Like many city centres, the skyline of Newcastle is covered in cranes. There is a huge boom in construction. Apartments and office blocks are rising and falling on the same sites that were the heart of city’s corrupt building boom in the 1960s.
The local papers are filled with breathless announcements of yet more multi-million schemes to “regenerate” the city. In September alone three developments worth up to £800 million were given the go ahead in order to fill what is described as a “chronic shortage of high quality office space”.
Of course, one office block replacing another doesn’t make much difference. What has fundamentally transformed the city is that under the guise of “regeneration”, working class housing has been decimated rather than improved.
The poor of Newcastle have been socially cleansed from the city centre. The final surge of developments is pushing them further out. For instance a new £150 million city centre construction proposal for the Waterside involves building 1,780 new homes – mostly apartments.
Building this luxury development involves demolishing 755 council flats. The new homes will be privately owned – none of them will be council homes. Only 20 percent of them will be allocated as “affordable”.
In the west of the city there has been regeneration project after regeneration project – and they have all made matters worse.
Lisa grew up in the Scotswood area of Newcastle, “It’s tragic, it really is,” she told Socialist Worker. “When my mam was a little girl she used to tell herself that when she was rich she’d buy up one of these houses. It was the posh street. Now it’s just a mess.”
Regeneration plans in the area have involved knocking many houses down. First under a plan called “going for growth”, then under a “pathfinder scheme”, huge numbers of people were moved out of the area and their homes demolished. But very little has replaced them.
The latest plan for the area is called “West NEWcastle”.
Tracy told Socialist Worker that she didn’t believe the promises of regeneration. “We’ve been here so many times before I’ll believe it when I see it,” she said.
“There’s nothing for the kids round here. There should be somewhere they can go where everything is organised and secure.
“When you shut everything down the children have nowhere to go. They start getting into mischief. They shut the swimming pool, they shut the local school and the sports centre is only open part time. No wonder the kids are bored.”
Sharon adds, “All the local shops are gone but nothing is replaced. It’s ridiculous – if I want a pint of milk I’ve got to get on a bus to get to a shop. And of course the bus costs money.
“At one point they did up the houses round here – new windows and new fences. Then three years later they knocked them all down. Nobody ever bothered to explain why.
“A lot of the streets are really bad – it’s a shambles.”
The West NEWcastle project is set to start in 2008 and take 15 years. It is only one of a series of badly thought out, expensive and destructive schemes that have ravaged the working class areas of the city.
In the Walker area hundreds of homes have been knocked down to make way for houses that most local people cannot afford – three bedroom properties starting at £170,000.
The most notorious scam was in 1999 when the council used North Benwell Housing Association to sell ten empty flats on Hampstead Road for 50p each.
To qualify for the offer you had to buy two flats and invest £12,000 to convert them into a family home. However the lucky investor also received a £26,000 grant from the council. The houses now sell for well over £160,000.
Some of the people who have been pushed out of the centre moved to the Great Park housing project on the northern outskirts of city.
It was hailed, as these things often are, as the community of tomorrow – the sort of place we would all want to live in, blessed with great transport links, play areas, schools and the like.
The Great Park will eventually have 2,725 homes and the seemingly compulsory business park built on former green belt land.
Less than half the homes have been built so far and already residents complain of a complete lack of consultation.
They point out that there is already a severe shortage of school places, transport links are infrequent and local amenities almost non-existent.
In 1973 some 47 percent of all housing in Newcastle was council owned. Again and again under the guise of regeneration, public land and council housing has been handed over to private developers.
In a bitter twist, public funds are invariably used to foot the bill.
For instance, the government is being asked to plough over £100 million into a development from the Bridging Newcastle Gateshead (BNG) group, which aims “to improve housing quality and choice in the heart of Newcastle Gateshead”.
The group says the money would lead to the creation of 580 new homes “of superior design which would be built to high sustainable and energy efficient standards”. They will, of course, be private.
Enormous sums of public money are being spent – but not on houses for ordinary people. For example, the regional development agency One NorthEast spent £4 million in 2005 on what it describes as “leadership”. It spent £2,500,000 on administration and £7,224,000 on business creation and promotion.
By contrast, it only managed to find £62,000 to help the impoverished coalfield areas of the North East.
While the cranes fill the skyline, there are fewer and fewer homes for ordinary people and more and more money for the property sharks.
Such is the reality of housing in Gordon Brown’s Britain. And Brown’s much heralded “new” plans for housing and regeneration will only make things worse.