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Pathf inders chase the cash

AGENDA - A project to regenerate rundown areas of the industrial heartlands has achieved much, but its proponents want rmer commitments on long-term funding to achieve even more. David Rogers follows the 'path nder' arguments

THREE years ago the Government announced plans to tackle problems faced by run-down communities in the Midlands and north. With the chancellor shortly to unveil his last spending review, interested bodies from the regions are now finalising their appeals for cash.

Among those to have submitted their case are the housing 'pathfinders'. Established in 2002, the idea was that between 2003 and 2006 hundreds of millions of pounds would be made available to improve some of the worst-affected regions, dubbed Pathfinder Market Renewal Areas.

Covering 25 local authorities, one of their core aims was to stop the young, the professionals and the more aff luent drifting out of towns and cities that had seen better days. It wasn't just about bringing them up to scratch - the social implications were much wider.

Through the Market Renewal Fund, nine areas were given a 10 to 15-year timeframe in which to refurbish or tear down obsolete housing. Much of it dates back to Victorian and Edwardian times, terraces put up to house the workforce of industries long since gone. The recessions of the 1970s and the 1980s made it more pressing to do something about the problems affecting such communities.

After a number of reports into how best to regenerate the M62 corridor, pathfinders were eventually established in 2003 covering Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle upon Tyne as well as former industrial heartlands such as East Lancashire and North Staffordshire.

Three years on, the chairmen of the nine pathfinders have written a report, From Transition to Transformation, detailing the progress made so far. It will be presented to senior ministers including chancellor Gordon Brown and deputy prime minister John Prescott ahead of the 2007 comprehensive spending review Mr Brown is due to unveil early next spring.

According to the report, the initiative has already invested £550 million in housing; 30,500 dwellings have been spruced up and 8,000 demolished.

For contractors the workload is a huge boon. By the end of the 2007-08 financial year, Government investment in the programme will have topped £1 billion.

Over the next two years the programme will see a further 12,000 homes refurbished, an additional 6,000 new homes built and a demolition programme that will target empty or uninhabitable housing.

The next round of funding will be negotiated from 2008, extending the agreement until 2010.

But what the heads of the nine pathfinders really want is a longer funding cycle. This, they argue, will give them much greater stability during the whole process.

By 2008, £1.2 billion will have been spent in a series of two-year tranches. Between 2008 and 2010, which will be nearing the peak years of the initiative, over £1 billion will be spent.

A spokeswoman for the Elevate East Lancashire pathfinder, which includes towns such as Blackburn, Burnley and Nelson, said: 'Most Government programmes are on a three-year funding cycle. We're on a two-year cycle, which is unusual for a 10 to 15-year programme.

'All of us would like a five-year cycle because you can plan a lot more. It gives everyone from contractors and developers through to residents a lot more certainty.'

The pathfinders are keen that the scheme should not be presented as one that simply removes crumbling homes from the landscape. It is actually about replacement and revamping.

The spokeswoman added: 'It's not just about demolishing obsolete homes. The report is saying we've done a lot already and the money has been well spent but it's also saying there is still a lot to do.'

The report stresses time and again the need for Government to stick to its investment plans.

The Elevate East Lancashire spokeswoman said the pathfinders were as certain as they could be that the Government had no intention of pulling the plug on the initiative. She said: 'Governments change, but every indication we've had so far from this Government has always been fairly positive. They do seem to be committed to it.

'Our aims with this report, though, are threefold: that we have the continued political support for the pathfinders; that we have the continued financial support and that we can get long-term funding in place.'

Regeneration expert Brendan Nevin, who helped compile the report, said the scheme was working but the problem of empty properties remained.

He said: 'The Government's clear commitment to their future has done a lot to stabilise some of the neighbourhoods that were worst affected by market failure or weakness.

'But most parts of the pathfinder intervention areas are still low-value areas within inner cities or declining industrial towns and we still have significantly higher levels of long-term empty properties.'

And people are still managing to desert the towns covered by the pathfinder initiative. Mr Nevin said: 'Out-migration by couples, families with children and middle-aged people continues, particularly among the more affluent. We have made some useful inroads but we still have a long way to go.'

The pathfinders have been thinking big. More than £7.5 billion of private investment in new housing construction has been scheduled between 2003 and 2018.

But there are growing fears that the progress made so far might be frittered away by a Government reneging on its original promises.

Mike Gahagn, chair of the Transform South Yorkshire pathfinder, said: 'We continually monitor the housing market to ensure our strategies and actions are the right ones, and, as the title of the report suggests, the research tells us there is still a big job to be done. That is why we Housing pathfinder schemes have already revamped or torn down many unfit homes across nine regions in the Midlands and the north.

But housing chiefs want the Government to commit to longer funding periods Yare calling on the Government for sustained resources as well as longer-term funding agreements.'

To allow the pathfinders to continue what they have begun, the report's authors say they need more certainty about medium and longer-term funding. They add that they need at least the maintenance of the programme at its current level and assurance that the Government will continue to back housing renewal. Houses that stay empty or areas with slow sales and low sales value are all indicators that work needs to be done.

The pathfinder chairs are concerned that 'vague commitments to future allocations' are undermining confidence in the programme. They say the aspirations of residents in the worst-affected areas have been raised and local authorities, developers and housing associations are having to make long-term funding commitments to ensure that regeneration and renewal can proceed.

All nine pathfinders met housing minister Yvette Cooper at the Labour Party conference in Manchester this week to press the case outlined in their repor t.

And this was the message they pressed home to her: if they are not allowed to follow through what they have begun, socio-economic problems caused by run-down, crumbling housing will continue to blight neighbourhoods. And all they have achieved so far will have gone to waste.