How Elevate changed the face of housing in Burnley

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The Turner Prize. You will have heard of it. At this time of the year the winner is announced, usually to a cacophony of criticism from the press. If I remember correctly, one year the winning entry was made public, his work of art being an animal preserved in formaldehyde, and, another year, an artist presented her unmade bed and she won, too. I am not sure about the famous pile of bricks but I recall that, after some bricks were delivered to a local building site, a wag placed a sign on top of them announcing that, shortly, they were to be taken to the National Gallery where they were to be exhibited.

I might be “tampering with the Turners”, to coin a phrase, but, this year, something quite remarkable has happened. With regard to this year’s Turner Prize, not only do I agree with the choice of the experts but I regret that the winners are not based in Burnley.

This year’s winners – they are entitled Assemble – work in Liverpool, which in normal circumstances, so far as I am concerned, gets all the criticism it deserves. Assemble is a prize-winning collective of architects who are transforming the Granby Triangle in Toxteth, Liverpool. The Granby Triangle, otherwise known as Granby Four Streets, is a residential area of the city.

My only real connection with Toxteth is that, briefy, the place comes into the history of Whalley Abbey. As you will know, the abbey at Whalley was not founded in the Lancashire village of that name, but at Stanlow, near Ellesmere Port in the Wirral. Stanlow was founded by John, Constable of Chester, in 1170 but, a little over 100 years later, it moved, for a number of perfectly valid reasons, to Whalley, where its patron, Henry de Lacy, owned a great deal of property.

There was, though, a problem and that was that Sawley Abbey, which had been founded in 1147, was only a few miles away. The Cistercians had a rule that monastic institutions could not be less than seven miles apart, so, not long after the monks from Stanlow had settled in Whalley, they considered returning to the banks of the Mersey to a site near Toxteth. I am glad they decided to stay in the valley of the Calder because our part of the world would be a lot less interesting if the monks of Whalley had returned to, well, almost where they came from.

Assemble have won the Turner Prize because of the innovative work they have done in Liverpool in the area they call Granby Four Streets. Thirty years ago this part of the city was a vibrant area. Jane Merrick, in the Independent, the other day, refers to it as a “vibrant community”. When, in 1989, as a school girl, she visited a friend who lived there, the area was full of people gossiping, singing, debating, shopping. In 2010 Jane returned and all that had been replaced by boarded-up houses, earmarked for demolition. “Yesterday”, she adds, “those streets won the Turner Prize”.

There will doubtless be a debate about whether Assemble’s work can be defined as art. I’m with Jane. I don’t care and am pleased that a collective of architects, if they have achieved what she says they have, are the winners. I would go further and hope that what they have done is examined and applied to other towns and cities.

So what is the connection with Burnley? Parts of both Liverpool and Burnley were Pathfinder areas; that is “inner city” areas that were to be redeveloped with the support of government funding. Pathfinder was, of course, as Jane puts it, a “gargantuan act of folly” which was introduced by John Prescott when he was Deputy Prime Minister.

Redevelopment does not sound at all threatening, at least at first, but it meant the wholesale destruction of communities and their removal from the places with which they had become familiar. This happened in Burnley under the Elevate scheme and I have to say I played my part as I was the council’s Executive member for Regeneration in my final year in office, some five or so years ago.

I was unhappy about Elevate from the very beginning. It was, though, the “only show in town”, at the time, and I went with it hoping it could be modified to make it more effective. Burnley, at the beginning of Elevate in 2002, had well over 4,000 empty houses, many of which had no future and little value. The idea was to get rid of as many of them as possible and replace them with the new houses that have been built in Burnley Wood, South West Burnley and Stoneyholme and Daneshouse.

It took some time, and a lot of work, before the council managed to assemble suitable spaces which might be rebuilt and, in Burnley, there was the added problem of wages lower than the national average and property prices at levels which made investment from outside the borough problematic. You might not realise this, but to get builders into Burnley to construct the new houses, the council had, in some circumstances, to give local sites to them. If the council had not done this, in the instances where it took place, building would not have been viable.

There were other problems too which I have not got the space to go into but let me ask you to look at today’s picture. It is of one of the town’s Elevate areas, Daneshouse and Stoneyholme. Almost in the centre of the image you will be able to identify, Duke Bar and the Duke of York. The tower of St Andrew’s church can be seen to the left, about half way up the photo. Colne Road, Briercliffe Road, Hebrew Road and Barden Lane are all easily identified.

It is the area beyond these that was subject to the Elevate programme. I realise the houses here were not as good as the ones in Granby Four Streets in Liverpool. Jane Merrick describes them as “handsome Victorian homes, with large bay windows that let in the sun” but there were good properties in Daneshouse which, with appropriate treatment, could have remained useful family homes.

I cannot give you an exact date for when this picture was taken but I suspect a date around 1970 might not be too wide of the mark. What I would say is that Daneshouse does not look all that bad at that time. The Elevate programme might have been carried out in a different more progressive way, perhaps a little more Assemble than the dissemble we actually carried out.