About

I suppose you could say that the project I’ve started calling “Street Fighters” developed somewhat organically.

Urban regeneration is a subject I’ve been covering a lot as a writer since going freelance in 2006. Since becoming interested in photography over the past few years, it seemed natural to continue documenting some of the battles raging in parts of northern England in a more visual way. Learning how to use audio to allow the voices of my subjects to be heard has been the icing on the cake.

I don’t know why I’ve only just thought of this, but this site aims to pull all my work on publicly-funded regeneration in my region together for the first time. Much has not previously been available online so it makes sense to push it out there.

My views on this issue have become more nuanced over four years of reporting on it….perhaps inevitably, the more you look the more confusing a policy like this can appear. There have been complaints along the way from both the public bodies mentioned in my written pieces – and in one case from an campaigner – who felt misrepresented in some way. Where those have been raised publicly I have included them on this site.

Some may continue to quibble with my choice of words here or there, with the facts or stats quoted or not quoted in a given article or to accuse me of being biased one way or the other. It’s impossible to please everyone in an area as contentious as this, and all I can do is point to the breadth of this work – which now spans four solid years – as proof of my ongoing commitment to the issue and to the residents affected by it.

The individuals featured on this website are affected by Housing Market Renewal (HMR), or in one or two cases similar taxpayer-funded regeneration programmes. Since 2003, parts of nine urban areas of the English north deemed by government to be suffering from “housing market failure” have undergone a mixture of demolition and new build and refurbishment aimed at enticing new residents into the communities. Much of the housing targeted happens to be Victorian terraces and in many cases these were sturdy properties.

Proponents of the policy say a better mix of housing is needed and argue that families no longer aspire to live in terraced houses. Opponents call HMR a war on terraced homes and point out that a similar style of housing is highly desirable in cities like London and Oxford. I’m simplifying the arguments here but you get the idea.

It’s important to note at this point that there are a great many “winners” – if you want to call them that – among the residents affected by regeneration schemes like this. Lots of people are happy to move to newer housing, a refurbished property or indeed out of their area and being able to do that with the assistance of their local council is great for them. Younger people in particular are often able to take out new mortgages and so can usually move on without great difficulty.

Whichever way you look at it though, the result is that many ordinary people have been pushed out of homes they didn’t want to leave so they can be pulled down and the land redeveloped. In many cases this follows years of blight – blight which many will claim began when their neighbourhood was declared a regeneration priority. Compensation levels have tended to be derisory and when people finally give in and leave, they are often left feeling incredibly bitter.

One thing I can’t help wondering when I visit these urban wastelands – many of which have been largely tinned-up for five years plus now – is what the future holds. These projects rely on large chunks of taxpayers’ money, as well as involvement from volume housebuilders. Neither central government nor the building industry are cash-rich at this point in the recession. Not to mention the fact that houses just aren’t selling at the rate they were when Pathfinder was conceived. With people unable to get mortgages it begs the question, who are we building for.

With developers left, right and centre putting projects on ice until market conditions get better, and now a new Tory-Lib Dem coalition government holding the purse strings for an expensive New Labour scheme, it makes me wonder what is going to come over the next year. When I interviewed programme architect Brendan Nevin recently he was candid about HMR’s shortcomings and admitted he agreed with some of the concerns of its opponents.

Nevin also pointed out something that I hadn’t previously realised – namely that no HMR partnership has any funding allocated beyond the current 2010-11 financial year. In 2011 the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition goverment duly dismantled the entire HMR programme – leaving devastation in many of the region’s regeneration areas which are already suffering badly from the recession. The Pathfinders may be gone but the issues very much remain.

This is an evolving project so please check back for updates if it’s something you are interested in.

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* Almost all of Streetfighters has been self-funded or funded through story commissions, but a small grant from the Lipman Miliband Trust in 2007 was used to fund research which now forms part of the project.

* In 2011, Streetfighters received an honourable mention in the digital category of the Amnesty International Media Awards.

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