First published in Red Pepper April 2007.
The father-of-six, from Bootle in Merseyside, has reluctantly realised that for him the battle’s over. He will lose his home, as his city’s love affair with the bulldozer continues.
Brooks, 41, was a lynchpin of the campaign against Bootle’s redevelopment, under the government’s controversial Housing Market Renewal Initiative, or Pathfinder.
Others will fight on, but many in the community now share his weariness.
In February, Sefton Borough Council was given the go-ahead to use Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) on yet another chunk of housing.
Brooks’ grand five-bedroom housing association property, on Exeter Road, is one of just 20 still standing. He’s living on a building site and is worried for his young family.
“It’s utterly soul-destroying,” he says. “I’m in a situaton where houses are being demolished opposite me, round the back and on either side. It’s very intimidating.”
The price has been high. Brooks suffers from stress and may be forced to move to another part of Liverpool if a suitable replacement house is not available. One property he was offered was more than 10 miles away.
He adds: “If you fight against the council, like I have, you get labelled a political activist and officials treat you like a leper.
“It feels like once the council has made up its mind [to demolish], they will to approve the plans regardless of what anyone does. It is demoralising.”
Bootle is one of nine neighbourhoods within Merseyside – itself one of nine pathfinder areas across the North of England and the Midlands – where huge sums of public cash is being spent to rectify what officials describe as a “failing” housing market.
The scheme, launched in 2003 by deputy prime minister John Prescott, is criticised by some as being overly simplistic in its approach and inflexible to rising house prices. Early on in Bootle, properties were being bought up for £30,000 – now many are worth three times that sum.
Across the country, up to 400,000 terraces will be sacrificed and replaced with new build, at the cost of £1.2bn of public money up to 2008.
Councils and regeneration companies – in this case New Heartlands – say managed clearance is the only way to tackle a surplus of poor quality, low-demand housing.
But in Merseyside, and other “intervention zones”, many locals are suspicious about what they see as a reluctance to renovate.
Some believe a combination of public funds, attractive VAT exemptions for new build, and high potential profits, conspire to persuade officials that demolition is necessary and that land should be clear of residents.
In an area with high intergenerational unemployment, and low average wages, few could afford to pay market rates for one of the replacement properties.
Owners can apply for bridging loans, to be repaid when the house is sold, but many are elderly or unwilling to be pushed further into debt.
The accusation frequently heard here, and in other places like it, is that this is social cleansing; a break-up of strong working-class communities to make way for professionals.
Just 15 minutes north of Liverpool city centre, and even closer to the beach, Bootle certainly boasts a desirable location, but desperately needs investment.
Once home to the wealthiest merchants in one of the UK’s richest ports, it’s also blessed with stunning architecture, and designated by planners as an area of local distinctiveness.
Yet here, more than 400 Victorian and Edwardian villas and terraces, of varying sizes and highly decroated with bay windows and detailed doorways, will be cleared to make way for town houses and apartments over the next decade.
Brooks says: “The housing here has been run down over time. Homes were bought up by the council, or not re-let by housing associations, and then declared void. The dereliction drives more people out, and means it’s open season for the vandals.
“The national policy seems to be that if you have terraces, elderly people and poverty in an area, it’s time to bulldoze. But houses don’t beat you up or sell drugs. “If nothing is wrong with them - and there isn’t with most of these ones - it is total madness to knock them down and waste all that money. That’s when you realise someone’s profiting from all this.”
Since they learned about the plans in 2003, locals doggedly fought to save their streets. They scoured council agendas and minutes, lodged objections, held protests and meetings and used the media.
The group of ordinary people - with little formal knowledge on housing matters – then took their case to an inquiry, where they refused to be browbeaten by planning officials and legal jargon.
But three years of fighting the system without achieving anything has left them cynical. Demolition began in January 2005, pausing only while a public inquiry took place. A hard core kept the protest going as more residents moved out, causing membership to dwindle.
“Everything was difficult,” says Brooks. “Council documents were put online, rather than in the library, but we aren’t all computer literate and lack the resources.
“The public was often excluded from council meetings, so we’d find out about decisions a month late, by which time we couldn’t do much.
“The volume of paperwork was overwhelming. Even during the CPO inquiry, we couldn’t question the people we wanted to because we couldn’t call witnesses.
“How can you fight the system when it’s conspiring against you? Everything was stacked against us, and still is.
“Just as we’d feel we were winning a councillor over to our point of view, they’d be moved off the planning committee because of an election. Once a decision was advertised in the local press we had to act quickly – we only had 21 days to oppose.
“The profits from these new homes will be split between the developer, the council and other funding bodies.
“Residents are left with nothing. The whole thing was a foregone conclusion. Compared to them, we’re in a weak position – under-funded and uneducated.
“Personally, I don’t have the energy to go to the High Court to challenge this CPO decision. I could overturn it only to be served with another one, and have to do it all again. I have given up. But why should I lose my house just because I’m poor and uneducated?”
Protesters around the country are going to great lengths to save their housing. Some are succeeding, while many are not.
While few would deny that some properties are beyond renovation, most believe that the vast majority could be refurbished to modern standards for a fraction of the cost of demolition and redevelopment, and used to benefit existing communities.
Across the nine Pathfinder areas, hundreds of properties are standing vacant and falling into greater disrepair, at a time when house prices are at record levels, council waiting lists are high and the number of homeless families is rising.
Groups in Merseyside and Yorkshire are among those seeking to use a little-known legal power known as Public Request to Order Disposal (PROD) to force councils to do something with publicly owned empty properties, before demolition has taken place.
In the Pimhole area of Bury, Lancashire, Valerie Bennet is challenging a CPO in the High Court under human rights legislation after being offered just half what she believes the property is worth, after her neighbourhood became derelict.
And last year, a £350m scheme to regenerate Liverpool’s Edge Lane corridor was delayed after grandmother Elizabeth Pascoe successfully persuaded a court that a CPO had breached her human rights.
Both at a local level and nationally, residents’ groups are linked through community blogs and activist websites such as Fight For Our Homes and Indymedia, and supported by lobbying organisations such as the Empty Homes Agency and Save Britain’s Heritage.
Six miles south of Bootle lies Toxteth, another of Merseyside’s Pathfinder zones, and the scene of riots in 1981. Several localised battles are waging against the clearance plans but in one district at least, the authority did agree to renovate.
Toxteth, or L8 as locals call it, is the heart of inner-city Liverpool’s Afro-Caribean community and is known for its diversity and racial harmony.
In the Lodge Lane neighbourhood, a well fought residents’ campaign, featuring people of all ages and backgrounds, ended with a positive result when some vacant houses put back on the market.
Community activist Laurence Westgaph, 32, vice-chair of Lodge Lane Regeneration Group, says: “We set up local groups even before Pathfinder was announced, because even then demolition seemed to be the order of the day in Liverpool.
“People tried to address the issues facing our community. Cohesion is a big issue in Liverpool, but if they destroyed L8, where would the black people go?
“When the council launched its Neighbourhood Renewal Assessment [a pre-cursor to regeneration] we got involved and scrutinised everything the consultants were trying to say. They were saying properties were worth less than £50,000, when in other parts of the city they were fetching three times that figure.
“Social depravation, poor education and the fear of crime are the real problems here in Toxteth. Eighty per cent of some streets are housing association and many of these properties, plus those owned by the council, were standing derelict when they could easily have been renovated.
“People were having to leave the area to buy a house, it was that distorted. This affected the shops and many closed down. Private landlords would never let housing stand empty like that but the public sector doesn’t care.”
Westgaph’s group campaigned for local registered social landlords to part with empty homes along one street, Hartington Road, for renovation and at full market value, with no discounts or grants. The scheme was seven times oversubscribed.
In Salford, also facing major redevelopment under Pathfinder, another community managed to ward off the bulldozers before plans got too far.
People living on the Whit Lane estate in Charlestown, a renewal area, only discovered their 30-year-old properties were among 350 earmarked for clearance when framework documents were put through their doors.
Again, the reasons given included limited housing choices, low demand and an unstable market. The properties would make way, the council said, for new homes overlooking the River Irwell - part of a new development with a potential value of £400m.
The close-knit community acted quickly. Within days, trees were plastered with anti-demolition notices and almost 200 people had signed a petition to Salford Council.
It took the council just three months for them to withdraw the plan, although demolition will continue in other areas nearby.
Resident and community worker Graham Cooper says: “They need a reason to demolish houses. About 90 homes were going to be affected here, but we did our own questionnaire and found everyone was opposed. We the gave them crap through the papers and local TV.
“The council couldn’t argue with it because we did it properly and the whole estate was involved. Many families were moved here three decades ago when they cleared the slums and they wanted to do it again.
“Elsewhere in Salford clearance is going ahead. It all seems quite underhand – the authorities seem to gradually buy up private housing until they have 75 per cent vacant and can go for forced acquisition. But if councils weren’t doing that in the first place this situation wouldn’t arise.
“I’m certain they will come back to Charlestown and try to kill the area. We think they want to build flats on the riverbank and social housing frankly doesn’t fit into the plan. As far as local people are concerned, this whole thing’s all about social engineering.”