Long time Skelmersdale council housing tenant Hazel Scully is pleased that West Lancashire borough council is planning a facelift for run-down Skelmersdale town centre – there’ll be a new high street, shops, cinema, library, sports centre, swimming pool, housing, and a lovely landscaped park to replace the spooky weedfest along the River Tawd that presently serves as Skelmersdale’s main municipal space.
It is just a pity, says Scully bitterly, that she won’t have much chance to enjoy the improvements.
She and everybody else who lives on the town-centre Firbeck and Findon estates will be removed from view as part of the upgrade. The council wants to demolish the estates, shift the occupants elsewhere in the borough, and build homes for private sale in place of Firbeck and Findon.
Scully says Firbeck and Findon residents have waited years for improvements to the town centre that they thought they were part of. Now that development is on the cards, the locals closest to it are to be turfed out. They’re fit to be tied.
‘We don’t fit in,’ says Scully glumly as she fiddles with the lace pane that she has draped over the large table in her small kitchen. ‘We don’t fit in with their vision of a new, updated Skem.’
Others suspect an infernal Conservative agenda. ‘Is there gerrymandering going on?’ West Lancashire Labour councillor Jane Roberts says on Save Firbeck – ‘and you do start to wonder [about gerrymandering]’ she says on the phone. She has other concerns: that the council ensures a minimum of at least 25% of social housing on any new development that goes ahead in Skem (a figure between 0% and 25% seems more likely).
The waiting list for council housing in Skem stands at 3,000 and is growing, while turnover is at an all time low. The council refused to answer questions about its plans for social housing in Skem. There’ll be more on this as we go.
Scully sees the plans for Skem as a straight class insult. Brand-new apartments for private sale will be built in a vacant English Partnerships lot next to Firbeck, and on the prime town centre land where Scully lives.
The work will be done in partnership (whatever that means – the council wasn’t eager to give details) with development company St Modwen’s, a notorious, one-concept (sanitised chainstores, quick-build private apartments) regeneration company known as Modwen the Destroyer by the many people who have found their streets and homes on the rough end of a Modwen makeover).
‘These people who will be living here with the drive and the garage and the 2.4 children, they don’t want to be looking at council houses,’ says Scully tightly. ‘Well – we don’t mind looking at them.’
Scully and her husband have lived on the Firbeck estate for 34 years. Her husband is a retired builder who, midway through the afternoon, shuffles out of his telly den to share a fag and a few snide remarks about local MP Rosie Cooper’s contribution to the Firbeck residents’ crusade.
‘She (Cooper) said to me that she’d been speaking about our plight to people at the highest level,’ Scully reports. ‘I said to her – ‘who are these people you’ve been speaking to at the highest level and what have their remarks and comments been?’
‘She said ‘I’ve been speaking to councillor Roberts, I’ve been speaking to [West Lancs borough council deputy chief executive] Les Abernethy… well, those are [only] councillors!’
‘Anyone can talk to them,’ snorts the husband, underwhelmed. He rolls his eyes. ‘We speak to them.’
‘I said to her – you said the highest level,’ Scully says. ‘That’s not councillors. We presumed you’d been discussing our plight with ministers.’
Cooper sees it differently. ‘Not only have I raised the residents concerns with ministers, but I have actually facilitated a number of ministerial visits to the area, having previously attended a public meeting and then met with local residents.
‘The reality, however, is that this issue is a matter for the borough council, and therefore it is right that I have undertaken a significant amount of dialogue and correspondence on this issue with the council as they will make the decision on this matter.’
‘I brought my children up here,’ Scully says. They went to the schools here. Its an insult to be told you don’t fit in.’
So, there’s insult – and injury, as it transpires.
Scully says that concern about their housing arrangements has made people ill, because they’ve lived too long in suspense about their futures. The 300 people on the Firbeck and Fendon estates got the first council letters about the proposed bulldozing of their homes in 2007.
‘Which was a complete shock. We hadn’t heard anything from the council about demolition, or about the vision… We don’t know how many years we have to live like this… people can’t move on. They’re afraid to put money into their homes. We have people aged 70 and 93 who are living like this. The council said – don’t worry, bulldozers aren’t coming over the hill in the morning… but nobody believes the council. People are afraid of the post, because they don’t know what is coming next from the council.’
On a brighter note – the council isn’t too sure what is coming next from Firbeck and Findon residents.
Enraged by the plans and the council’s apparent reluctance to address their fears (‘the council invited us to open days (in 2007) where they said they would explain things more, but we got more or less what was in the [original] letter’), Firbeck and Findon homeowners and tenants formed an ‘opposition to demolition’ group, and started to make themselves known around the town and the town hall.
‘We took papers around the town, and asked if people would sign them in opposition to the demolition. We got 4000 names on that (this at a time when the council claimed 68% of respondents to its questionnaires favoured demolition).’
Scully and Firbeck and Findon residents are regulars at council and cabinet meetings, and have developed a knack for witty rejoinders.
Suspecting, for example, that the council and St Modwen’s wanted them out because council tenants would lower the tone of any natty new town centre mews, Firbeck residents came up with a bunch of proposals to bring their homes up to the standard of private apartments, then sent the council the list and asked it to foot the bills.
‘We said – we want to fit in as you fit in, so we can come to a compromise,’ Scully says. ‘We asked every resident to write down a list of what they wanted done on this estate, and we put the most popular [suggestions] in a Plan B for the council. We have said to them many times – put money into the town as it is. Do something with the town as it is. So much could be done for the people who live here – and yet, they’re looking beyond that. They’re blinkered by the (St Modwen’s) vision.’
Funnily enough, Scully says, the council seems recently to have taken the point.
‘We got the painting programme back – all the exteriors of the homes in Firbeck were painted. We wanted all the shrubbed areas improved and we’ve had them done.’ She has absolutely no idea why the work was suddenly done.
‘Is this a bit of a sweetener to keep us quiet?’ she asks. ‘It won’t work. It doesn’t alter the fact that we are under a terrible situation… They have already told us if we continue fighting on, thy will put CPOs on homeowners anyway. They will put posession orders on tenants’ homes. We take that as a bully tactic. They will put a possession order on my home and I will have to go.’
Except that she won’t. She has rejected alternative housing options the council has offered, because she’d have to relocate for them. ‘We said No, you don’t do that to me. You don’t just put us somewhere. We intend to stay in these houses, and we fought them over that.’
So it drags, on and on.
The end, as it happens, may come by an odd default.
Everton FC, Tesco and Knowsley council are pursuing a huge retail, stadium and regeneration project in Kirkby, which is just up the road from Skem.
If the Kirkby vision gets the green light, the Skelm one may be scaled back, or abandoned altogether – the Skem vision is also based on retail, and it hardly makes sense going all out on that if there’s a huge retail centre just up the road. Roberts and other councillors think that St Modwen’s is already looking for ways out of the Skem plans: the recession is surely a spanner in the works of any company looking to make a pile out of apartment sales and retail. (Update 26 November: the Kirkby proposal was rejected).
The upshot, says Scully, will have been terrible two years on tenterhooks – for no result whatsoever. Regeneration in the millennium means retail and private apartments. There is no socialist visionary of Ebenezer Howard’s ilk – unless you count Gordon Brown and his controversial eco-towns, and who in their right mind would count him? It seems that West Lancashire council has no Plan B for the borough’s less-well-off inhabitants – certainly none that it wanted to talk about. So the inhabitants sit, going neither backwards, nor forwards.