Standing by

View of Skem

View of Skem from Tawd valley park

Three months ago, we went to West Lancashire town Skelmersdale to talk to council tenants about their fight to stay in flats that were due for demolition. Here we are in February, and nothing much has changed:

Skelmersdale council tenants on the Firbeck and Findon estate still don’t know if their homes will be demolished as part of Tory West Lancashire borough council plans to upgrade rundown Skelmersdale town centre.

As readers of the November article will know, the council believed that the upgrade should include a wholesale flattening of Firbeck and Findon estate, and a replacing of it, and its working class occupants, with plush new apartments for private sale to the better heeled. Firbeck and Findon residents would be dispatched to outlying West Lancashire estates where, presumably, they’d better complement the tone.

‘We’ve heard nothing [since November],’ longtime Firbeck and Findon tenant Hazel Scully says. ‘It’s nearly three and a half years [since the council announced its plans to demolish the estate] that we’ve been waiting [for a final decision on demolition]. There are old people who have lived here for years. There are disabled people here. Nobody knows what is going to happen to their homes. It’s a terrible way to live.’

Back in November, the council told us that it couldn’t make a final decision about demolishing Firbeck and Findon until government decided whether to grant Tesco and Everton FC permission to build a new retail centre and stadium in nearby Kirkby. The Skem regeneration project (and its attending Firbeck and Fendon demolition) was unlikely to go ahead if the Kirkby one did: Skem town centre development partner St Modwen’s said it would it would back out of the Skem plans if Kirkby got the go ahead, because a retail and private-apartments-for-sale centre in Skem would not be able to compete with the Kirkby one. Alas for Skem, regeneration based on retail is the only game in town.

The thing is – the government rejected the Tesco and Everton bid late in November 2010, but the council still hasn’t decided whether the Skem development should go ahead, or if Firbeck and Findon will be destroyed.

Scully isn’t hopeful.

Firstly, it seems likely that Tesco and/or Everton – encouraged by local MPs – will resubmit their Kirby proposal, if they haven’t already. ‘If that happens, we don’t know what will happen to the Skem development project.’

Secondly, people in high places are behaving as though the Firbeck and Findon estate has already gone. Basic cosmetic upgrade works that were planned for Firbeck and Findon are not included in the council’s capital programme (the Skem town centre project, which includes the destruction of Firbeck and Findon, is on the programme for 2010-2011), and Scully says that council leader Ian Grant was heard to say that there was ‘no point spending money on Firbeck and Findon for cosmetic purposes if the estate was to be demolished.’

Apparently, Labour councillor Bob Pendleton asked Ian Grant – in no pleasant terms – to clarify that comment at a recent scrutiny meeting, and got nowhere (more on this soon).

For now, all Scully and Firbeck and Findon residents have is a verbal promise from Tory councillors Val Hopley (cabinet member for housing) and (deputy leader) Adrian Owens that they will be told the fate of their homes before anyone else.

‘We don’t want to find out in a newspaper, or a newsletter,’ Scully says. ‘But they [the council cabinet] have closed up. They won’t give us any information.’ She has only one option – to stay in the cabinet’s ear until the information comes through.

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. Continue reading

Cost effective

Murder scene on New Church Farm

A front door on New Church Farm

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. Continue reading