The Coalition Agreement outlined this Government’s commitment to introduce a range of measures to get empty homes back into use, reflecting the 2010 general election manifesto pledges of both Coalition parties. We want to increase housing supply, remove the blight that rundown vacant properties cause and help support local economic growth from refurbishment and improvements.
In the written ministerial statement of 10 May 2013, Hansard, Column 13WS, Ministers committed to revising outdated guidance issued by the former Office of the Deputy Prime Minister which encouraged demolition. I can today confirm that the following pieces of outdated guidance no longer reflect Government policy and so are now cancelled:
- Neighbourhood Renewal Assessment and Renewal Areas (DETR, 1997);
- Private Sector Renewal Strategies: A Good. Practice Guide (DETR, 1997);
- Running and Sustaining Renewal Areas (DETR, 2000);
- Addressing the Needs of Run Down Private Sector Housing (ODPM, 2002);
- What Works? Reviewing the Evidence Base for Neighbourhood Renewal (ODPM, 2002);
- Housing Renewal Guidance - ODPM Circular 05/2003;
- Sustainable Communities: Building for the Future (ODPM, 2003);
- Assessing the Impacts of Spatial Interventions: Regeneration, Renewal and Regional Development The 3Rs Guidance’ (ODPM, 2004); and
- Neighbourhood Renewal Assessment guidance manual (ODPM, 2004).
Instead, this Government are championing a series of policies to get empty buildings back into use. We have:
- Provided over £200 million to fund innovative schemes run by community groups, councils and housing associations up and down the country to create new homes from empty properties, both residential and commercial;
- Rewarded councils for bringing 100,000 empty homes back into use through the New Homes Bonus;
- Given councils new powers to remove council tax subsidies to empty homes, and use the funds to keep the overall rate of council tax down. HM Treasury have also changed tax rules to discourage the use of corporate envelopes to invest in high value housing which may be left empty or under-used to avoid paying tax;
- Taken forward the best practice recommendations produced by our independent empty homes adviser, George Clarke—such as refurbishment and upgrading of existing homes should be the first and preferred option, and that demolition of existing homes should be the last option after all forms of market testing and options for refurbishment are exhausted; we have embedded these principles in our housing programme funding schemes;
- Cancelled the last Administration’s Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder programme which imposed targets on councils to demolish homes;
- Amended national planning policy through the National Planning Policy Framework to encourage councils to bring back empty properties back into use;
- Reformed Community Infrastructure Levy rules to provide an increased incentive for brownfield development, and extended exemptions for empty buildings being brought back into use;
- Lifted the burden of Section 106 tariffs on vacant buildings being returned to use;
- Introduced a Right to Contest, building on the existing Community Right to Reclaim Land, which lets communities ask that under-used or unused land owned by public bodies is brought back into beneficial use;
- Funded a new re-occupation business rate relief to help bring empty shops back into use; and
- Reformed permitted development rights in a number of ways to free up the planning system and facilitate the conversion of redundant and under-used non-residential buildings into new homes.
This approach is working. The number of empty homes has fallen year-on-year since 2009, and is now at the lowest level since 2004. Similarly, the number of long-term vacant properties has fallen by around a third since 2009.1 hope our programmes will further reduce the number of empty buildings.
For the avoidance of doubt, the call-in decision is not connected to the cancellation of the outdated guidance. I am placing a copy of the decision letters, attached, in the Library of the House.
It is also available online at: http://www.parliament.uk/writtenstatements.
 The original planning inspector's report and Eric Pickles' letter over-turning it and refusing planning permission can be accessed via our library here.
The extent to which the proposed development is consistent with Government policies on bringing back empty homes into residential use
225. In recognition of the high level of vacant properties in Liverpool, LCC has identified as a priority in its Housing Strategy, reducing the number of empty homes. This is supported by their Empty Homes Strategy, which identified a number of initiatives and means for tackling vacancy and delivering refurbishment across the city, including the continuation of investment in housing renewal areas. The Housing Strategy recognises that refurbishment is an option where relevant and viable. Both the housing strategy and the Empty Homes Strategy support Government policy contained in ‘Laying the Foundations’ which seeks to improve the housing market. [58-63inc.,116,117]
226. The NRA update (2013) for Princes Park assessed options for refurbishment/ demolition for the Welsh Streets and found that in terms of viability and deliverability the best option to achieve regeneration benefits for the Princes Park area was demolition and rebuild. SAVE has put forward arguments about the nature of the NRA and the viability appraisal, but, even if these were accepted, it would not alter the conclusion that all options have a funding deficit and require a level of grant or gap funding to proceed. There is no doubt that obtaining funding for refurbishment would be a riskier option with lenders less likely to invest in the poorer properties, where refurbishment is piecemeal and the Welsh Street environment remains poor. [50,54,121,122,129]
227. The environment of the Welsh Streets has suffered significantly from the wait (some 10 years) for a deliverable scheme. The scheme has funding, with gap funding provided by LCC, and the securing of Cluster of Empty Homes funding to refurbish 37 properties. Therefore, it is a scheme which could be delivered and this is a very important consideration meeting the aims of the Housing Strategy and ‘Laying the Foundations’ to deliver decent homes. Moreover, neither document precludes demolition of empty homes and their replacement as a method of achieving better housing. [172,173,174]
228. Imaginative alternatives were suggested as were sources of funding. Nevertheless, there are no alternative schemes for refurbishment for the Welsh Streets put to the Inquiry that have funding and/or are likely to be deliverable within a reasonable timescale. All of the examples suggested, either in Liverpool or other parts of the Country, were small scale interventions and there is no evidence that they could be successful for a large number of houses, such as at the Welsh Streets. Additionally, starting a new process now with alternatives would only be likely to achieve piecemeal interventions and would not secure wider public realm improvements. Funding may not be forthcoming for alternatives and could leave the fate of the Welsh Streets to many years of further decline. [66,121,123,127,128,129,183,187,188,189]
229. The detailed funding circumstances of Lucerne Street and surroundings, and the area known as Bread Streets which have been renovated are not known. However, in contrast to the Welsh Streets, Lucerne Street is located next to a very vibrant commercial road, and the Bread Streets slope down sharply to the River Mersey close to the city centre. Therefore, their circumstances cannot be compared with the Welsh Streets. [66,137]
230. The demolition and rebuilding of empty homes in the Welsh Streets has to be seen in the context of the city as a whole, where it is only one of many interventions including refurbishment and environmental improvements undertaken in many renewal areas. Within the Princes Park renewal area, demolition of the Welsh Streets is similarly only one part of a comprehensive scheme encompassing refurbishment and tackling vacancy. Moreover, LCC and PDG have been able to secure funding from the Cluster of Empty Homes Fund awarded for various projects in need across the city, some of which has been allocated to the Welsh Streets, enabling 40 houses to be retained of which 37 houses would be refurbished. [56,115,180,182,]
231. Both the Housing and Empty Homes Strategies recognise that a variety of options may be necessary to achieve decent homes in Liverpool and bringing back empty homes is only one of many measures set out in ‘Laying the Foundations’ to improve the housing market. The application scheme would deliver a welldesigned scheme of decent homes which can be funded, together with an element of funded refurbishment meeting the aims of local and national housing strategies to deliver housing. [29,31,32]
 See Housing Market Renewal and Social Class by Chris Allen for a strong statement of this view. Interestingly, Chris Allen appears not to have submitted evidence to the planning inquiry in any professional capacity. This may mean he has accepted the WSHG position of "resigned support" for the PDG proposals. Meanwhile, the Inspector's Report continues to tout the terminology associated with the "housing market" approach to regeneration .
 Putting money where mouths are seems to be a perennial problem with this saga. The National Trust, for example, wrote a general letter of support for SAVE and against demolition, but its enthusiasm was more muted when it came to direct intervention to do something about Ringo Starr's house, as reported in the Daily Telegraph in 2012. Ringo Starr himself has a net worth reputed to be $225million and apparently lives on a $20million estate in the Scouse stronghold of Surrey according to this story. He could probably sort the whole thing out without batting an eyelid.
 There seems to be some doubt about how long Ringo lived at 9 Madryn Street, with the Daily Telegraph article (see Note 4 above) claiming he was only there as a baby for 3 months. Other reports suggest he was there for five years.