Elizabeth Pascoe, a granny in her sixties with a fondness for pink cardigans, is an unlikely heroine, but she is one to me. For when Liverpool city council and a government agency told her, four years ago, that they wanted to compulsorily purchase and demolish her fine Victorian home in the Edge Lane area for no particularly good reason, Ms Pascoe chose to fight.
Sitting in her cardigan, surrounded by piles of paper, Elizabeth fought two public inquiries and two high court actions against compulsory purchase orders (CPOs), which are the battering ram of the Pathfinder regeneration schemes, the 1960s-style urban clearances reinvented by John Prescott. These still, astonishingly, grind on all over the Midlands and the North, consuming billions of public money.
Elizabeth Pascoe won a famous victory in 2006, when she proved that Liverpool council, and Mr Prescott, had acted illegally and gone beyond their statutory powers in sanctioning the acquisition and demolition of 370 Edwardian and Victorian properties, including hers, in the Edge Lane West area.
By fighting, Ms Pascoe defined the front line in the war on one of the most oppressive aspects of the whole New Labour era. Her local MP, Jane Kennedy, defined it to the first public inquiry as ‘social cleansing’ — shortly afterwards she lost her job as health minister. By winning, Ms Pascoe also raised the hopes of little bands fighting similar schemes across the Midlands and the North.
The state, in the form of Liverpool council and something called, ironically, the Homes and Communities Agency, had its revenge on Ms Pascoe a couple of weeks ago when she narrowly lost her latest battle in the high court. The officials who blundered last time had found a piece of law that said they were entitled to knock down her home and what remains of her community. Mr Justice Ouseley ruled, despite evident misgivings, that there was no error of law this time.
Faced with defeat, Ms Pascoe took a characteristically robust view. She said: ‘As I see it, the battle is like housework. We don’t ever “get anywhere” but my goodness it is so much worse if we don’t try.’
It would be a mistake to conclude, though, that her battle against state bullying is all for nothing. It has defined an area of law in which modern Britain is little better than Zimbabwe. It used to be the case that the state could take away your home for a road, a railway or an airport because it was to the greater public good. It used to be the case, even during the clearances of the 1960s, that to succeed with a compulsory purchase order for a housing scheme it had to be proved that the properties to be demolished were unsound.
What the Edge Lane case has shown is that compulsory purchase orders can be used under the present law to do whatever public officials want to do with them. The state can now take away your home just because the ones next door are scruffy and because a site needs to be created for Bellway Homes to have a sufficient profit margin, as in this case.
The checks and balances intended to protect the poor and vulnerable against bureaucratic megalomania have been stripped away in the interests of something called ‘transformational change’. It is curious how many of the terms used in the pursuit of ‘housing market renewal’ — a public/private construct of this government’s own invention — are Orwellian. The Englishman’s home is no longer his castle. The state has the power to chuck you out on a whim. What happened to brave Elizabeth Pascoe, as she has now demonstrated, is an affront to all our freedoms.
Let us go back for a minute to see how all this came about. In the last decade, across the Midlands and the North, thousands of homes were empty, the result of people leaving the northern industrial towns for employment in the south. Abandonment led to decay, which blighted neighbourhoods and vandalism completed the spiral of decline. What emerged in response was a report by something called the Centre for Urban and Regional Studies at Birmingham University, in 2001, which identified a million homes as suffering from neglect. It suggested that from 165,000 to 400,000 terraces across the Midlands and the north should be demolished to tackle the problem. One of the authors of the report, Brendan Nevin, became an adviser to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.
John Prescott entirely failed to spot that the policy of demolition was wholly opposed by the chairman of his own Urban Task Force, the architect Lord (Richard) Rogers, and by other Task Force members, who remembered the clearances of terraces in the 1960s, the corruption that went with them and the failure of the tower blocks which replaced the terraces. Nor did Prescott resolve the arguments between two sides in government, one which argued that it was environmentally better to knock down Britain’s draughty old housing stock and start again, and another which argued that each terrace contained the equivalent of 15,000 litres of petrol in ‘embodied energy’ which would be wasted if they were knocked down. The arguments were left to the courts.
The academics and consultants who invented ‘housing market renewal’ hated private landlords and were adamant that the market had failed. But markets don’t fail if the price drops low enough. The experience of the East End of London, for instance, is that when the price dips far enough, the artists and bohemians move in and the place gets done up.
There was no market failure in Edge Lane West. Of 131 empty homes five years ago, 127 were owned by social landlords. The properties were kept empty deliberately and tenants were paid up to leave. Only four empty properties were privately owned.
Ms Pascoe and her 70-odd supporters, who included Professor Anne Power, a member of the government’s Sustainable Development Commission, even designed their own alternative scheme, which involved refurbishing all those properties that weren’t in an advanced state of decay. At one stage, even the government’s own advisers, the Commission on Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE), appeared to support them. It published a report saying that the highways department should ‘explore all the alternatives and put forward a convincing case for highway widening’. It said Ms Pascoe’s home and its neighbours were of ‘reasonable architectural merit’, the existing townscape ‘part of the entrance journey into Liverpool’. It concluded that the new housing designed for Bellway had ‘fundamental problems’ and was of ‘sub-standard quality’. Unfortunately it said this two days after the second public inquiry had closed.
Two weeks before Ms Pascoe went to the high court the second time, CABE reversed its view, on the basis of some new colour drawings of virtually the same scheme. The watchdog, toothless at best, had been muzzled — casting doubt on whether it serves any point at all. The council and the bureaucrats drove on, unwilling to lose face. The alternative scheme was found wanting by the judge simply because the local authority refused to fund it.
Elizabeth Pascoe cannot now afford to appeal. So there is only one consolation from this sorry tale. The story of Edge Lane has convinced many on the Conservative benches, such as Alistair Burt, who was at one time the Conservative housing spokesman, that ‘the planning system needs to be changed to reflect a proper balance between the value of good traditional property and the needs of a modern city’. It looks as if one day change will come. Unfortunately, for Ms Pascoe it will come too late.