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July 24, 2005

Focus: The man who broke Britain

Bulldozing thousands of historic Victorian terraces, concreting over green fields, giving the nod to a tower block that will shadow the Houses of Parliament.
It's all in a day's work for John Prescott the deputy prime minister,
reports Richard Girling

John Prescott has had a busy month. Ten days ago, at a symposium in a hotel near Accrington, his department reaffirmed its determination to flatten thousands of Victorian houses in northern England. On Monday Prescott announced changes to the planning system that would nullify local democracy and accelerate the building of 1.1m homes in London and the southeast. On Wednesday, against the opposition of his own advisers, he gave permission for the tallest block of flats in Europe to be built over shadowing Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament.

Even by his own standards this has been a virtuoso performance of sustained insensitivity. As an arbiter of taste Prescott ranks alongside an East German municipal planner of the 1950s. As a guardian of the environment he has the discrimination of an earthquake. Not since the ill-starred slum clearances and march of the tower blocks in the 1960s have English towns and villages lived in such fear.

The north has had the worst of it. Prescott’s now notorious “Pathfinder” regeneration schemes threatened the demolition of 400,000 homes in working-class areas across the land from Liverpool to Newcastle.

In prospect it sounded like a new age of enlightenment: investment in run-down urban areas; new administrative networks; consultation with local people; replacement of unsafe or unwanted buildings; new infrastructure. All this, and more, was promised.

However, there was a snag. To earn their Pathfinder grants, local authorities would have to “deliver” demolition quotas. To meet Prescott’s aim of creating “sustainable communities”, people would have to have their homes knocked down. The more typically northern a street — terrace houses, corner shops, pubs — the more certainly it faced the wrecking ball.

Cash-hungry councils immediately issued compulsory purchase orders on grids of historic Victorian terraces. This blighted local markets and created the very conditions — rock-bottom property prices and zero demand — that were supposed to trigger the clearances in the first place. Owners were offered compensation at current market rates which, being depressed by the threat of demolition, gave them no hope of affording another house.

At Nelson in Lancashire it took two public inquiries and the concerted opposition of English Heritage, the Prince’s Foundation, Save Britain’s Heritage, the Victorian Society and others before Prescott backed off and local people felt secure in their homes again.

At nearby Darwen, owners of recently refurbished properties, some of them newly mortgaged with unblemished structural surveys, were informed that their homes were unfit for habitation. It made no difference that English Heritage, the government’s own official adviser, suggested that in general it was more cost- efficient to restore Victorian houses than to replace them; or that Brian Clancy, a past president of the Institution of Structural Engineers, examined in detail a sample of eight condemned Darwen houses and could find nothing wrong with them. One was “an ideal little first-time buyer house”; others were “an absolute palace” and “an absolutely wonderful property”.

PRESCOTT sustained the pretence that clearance was not compulsory. “I believe passionately in the value of our heritage and the need to preserve old buildings,” he said in November 2003. “In the past, regeneration has often meant wholesale demolition. But demolition is not an essential part of regeneration.” By way of example he praised a scheme in Salford, where the developer, Urban Splash, was “turning the inside of old terraced houses upside down to create attractive modern living spaces in a traditional Victorian house”.

In reality, all that will be kept of the 349 homes is their facades. Everything else — roofs, floors, party walls — is being ripped out. The reason? Knocking down and replacing a building is exempt from Vat but restoration is charged at 17.5%. Restorers therefore are forced to reduce perfectly good buildings to wrecks simply to upgrade the job and get it zero-rated.

In the case of Salford, the result was an increase in development costs of £1.4m and a significant hike in public funding. What greater idiocy could there be than a government spending money simply to avoid one of its own taxes? At the Accrington seminar, the Vat regulations were listed among a number of issues that “need to be considered in more depth”. It was also hinted that demolitions might be scaled down from 400,000 to something closer to 70,000 or 100,000 homes, although this is contradicted by the official strategy report, Moving Forward: the Northern Way. “Based on current rates over the next 10 years,” it says, “some 167,000 homes will be cleared. This is well below the rate required.”

In the shambles that surrounds the deputy prime minister, confusion and contradiction are classic indicators of business as usual.

AS the north of England confronts the bulldozer, so must the southeast face the concrete mixer. Last Monday Prescott’s office launched a consultation paper, Planning for Housing Provision, which followed a report by Kate Barker, the economist, proposing radical changes.

The trouble with country people and local authorities is that they do not like green fields giving way to tarmac and they tend to be hostile to intrusive new development. Prescott’s office, obsessed with targets, does not take kindly to opposition. If the rules do not produce the right result, then the rules must be changed until they do.

“Planning”, it said on Monday, “was seen as a key constraint on the delivery of land for housing.” Ironically, of course, that is exactly what the system was supposed to do: to take account of environmental impacts and protect communities and their landscapes from intrusive development.

If Barker’s recommendations become policy, satisfying local need will no longer be a defence against invasion. A new system of economic “triggers” will subvert the planners, ignore the environment and make it easier for developers to challenge councils that resist them. The starting gun for new development will be fired if property prices rise above a given threshold, for example, or if house sales are accelerating rapidly, or if building land is getting more expensive, or if local people are finding it difficult to climb onto the housing ladder.

Economic theory says that if more houses are built, prices will be pushed downwards, “ensuring more first-time buyers get the chance to afford homes of their own”.

As we saw in the north of England, what looks good on paper to Prescott does not always look quite so good when it hits the ground. The Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) watches in dismay. Barker, it argues, will concentrate demand in high-price hot spots that are already overstretched. “Releasing” new land for building will jeopardise the government’s own ambition to build 60% of new homes on brownfield sites. Surrendering to the market will do little to improve the supply of low-cost affordable homes that communities need.

Barker’s own model shows that even a doubling of the housebuilding rate will not bring prices down but only slow the rate of increase, which will be of little benefit to those in greatest need.

Not even her basic premise, that there is a nationwide housing shortage, is a proven fact. Basing its calculation on the 2001 census, CPRE concludes that there is a housing surplus in every English region. The rate of building has risen for three consecutive years to reach its highest peak since 1995 (154,599 new homes in 2004-05 alone), and developers’ land banks have increased by 30% since 1998.

In September 2003, CPRE calculated that the 15 leading housebuilders between them already held land with planning permission for 278,866 houses, enough to build a continuous terrace from Land’s End to John o’ Groats.

OTHER obstacles may prove less susceptible to ministerial fiat. The water industry gazed in horror at the map of the southeast, one of the driest regions in Europe, as Prescott’s planners sketched in developments with the abandon of settlers in a virgin continent.

By 2018 London will have grown by 200,000 households and 700,000 people, equivalent to the population of Leeds. All will need water. All will expect, when they flush the lavatory, not to see effluent flood back into the garden. Yet, extraordinarily, the water companies were not involved by the government until after its plans for expansion had been announced. “It would have been easier for us,” said Thames Water, “if we had been consulted earlier.”

The water will be delivered and the sewage piped away. But at what cost to the environment? And that is before we start to think about transport.

Elsewhere it is an excess of water that is the problem. Prescott plans 85,000 new homes along 40 miles of flood plain in the Thames estuary, most of which, most of the time, is kept dry by flood defences. “Most”, however, leaves a nagging region of doubt.

In February the Association of British Insurers argued that existing defences were unlikely to be adequate in a globally warmed future and the threat in some places was such that houses would have to be built with all their living space upstairs. Unless it could be assured that the tide would be tamed, the homes would be uninsurable, unmortgageable and impossible to sell.

One building that is likely to keep its head above water is the Vauxhall Tower. The impact of this monstrous block of flats on the London skyline — 49 storeys and 180 metres high — persuaded Lambeth, the local planning authority, to turn it down and Prescott’s own planning inspector to uphold its refusal. He did not risk overstatement when he said that the building, which was also opposed by English Heritage, would have “a detrimental effect on London’s riverscape”.

The opinion that counts, however, is not the council’s; not the planning inspector’s; not English Heritage’s, nor the opinions of the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment. It is Prescott’s opinion that counts.

He gave the developer a target for the number of “affordable” flats in the scheme. The developer met the target and that is all there was to it — another Prescottian gift to the nation.

Copyright 2005 Times Newspapers Ltd.