Gathered round a broken gate on one of the secluded pathways that link New Church Farm estate’s 600 houses are plumber Barry Nolan and housing benefits officer Neil Furey.
Both have lived on this estate for years. Both are also members of the committed, if notoriously messy, Labour group at West Lancashire borough council. Furey is young, a father of two, a socialist, and a churchgoer. He was elected to council in 2008.
Nolan is older, a father of three married daughters, and a still-optimistic veteran of years of Labour and council politics. He’s been a party member for decades and a councillor for two terms, but appears to be at peace.
Anyway – the New Church Farm estate. Built in 1961, New Church Farm was among Skelmersdale new town’s earliest, and most desirable – a roomy spread of 600 brick houses set a short, countrified walk from the then-pleasant banks of the River Tawd.
People living in cramped Liverpool estates in places like Bootle were thrilled when their number came up for New Church Farm.
Theresa Mackin, a community-minded, no-nonsense type who works in the small general shop on the estate’s edge moved to New Church Farm from Liverpool 44 years ago ‘because it was green, and I got a house. It was lovely when I came here.’
‘We felt like films stars, to have this new house when we just got married,’ says Nolan. He moved from Bootle to New Church Farm in 1966, on the lure of the Tawd’s green pastures and an entire house with separate bedrooms for his kids. He eventually bought his house on New Church Farm for £5000.
Furey’s father in law, a postman, was also part of the 1960s’ wave out of Liverpool. ‘[My father in law] was living in slum conditions in Liverpool. He got moved up here – to a new house with an inside toilet.’ Furey smiles. ‘No-one had an inside toilet then.’
Alas, paradise was lost along the way. At its best, Skelmersdale new town was only a half-finished job: a green, egalitarian dream that was left behind at about the same rate as the post-war socialism (and funding) it relied on.
The results are unpleasant. Walking through the New Church Farm estate now, you’d be forgiven for asking if, among other things, people still had amenities like inside toilets. A number of the dark, secluded pathways between the houses are stained with piddle, and more than a few of them smell of it.
The problems don’t end there. Ripped grey plastic bags lie on the paths in rotting heaps, which ooze trash and nasty-smelling goo (a pilot project for wheelie bins, started by West Lancs borough council in June, doesn’t cover the whole estate, so a lot of people still use plastic bags).
Leaves, weeds and rubbish fill the estate’s dark corners in thick drifts. The primary school next to the corner shop that Theresa Mackin works in looks a bit like a combat installation – it sits behind a metres-high perimeter fence, to protect it from break ins and arson.
The advent of private landlords has added to the trouble, Furey says: the broken gate we’re peering through leads to a backyard that is littered with torn rubbish bags, old takeout boxes, rotting food and chicken bones, abandoned toys, broken pipes, smashed concrete, and several hundred empty and crushed Fosters’ cans.
‘This is private landlords,’ Furey says. ‘They rent the places out to Polish and Portuguese immigrants (who work as pickers and packers on the farms around Skem). They do not look after them. This is a health hazard.’
A good proportion of New Church Farm houses are privately owned now (about 240 of the 600 are the council’s). Nolan says you can’t blame people for wanting to own, and to be in a position to make improvements to their immediate environment, if not the shared streets.
The council did not want say what, if any, proportion of monies from right to buy was channelled back into the housing revenue account and into new build. Councillors say they are concerned that right to buy is depleting council housing stock, and that income from fewer tenants must be stretched to maintain whole estates.
There are other shared problems. Badly constructed bin stores (the stores share thin walls with houses) have been locked, or permanently bricked up to stop kids breaking into homes through them, or setting fire to the rubbish.
The kids, whoever they are (most people on New Church Farm say simply that the troublemaking kids do not live on New Church Farm estate), set fire to the cladding in the stores before the council removed it. Now, they set fire to the grey garbage bags. They haul little sacks of dogpoo out of the dogbin down by the school, and fling them at people’s houses.
Nolan says that New Church Farm estate was based on a Cornwall fishing village concept – a maze of small streets, hidden doorways and houses fronting walkways, with cars being parked away from homes. Unfortunately, he says, ‘the main thing that the design built into the estate was crime.’
Team that up with a disinterested Tory majority on the local borough council, and other problems like few – if any – maintenance staff, and a complete (as in total) lack of decent places for people to sit outside with their kids, or their friends, or whoever (there are no park benches or places to sit in derelict Tawd Valley park), and you inevitably end up with a place that locals perceive as an insult and want to slather with dogshit.
The BNP knows enough to tap into this: this very morning, a local newspaper is running a story by a BNP member who claims Skelmersdale estate designs prove that weird (read foreign) architectural concepts baffle locals and lead to distress and isolation.
The BNP has a following and a councillor on Lancashire County Council, although the locals here seem too sophisticated for the sort of glib association that party has made in the morning paper. They’re down like a ton of bricks on outsiders and journalists who swipe at Skem for political gain.
Still, they seem shocked that their once-prized estate and full-of-hope new town concept turned out the way that it has. It’s as though they suddenly fell from a chartered flight into a landfill.
Furey is worried that they’ll never get out of it. He is concerned that the proposed, controversial, Tesco-Everton FC retail-and-football-ground development in nearby Kirkby will put an end to the council’s regeneration plans for Skelmersdale. Retail build, alas, seems to be the only regeneration show in town right now.
‘If you’re trying to get high street stores and they go to Kirkby, they’re not going to come here six miles away. The (Skelmersdale) concourse shopping centre does not have the brand names, or the high street stores. That’s what we want here.’
‘This generation is gone,’ Nolan says. ‘My kids are all right – they are all married off now – but at least there was a few things for them to do [when they were here]. There were a few clubs and things like. They’re all gone now.’
Skem has no cinema, no hospital, no sports centre – ‘we’ve got nothing for the youngsters,’ Furey says. (About a quarter of Skelmersdale’s population is under the age of 15).
He and Nolan are after the council to reopen and upgrade the boarded-up community centre that sits between the fenced-in primary school and Makin’s shop so that local groups at least have a decent place to meet and sit. The council says it’ll cost £100,000 to bring the centre up to standard, and it would prefer that someone else found the money. ‘Highly unlikely,’ Furey says.
Theresa Mackin stands outside her house, folds her arms, and radiates irritation. ‘It’s (the estate) been deteriorating for a while. It was looked after when it was Skem development (corporation). We had estate officers, then. All of that is gone.’
Three teenaged boys walk into view then. They’re all tall and thin, and wearing expensive-looking, tracksuits and trainers. Nolan calls out to them – ‘let’s talk to some youth,’ he says.
Two of the boys – one with flaming red hair and freckles, the other dark haired, with dark eyes – walk over, giggling. They’re friendly, and responsive. The third boy is very wary. He gives our group a filthy look and a wide berth. He hisses at the other two boys, telling them to walk on. ‘Get away,’ he says. ‘Get away.’
‘How old are you, lads?’ Nolan asks to first two boys.
‘Fifteen,’ the red-haired boy says. He laughs.
‘So, what do you do on a weekend? Football? Do you play football?’ Nolan asks.
The red haired boy giggles. ‘Nah,’ he says. ‘Don’t play football.’
‘No football? You don’t play football? You don’t have anything else to do?’ Nolan asks.
‘Nah,’ the two boys say. They both laugh, and look nervously at the camera. Their friend gets their attention then – ‘come on,’ he hisses. ‘Get out of here. Walk away. Come on. Walk away.’ He swings an arm out and herds them up the path.
The red haired kid looks back at us. ‘Bye,’ he says. He waves.
‘That’s a lot better than we can get,’ Nolan observes as they go.
‘There are undereage drinkers,’ Makin says, her arms still folded, ”and that’s people getting it for them, because they don’t get it from the shop.’
‘There’s a lot of vandalism and graffiti,’ Nolan says.
‘Car crime,’ says Furey.
‘Yes, but they don’t come off this estate, the ones who do that,’ Mackin insists. ‘They come off other estates, and come here.’
Kids are trapped in Skem, Nolan says. One of the problems with new towns like Skem was and is its utter dependence on cars – the problem being that one in three households in Skem doesn’t have access to a car (a figure that rises to one in two on estates like Tanhouse). Estates are separated by busy through roads that whirl back on themselves via an amazing series of roundabouts. There’s almost no sense of centre at all.
‘You have to drive to get to Liverpool. Taxis are going to cost £30 to £40. There used to be a railway, but Beecham stopped it.’ Private bus companies come and go.
In documents on Skem development, the council admits that the lack of public transport is a problem, but also admits that it has shelved the problem for the time being – ‘although it is acknowledged that a rail link into Skelmersdale would be a great benefit to the town, it is at this stage not financially viable for the scheme to build a new rail link and station. However, it remains a long-term goal of the district council to see rail links reinstated within the town.’
At the back of the estate, there is a wide pedestrian subway that links New Church Farm to Skelmersdale town centre. Somebody – probably somebodies – dragged a three piece suite of furniture into the subway and set all three pieces alight. Apparently, people have driven cars into the subway and set those alight as well.
‘This council of ours keeps saying that it’s excellent,’ Furey says, as we stand in the subway, peering at the charred ceiling and sooty graffiti that covers the walls. ‘Well, this isn’t excellent, is it?’
It isn’t. It’s difficult to see where change will come from, though. The ruling class is the ruling class and Labour is as starved of big ideas for the masses as anyone. ‘Don’t get me wrong,’ one Labour councillor says to me several times when I’m in Skem. ‘If Labour was in, it’d be exactly the same.’
The Tories at West Lancs are not eager to talk about housing, or Skelmersdale. Officers took a list of questions asking about council plans for council tenants and housing development, the effects of right to buy on council housing stock, and whether right to buy monies were returned to housing revenue accounts. After some deliberation, the council came back with this:
‘The decision of the public inquiry into the Kirkby proposals is expected to be released on or before 27 November 2009. It is too close to the release date to address the issues raised in isolation.
‘Once the outcome of the Kirkby inquiry is known, we will address the implications of the outcome with our partners. The council remains committed to the vision for the regeneration of Skelmersdale, which is a 10 to 15 year plan to develop a new heart for the town centre.’
Calls to deputy leader Adrian Owens have gone unreturned thus far.