Housing pathfinder areas facing failure of long-term perspective

Forget speculation about a snap general election.

The most feverish topic of conversation in planning circles is over who will emerge as winners and losers in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review (CSR). The review's guardians grimly warn of a tight settlement and future sacrifices. Not for the first time, housing market renewal pathfinders have found themselves as uncomfortable grist for the rumour mill.

Strong signals from inside government point to a retreat from areas where prices have risen. Average house prices in some parts of pathfinder areas are now £85,000, compared to £46,000 three years ago. About half of the pathfinders, set up to tackle decaying and abandoned homes across the north and Midlands, are reassessing their strategies. That makes sense, given the direction of the political weathervane. Some are looking at bidding for funding under the growth points initiative.

But this is by no means the end of the story. As anyone who knows the pathfinder areas will recognise, nothing is as straightforward as it first sounds. Demand in some neighbourhoods has been fuelled by property speculation as well as economic migration. At the same time, families and others who can afford to get out are still packing their bags and walking away. These factors underpin the dynamics of making any neighbourhood sustainable.

The figures make it clear that the challenge for the pathfinders has by no means been overcome. Around 150,000 homes are in neighbourhoods with vacancy rates of more than double the average for England's core cities. The shadowy characters behind the CSR, sharpening the axe for the pathfinders, should pause for a moment.

Housing market renewal areas sit well inside the reforms heralded by the sub-national review and it would show little logic to clamp down on them now. The history of regeneration has been dogged by flagship initiatives that fell victim to a lack of early wins and were starved of further funding and policy support. With their 15 to 20-year programmes, the pathfinders offer a realistic time frame for turning around troubled neighbourhoods.

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