Sunday Times: 'A corrupt clique of rulers keeps the north grotty to stay in power'

A corrupt clique of rulers keeps the north grotty to stay in power

Charles Clover Published: 22 June 2014

IN A marbled hall of the majestic Cunard Building on Liverpool's Pier Head, where first-class passengers once waited to board liners for America, an inspector sits in judgment on a demolition scheme that refuses to die.

Conceived more than a decade ago under Ed Balls and John Prescott, it concerns the demolition of 440 Victorian terrace houses within sight of the city's Anglican cathedral and their replacement by waste ground and 150 homes with gardens and off-road parking.

The reason this zombie scheme stays in the limelight - evidence of this government's extraordinary feebleness in overthrowing the bankrupt policies of its predecessor and taking on the state-funded satrapies of Labour in the north - is that at its heart is 9 Madryn Street, the birthplace of Ringo Starr. The Beatle's house will be retained with 16 others - like a few old molars in a mouthful of false teeth - in the scheme, which Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, has called in for examination.

Shocking new facts are emerging from this inquiry about the mismanagement of public money and the appalling disdain the city's political leaders and bureaucrats show towards their Victorian and Georgian heritage.

All around the area, known as the Welsh streets, house prices are rising. The population of Toxteth has grown by 25%. Restored terrace houses in nearby streets go for £85,000. In London they would fetch £500,000. Yet the book value the council has placed on the birthplace of a Beatle is only £575.

That is not a misprint. Yes, you would expect a house Starr lived in to go for dozens of times that. Yet there is a sinister reason Liverpool's council has recorded the price of a house it spent £60,000 on acquiring as £575 - and a fine house in a nearby street it spent £125,000 on as £1,200. It is to make the ludicrous Looking-Glass logic of demolition look preferable to refurbishment.

Instead of using market values as its guide, Liverpool council has used an accounting trick called "depreciated replacement cost", normally used to value swimming pools and schools, which are of no value to anyone else. This form of valuation sees the houses the council has itself vandalised, by removing lead and downpipes to deter thieves, as a liability rather than an asset. Yet it is clear that refurbished, for about £45,000 each, and sold on the open market, they would raise at least £40m. Result: no loss to the taxpayer, or a profit in a rising market.

Liverpool now values at an artificial amount of just over £1m the houses of the Welsh streets it acquired for about 20 times that amount. By its screwy logic, spending millions more on knocking them down, replacing them with fewer new ones and selling those off would somehow mean only a £3m shortfall to the taxpayer. In fact, if the true land and subsidy cost is included, the taxpayers' loss would amount to £34m.

There are schemes in not-far-away Bootle just given planning permission that will entail the destruction of 500 more homes by the same cracked logic. Pickles hasn't called these in yet. The historic value of the Welsh streets houses has increased because it was recently discovered that they were designed by Richard Owens, Liverpool's equivalent of Glasgow's pioneering architect Alexander "Greek" Thomson. So why does Liverpool want to knock down terraces that could house the Chinese students and east Europeans now moving into the city?

The reason is power. This is why David Cameron, who visited the Welsh streets with Lord Heseltine in 2007, and Pickles are such dorks for dithering over demolition and land-acquisition by socialist power structures. Liverpool's Labour leaders know that if they keep people in housing association homes, dependent on benefits, they will vote Labour and go on re-electing them.

If Cameron and George Osborne, the chancellor, really wanted to bring growth to the north and house more people, they should break up subsidised housing associations - such as Plus Dane, Liverpool's preferred recipient of the homes in the Welsh streets - which have sat on decaying properties for so long.

The man who should understand this is Nick Boles, the planning minister. He has said that councils should sell off unused land to people who want to build their own homes. He should turn his eyes north to the empty properties owned by councils and their unaccountable cronies, the housing associations.

They have connived to kick out homeowners, run down properties so they can smash them up and act like state-funded developers with enormous property portfolios, all so they can pay themselves fat salaries.

Mrs Thatcher devised a law that said councils should sell off empty homes. It has been frustrated with rat-like ingenuity by northern councils. It is time to do some pest control.