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Why were the Four Streets emptied out anyway? A Granby back story

Jonathan Brown

 

Granby’s Prince’s Park district in Toxteth, Liverpool 8 is a national treasure, whose treatment has for decades been a national disgrace.

Princes Park was developed in the mid 19th century as a ‘Hyde Park of the north’ by the brilliant Crystal Palace architect Joseph Paxton, and the area laid out in subtle hierarchies by the prolific Welsh masterplanner Richard Owens.

The broad Victorian boulevards, dignified villas, tall ‘brownstone’ townhouses and classical brick terraces that Paxton and Owens bequeathed Liverpool 8 enjoyed a cosmopolitan mid-20th century hey-day as the Brooklyn of Europe, until racist policing, economic collapse and crass housing policies sparked July 1981’s infamous uprising, for which the blighted heartland, Granby Street, appeared until very recently to be unforgiven.

Authorities euphemistically describe Granby as the “focus of sustained regeneration activity since the early 1970s”, code for interminable cycles of top-down displacement, dereliction and renewal, which have torn at the social fabric and fragmented Owen’s sophisticated street layout.

The spectre of Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPO) have hovered over Granby for fifty years, ever since Liverpool’s 1966 Housing Plan condemned three-quarters of its inner city housing as ‘slums’ in need of clearance.

Granby Street’s thriving shops and street markets were stifled in the 1970s, severed from their sources of passing trade by a new estate concreted over the truncated Parliament Street end, where a massive compulsory purchase programme was clearing the way for the first sections of M62 inner motorway, a planning disaster mercifully never completed.

Much of the modernist housing built across L8 at this time, like the deck-access Falkner Estate, high-rise Entwistle Heights and mid-rise Milner House, was so poorly designed and managed, and so alien to Liverpool’s traditional open door street life, that it lasted barely a tenth of the time of the terraced houses it replaced, and was demolished within 10 or 20 years of completion, leaving the city still paying for blocks long-since knocked down.

During the 1980s and 90s, the radical excesses of ‘high rise and highways’ planning were replaced by their conservative antithesis, the ultra-suburban, low rise and low density bungalows, semis and closes typical of the time. Brookside suburbs transposed onto Coronation Street inner cities, an approach still favoured by social landlords today. 

Such cul-de-sac estates were at first designed defensively, like circled wagons, with one way in and out, and walls around, the physical response to a climate of social breakdown and fear of crime in the wake of rapid depopulation and riots.  Later layouts retain the low density but return to face the old main streets.

As homes these have been broadly popular and successful, but the price of steadying the ship has been a much lower population, smaller houses, disconnected walking routes and far fewer local shops and services: an artificially suburbanised inner city. 

Though radically different architecturally, the common thread between all the top-down regeneration approaches since the sixties was the idea of ‘comprehensive redevelopment’ – the red-lining of groups of streets for demolition and replacement, with compulsory eviction and acquisition if need be.

In the early 1990s Granby residents won a crucial CPO Public Inquiry after another long running battle against comprehensive demolition, but not before the ten streets defining the central section of Granby were lost.  The late Dorothy Kuya (1931 – 2013) took a lead role in bringing the bulldozers to a halt before they reached the final four streets – bequeathing us the only section of historic Granby that survives today.

Dorothy described the demolitions as a deliberate policy to disperse the black community.

“What has happened here is a scandal,” she said. “It is not only decent homes that have been destroyed, it is a whole community.”

She was particularly scathing about the new suburban housing that was put up to replace the demolished homes, saying they were “pokey and cheaply built” and already looking the worse for wear.

Four streets were eventually saved. So a victory of sorts, I ventured. “We may have won the war but many were killed,” replied Dorothy in her characteristically terse fashion.

Interview with Dorothy Kuya by Angela Cobbinah in Black History 365 magazine (see ‘Ghost Town’ from October 2011),

 

 

PATHFINDER

By the late 1990s, with much of Granby decimated but the CPO apparently resisted, it seemed that sanity would ultimately prevail in the final four streets: Beaconsfield, Cairns, Jermyn and Ducie.

But in the early 2000s, the tragedy of post-war clearance returned to Granby, in the form of the expensive farce of John Prescott’s ‘Pathfinder’, the £2.2 billion so-called ‘housing market renewal’ (HMR) programme. Pathfinder aimed to lift low house prices by reducing the number of houses, just at the moment that the economies and populations of northern cities were recovering from their post-industrial collapse, and city living was back in vogue. It was a cure worse than the supposed disease.

The essence of ‘Pathfinder’ or ‘Housing Market Renewal’, was to use public money to buy up, board up and bulldoze terraced properties across the north of England, emptying occupied homes so their land could be handed to private housebuilders and social landlords for redevelopment at much lower densities. Merseyside’s delivery quango, one of nine in England, was called New Heartlands, run by Professor Brendan Nevin, the academic champion of HMR. It was soon dubbed ‘New Heartbreak’, and ‘New Wastelands’ by locals. Even its political champion John Prescott admitted ‘they knocked the whole bloody lot down, so you had bomb sites everywhere’, while the Council Leader Warren Bradley who oversaw the policy lamented that it had left communities looking like ‘war zones’.

Such was the fate of Granby. Pathfinder effectively imposed a further decade of ruinous planning blight on the four streets, during which time many more homes were emptied out, offers of investment were refused, and the buildings left in such extreme disrepair that the south side of Ducie Street was demolished, and corner shops on the Granby junction left close to collapse.

Alongside the campaigning of local residents, throughout the 2000s conservation charity SAVE Britain’s Heritage and housing charity Empty Homes ran a 10 year national pro-refurbishment campaign in opposition to the demolitions of Pathfinder. These charities helped link the disparate local anti-demolition groups across northern England to national media support and opened up lobbying routes to MPs and government ministers. Alongside press and politicians, SAVE also introduced the social investors Steinbeck Studios to the Four Streets, who in turn have funded the Granby Four Streets Community Land Trust.

Following the change of government in 2010, the consistent pressure for retention of terraced streets by SAVE + the Empty Homes Agency helped bring an end to Pathfinder, and in 2011, quoting the SAVE report, the Housing Minister informed Parliament of a formal switch in government housing policy to favour renovation and self-build, bringing a reprieve for Granby. 

Jonathan Brown, MRTPI, Share the City.org, Town Planner, SAVE Campaigner

September 2015