I SHOULD know: fashion can be a double-edged sword. Quite often, it is human nature not to appreciate something until it’s almost too late or it’s gone. My mum wishes she’d said more nice stuff to my Nan before she died and there are things you’d have loved to have done in life, but you didn’t. You do it with human beings and you also do it with possessions and with buildings. Frequently, there’s a rush for newness, a thinking that a new way is better.
So in the Sixties we had slum clearances that paved the way for concrete tower blocks that didn’t work. At the time, people thought it was a brave new world, but actually it was about greed: knock down one house and build three or four properties in its place. Although the experiment failed, it was repeated in the Eighties and Nineties when policy makers and architects again thought any kind of high density housing was the only solution to an urban renaissance. The policy was exploited by developers and abetted by banks and their ridiculous 125 per cent mortgages. The effect was an unsustainable housing bubble and that caused the mess we find ourselves in now. So in Liverpool and elsewhere, thanks to short-sighted and often stupid planning authorities, we have perfectly lovely streets that are earmarked for demolition.
We’re in danger of repeating past mistakes. Just about everything, including the Welsh Streets where Ringo Starr was born, and those noble streets around Anfield is sustainably salvageable—particularly in this economic climate when building new rarely makes money. It’s been absolutely proved that most people – young and old – would prefer to live in a house than a flat. So in Liverpool, we have houses on a street with an outside space: the basics of liveability are in place. The historic system for salvaging these properties was via the council, but because town halls no longer have money, we need to look at alternatives. We need mortgage companies to really support housing renovation and for the government to back their efforts. My wife, Gerardine, and I wouldn’t be where we are now without the help we received and the work we put into our first house in Wembley, north London. We stretched ourselves and got on to the housing ladder. That was back in 1982. That house was also a Victorian terrace and it was practically uninhabitable: it had had no Tender Loving Care since the turn of the century. It didn’t have any lights, the roof was a disaster, it had no heating, the chimneys were all blocked off, there were no proper bathrooms, the plumbing was a nightmare and the electrics were completely unsafe. But when we bought it, Brent council was giving 90 per cent grants to do that work to kick start these streets back to life. We brought that house back to life. I go past it regularly and it is a thriving, lovely little street. So it worked. It took us 18 months. We were just normal young couple and there are tens of thousands of normal young couples now like we were then who are willing to put in the effort. They would do exactly what we did if given the chance. But the problem is funding. We’re not talking about vast sums though. Liverpool City Council says the houses in the Welsh Streets are worth at most £50,000 and that it would cost another £75,000 to renovate each one. I just don’t believe that. That might be what someone is quoting the council, but doing it yourself with the right builder would cost a maximum of £35,000 in my view.
The irony is that banks would lend a young couple £100,000 for a new flat, but not £50,000 for an old house and a further £35,000 for renovation. I understand why: there’s a risk the couple would just pocket the £35,000. So what we need is draw-down mortgages where banks release funds for each stage of repair. Yes, it would be hard work for the banks, but it would be worth it. The same applies to the young couple. Putting that effort into your own home is part of learning to grow up and settle down in life. Most couples would jump at the chance of giving up a couple of nights out a week to work hard on getting a good home. Not only would it bring streets back to life, it would also create communities. Investing sweat into your home is a shared experience; you make friends and you help each other out. When you put that much into something, its human nature to love it and cherish it. What’s more, it creates bonds and longevity in a relationship. I know it cemented mine. It all sounds Utopian, but it’s not impossible.
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