Bare market

Hazel Scully

Hazel Scully

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.

Barred walkway in River Tawd park

Barred walkway in River Tawd park

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.’

Shopping trolley in the Tawd

Shopping trolley in the Tawd

‘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.

18 thoughts on “Bare market

  1. Pingback: Liberal Conspiracy » Everton, Tesco, Skelmersdale, and the regeneration dream

  2. Thanks for doing these interviews. I’ll read the others later, but god this is depressing, isn’t it. This kind of “regeneration” is going on in plenty of places and *everyone* can see that it’s not just totally unfair to existing residents, it actually won’t bloody work anyway. Why can’t the councils involved see this? F’r’instance I know without looking at the plans that the great majority of this residential development will be horrifically overpriced 1 and 2 bed apartments for “young professionals”, as if that category of persons has the werewithal or inclination to buy overpriced apartments in Skelmersdale on a whim.

    We’re about to move to an area of North Manchester, a nice area but not exceptionally wealthy, whose “regeneration zone” includes a ton of 1-bed apartments which are marketed at £125k! The two-bed terraced house we’ve bought cost us substantially less than that. It’s not going to bloody work! Where do these idiots think these fabulously wealthy and cool young people are going to come from? They’re all in bloody London, mate. Buy-to-let landlords will buy up those apartments, after no-doubt substantial reductions, and then, in the case of Skelmersdale, a set of committed permanent residents will have been replaced by a transient commuting population which, frankly, can’t afford to live closer in to Liverpool/Wigan/Preston or wherever the actual bloody jobs are, and will leave as soon as they can. And that’ll really do Skelmersdale a power of good, that will.

    Ahem. I get cross about this. To be fair, I don’t think this problem is a uniquely Labour invention. I think this sort of short-sighted regeneration, where success is measured by the amount of money given to developers, was perhaps inevitable in the north after the 1980s, and it would have been the same whoever was in power (both locally and nationally).

  3. Hi Alix,

    You’re exactly right – I did wonder where these thousands of yuppies where going to come from to buy these places, even before the recession. It’ll be interesting to see whether St Modwen’s wishes to proceed.

    The problem is indeed one of long term planning – there doesn’t seem to be anything in the way of the sort of idealism that drove the new towns. The new towns were by no means a brilliant success and a lot of them need improvements now, but at least they had a sort of ‘big idea’ behind them. Skem residents – the ones who are committed to the place, as some of the other articles show – will have been well displaced by a commuting population – if indeed that population eventuates.

  4. Alix

    “To be fair, I don’t think this problem is a uniquely Labour invention.”

    Thanks for acknowledging that. To be clear, and in my position as leader of the Labour opposition in this council area (West Lancashire), the plans would probably not have been developed in this form, and certainly not with such cavalier disregard for the existing residents of Skelmersdale, if Labour had been in charge of the council.

    While the Labour group has expressed it’s broad support for the development of the town centre (I avoid the word regenerate because a town centre was never built inthe first place), this is on the basis of little current alternative to making such relatively large schemes happen without private developer investment. In the end it’s a Hobson’s choice between nothing ever happening and something happening via this route.

    Throughout the process, though, we have sought to ensure that residents’ voices are heard and taken into account (and I’ll link to our full consultation response when I find it, as it sets this out clearly, alongside analysis of some other glaring mistakes made by the Tories). I share your concerns about the way major physical regeneration is often at the expense of local residents , having seen it in Toxteth and Bradford, to name but two, but in in this case Labour is working to mitigate the effects while understanding that in fact most people in the town do aspire to getting a town centre for the first time (and a train station, which the Tories simply forgot to put in their plans, but which we’ve managed to get back on the table.

    It is also worth noting that the Labour group was happy to facilitate Kate’s visit and point her in the right direction for interviews, without trying to get in the way of what she then did or wrote. It would be unfortunate of our willingness to ensure people get heard were to be interpreted, through what Kate has written up, as Labour ignoring the people of Skelmersdale, when in fact the opposite is demonstrably (through Late’s visit) the case.

    Self-righteous rant over.

  5. Hi Kate,Many thanks for a fair report of my interview.You will be aware that Destination Kirkby was thrown out which leaves West lancs Borough Council and St.Modwen rubbing their hands with glee.We remain in the same position as we were at the time of your visit,probably for many months yet (even years).Paul and the other members of the opposition group(Labour) are encouraging and supporting us in our fight but in the end we will be at the mercy of Tories who,only now,appear to be “listening and HEARING”.Trouble is they “KNOW WHAT IS BEST FOR THE TOWN” and it isn.t compassion,the building over years of a community or the opinion of the “Council Tenant”

  6. Hi Hazel,

    Thanks for stopping by and for your remarks – I’ll be in touch soon to follow up and ask how things are going. Feel free to come back here and leave any updates if you get any news in the interim. All the best, Kate

  7. Hi Kate.Gordon Brown intervening in Kirkby decision–wants a Stadium for Olympics.Be interesting to see where that goes.No info from Council for us yet.People beginning to see the appaling situation we are in .

  8. Gordon’s getting involved, is he – that is interesting. Do you know any more about it? I’m going to ask around about that. Cheers, Kate

  9. No more info in Press on that yet.Maybe you can find out more.By the way,if Rosie Cooper MP for W.Lancs has spoken to Ministers on our behalf it would have been gracious to let us know.Yes,Ms.Cooper has entertained Ministers in the Borough in recent monthe-namely Gordon Brown(in Aughton meeting selected few),Harriet Harman(visited the Concourse,just across the way from this estate) and Hazel Blears(still Communities Minister then).We were not invited to even witness these visits,let alone be given the time of day .

  10. Hi Hazel,

    Rosie was not, alas, specific in her comments to me about which ministers she had met with. I’ll send Chris an email now and ask what she’s doing now that the big decision’s in. If Gordon was visiting, he may have been casing out his Olympic stadium, of course. V nice.

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  13. Hi Kate;Three years on and we are still at a standstill.Council have had “nothing to tell us” for twelve months now.Cabinet have agreed demolition but haven.t seen fit to inform the tenants and residents,nor the Campaign Group.The decision was made months ago.Maybe that gives you and your readers an inkling of the manner in which we have been treated.The HRA Reform and cuts in Communities and Local Government funding may have some bearing on the Skelmersdale Vision but we are in the dark at the moment.

      • Hi Kate,.Our estate is saved and huge investment to be poured in after the tenants and residents have completed consultation with Specialist Consultancy, engaged by Council, but who will work with the Community to develop plans for transformation of the properties and environment.After 5 years of uncertainty we have a firm assurance that WLBC will deliver and ensure a future of promise.—RESULT!

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