Old new towns

Ornament in a house in Skem

Ornament in a house in Skem

West Lancashire’s Skelmersdale (clipped to ‘Skem’ by locals) was designated a new town in the early 1960s. With its green spaces, schools and new estates, it was sold as an attractive option to council tenants living in cramped blocks in nearby Liverpool.

Skem’s fortunes have been mixed. Regeneration and sustainable housing concepts for low income earners require ongoing investment, commitment and imagination. Problems on all three fronts aren’t exactly news.

By the 1980s, Skem was losing on investment and political commitment: in 1985, just 20 years after it was launched, the Skelmersdale development corporation was wound up. New town corporations had been financed by the government, and responsible for town development and maintenance. Each corporation had loans to buy land and establish town facilities.

When the corporations closed, assets like housing and services like maintenance and estate management passed to local councils – where investment, commitment and imaginative development are a lot harder to come by.

Thus we have Skem – a postwar socialist concept adrift in a Tory borough. Poverty is an issue for some Skem locals: fury at their own powerlessness is another.

We spent some time in Skem recently, talking to the locals. The stories start below.

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