South of the River – at Christmas

“So this is Christmas and what have you done?
Another year over, a new one just begun.”

I’ve had this John Lennon line going round in my head with an image of the boarded up properties in Beeston Hill and Holbeck. After all, the Christmas story is primarily about housing and homelessness, isn’t it? The PFI funded rebuilding scheme has been beset with delays. Another year has gone by and still not a single brick has been laid.

There are also sites on Brown Lane and the Garnets that have been cleared without a rebuilding plan in place. Not to mention the Matthew Murray school site.

The obvious conclusion to draw is that the Council are incompetent. What were thinking of when they demolished or boarded up the houses and flats? Don’t they know there’s a housing crisis with 24,000 people on the waiting list? Did they really think that this government would pay for the building of social housing?

An obvious conclusion, but the facts are not as simple as that. I know, I was there when some of the key decisions were made.

I think one major problem that the Council and housing associations have is that the time it takes to plan, fund and deliver new housing is much longer than changes in society.

Seven years ago Leeds didn’t face a housing crisis, Leeds faced abandonments. Streets where people didn’t want to live. Conditions, already bad, were deteriorating by the day as houses were left empty, sheeted up, or burnt out. Schools were being closed because there were “too many” excess places.

I wrote the first funding bid to demolish the Beverleys in Beeston. A group of officers looked at surveys of the housing in Beeston Hill and proposed a plan whereby the most stable and in best condition some blocks would be improved, whilst the worst would be demolished and new modern housing would be built.

We identified the Beverleys as the worst (and yes The Garnets were next on the list). This was an area of dense housing with no gardens or green space. Many of the houses were north-facing back to backs. That means they never got direct sunlight through their windows. Even the south-facing houses got little, especially in winter because the streets were narrow and the terraces tall. It wasn’t a popular place to live, although it suited some.

In 2005 the city skyline was littered with cranes. If other parts of Leeds can be rebuilt, why not Beeston? In hindsight of course, the building boom was coming to an end, but we didn’t know that then. This appeared to be an opportunity to improve lives in a deprived community.

By the way, I would encourage you have a look at the recent debate over on The Leeds Citizen blog about the merits of the housing that has been demolished.

When I was a teenager in London, my paper round took me round the terraces, mews’ and squares of Belgravia (Upstairs, Downstairs land). Looking at Beeston Hill three decades later I remember thinking the problem wasn’t the fact that the houses were terraced, it was their small size and lack of open space. I still think that demolishing a few odd blocks and creating green squares would do wonders for the area.

Back to this year and on my way home from Christmas shopping in town I passed the newly completed houses on the Beverleys site. One thing I was particularly pleased to see was a shared green space in the middle of the houses.

So this is Christmas* and this is my last column of 2012. I will be back sharing more thoughts about life South of the River in January. I’ll sign off with another quote from Mr Lennon. Have a good one.

“And so this is Christmas, I hope you have fun,
The near and the dear ones, the old and the young.”

*Other religious festivals are available.

One Reply to “South of the River – at Christmas”

  1. There are some proposals for Brown Lane Easat – see so perhaps 2013 will see some progress on the housing front.

    I like the idea that the Christmas story is ‘primarily about housing’! I think it’s also about hope and a child born in a stable who turned the world upside down…

    I’ve enyoyed reading your columns, Jeremy, always interesting and thought provoking…

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