Thursday, 17 February 2011

There are parts of Salford, Greater Manchester, that feel like a ghost town. Entire streets are lined with dormant, boarded up houses; old magazines are submerged in puddles by the side of cracked pavements; and there are piles of red brick where buildings once stood strong. The only sign of life is the occasional stray cat and the dull, ceaseless hum of engines roaring on the nearby motorway.

It was not always like this here. Salford was once a thriving hub of the industrial revolution. It was home to cotton factories, silk weaving mills and a bustling dockyard on the Manchester ship canal. Between 1812 and 1900, the city’s population increased from just 12,000 to 220,000 as thousands of families came seeking work. But with boom, eventually, there came bust.

Like so many industrial towns, when the factories closed, thousands of workers were left unemployed. The city was overcrowded and impoverished, leaving a legacy of social deprivation that has continued through to present day. As a result, Salford has been tainted by what one government report labelled an “image problem”.

In recent years, however, Salford Council has taken steps to regenerate and rejuvenate the city. “During the last decade, massive investment, more jobs, greater economic prosperity, improved environment quality and lower crime levels are changing the perception and image of Salford for the better,” says the Salford Council website. “More people are now choosing Salford as a place to live, work, invest, visit and study than ever before.”

Private developers have renovated old mills in the area into award winning accommodation and a state of the art ‘Media City’ is being built on a former industrial wasteland at Salford Quays. But behind the glossy veneer of the ongoing regeneration scheme, the city remains haunted by a darker narrative.

An astonishing 1500 of Salford’s streets have approximately been demolished in the last 50 years – many of which were torn down as part of an ongoing Housing Market Renewal scheme that aims to regenerate areas with low demand for housing. In order that these houses could be demolished, several residents were forcibly removed from their homes. Controversial compulsory purchase orders, which give residents no option but to sell their property, were issued to those who refused to move.

“We see casualties of this regeneration every day,” says Stephen Kingston, editor of the Salford Star, an award winning online publication that has spent five years researching the expenditure of public money on Salford’s regeneration. “People [are] living in derelict streets full of tinned up houses where developers have not shown interest . . . In all this time all we have seen is houses being knocked down, developers getting money chucked at them and not a lot of difference in the city's well being. By any statistics or analysis, Salford is still one of the most `deprived' areas in the country – which says it all really.”

Many of those whose homes were demolished under the redevelopment plans have now been moved to a 'regeneration zone' named New Broughton. Residents have complained, though, that the new houses are not up to the standard of their old homes. One survey recently conducted by New Broughton Residents Association (NBRA), for instance, found that 62% now felt they were worse off in their new accommodation.

“Everything about this place was done for outside appearance,” says Val Broadbent, one of the first to move into a New Broughton housing scheme called Supurbia, developed by Countryside Properties. “People passing comment on how nice it looks but living here is a different story.”

Val describes her new neighbourhood as “Toytown”, and says she was happier in her previous home – a 22-year-old ‘eco-friendly’ property, designed by Salford University, that has since been demolished by the council.

“I was very happy there, with everything I needed,” says Val. “Here we have been stripped of everything and given the very basics in housing. My old house had a secure driveway with lockable gates. Here I have a parking space in a communal car park that was sold to us as secure parking with electronic gate entry and monitored by CCTV. The gates never work and are wide open 24/7 and the CCTV never happened.”

According to the NBRA, there have been recurring problems with drainage, while several residents have reported damp and leakages. For the first 15 months after she moved into her Supurbia home, Val’s kitchen flooded every time it rained, eventually forcing her to get her entire kitchen ceiling replaced.

“It's just been a catalogue of errors,” she says. “Light fittings in the wrong place so that the light bulbs smashed when you opened the door, illegal plug sockets and even light switches missing. The aerial fell off the roof and the shower packed up . . . The front gardens are sinking and the paths need constant repair.”

Such problems are not unique to properties in New Broughton. A report produced by the Audit Commission in 2009 found that one in three homes across Salford is in poor condition, equating to a total of approximately 29,000. In 2001 the New Labour government set a target that all social housing would be ‘decent’ (warm, weatherproof and with reasonably modern facilities) by 2010, but Salford Council estimates it will be another five years until all of the city’s homes are up to this standard.

Yet even despite the high number of homes in Salford that are considered of poor quality, there is an 18,000 long waiting list for social housing in the city. Around 60 properties come available each week, and all prospective buyers must lodge a ‘bid’ against any they are interested in. On average, for every 60 properties that go on the market, more than 3000 individual bids are placed.

According to the housing charity Shelter, the huge demand for social housing in Salford illustrates that the council is not investing enough in affordable homes. In 2010, Shelter say, Salford council needed to build 1,327 houses to keep up with demand, though only 167 were actually delivered.

This is a problem that has been exacerbated by the ongoing recession. Rent prices are on the increase, while the coalition government plans to cut 60% – £4bn – from the affordable housebuilding budget. And though Chancellor George Osborne announced in his October comprehensive spending review that up to 150,000 affordable homes would be built by the government over the next four years, Shelter chief executive Campbell Robb says this is not enough.

“The proposed figure of up to 150,000 affordable homes over four years represent less than a third of what this country urgently requires to bring the housing system from its knees,” said Mr Robb. “The government must urgently set out its long term vision to solve our entire housing crisis or accept responsibility for the impact these policies will have on entire generations for years to come.”

Meanwhile, as private developers continue to build new housing schemes in Salford, the city’s residents remain unhappy about both the quality of the new homes and the way they have been treated by the council. The ghostly Salford backstreets, once full of life and activity, now serve for many only as a tragic, nostalgic reminder of better days.

“We are facing difficult times,” said Salford council leader, John Merry CBE. “It is inevitable that severe budget cuts will impact on some of the services we provide, but I stand by my commitment to this city and will deliver the best possible services to people in Salford with the remaining budget available."

I wrote this piece in late 2010, not long after the comprehensive spending review was announced. It formed the basis of a report I later put together for the Big Issue magazine, in January 2011.