Fashion can be a double-edged sword – I should know. Quite often, it is human nature not to appreciate something until it’s almost too late or it’s gone.
My mum wishes she’d said more nice stuff to my nan before she died, and there are things you’d have loved to have done in life, but didn’t. We do it with human beings, and we also do it with possessions and with buildings. Frequently, there’s a rush for newness, a thinking that a new way is going to be a better way. In the 1960s we had slum clearances that paved the way for concrete tower blocks that didn’t work.
At the time, people thought it was a brave new world, but actually it was about greed: knock down one house and build three or four properties in its place. Although the experiment failed, it was repeated in the 1980s and 1990s, when policymakers and architects again thought that any kind of high-density housing was the only solution to an urban renaissance.
The policy was exploited by developers, and aided and abetted by banks and their ridiculous 125% mortgages. The effect was an unsustainable housing bubble, and that caused the mess we find ourselves in now. In Liverpool and elsewhere, thanks to short-sighted and often stupid planning authorities, we have perfectly lovely streets that are earmarked for demolition.
We’re in danger of repeating past mistakes.
Just about everything, including the Welsh Streets, where Ringo Starr was born, and those noble streets around Anfield, is sustainably salvageable – particularly in this economic climate, when building new rarely makes money. It’s been proved absolutely that most people – young and old – would prefer to live in a house than in a flat. The historic system for salvaging these properties was via the council, but because town halls no longer have any money, we need to look at alternatives. We need mortgage companies to support housing renovation, and the Government to back their efforts.
My wife Gerardine and I wouldn’t be where we are now without the help we received, and the work we put into our first house in Wembley, north London. We stretched ourselves and got on to the housing ladder. The house was a Victorian terrace, and it was practically uninhabitable: it had had no tender loving care since the turn of the century.
It didn’t have any lights; the roof was a disaster; it had no heating; the chimneys were all bricked up; there were no proper bathrooms; the plumbing was a nightmare and the electrics were completely unsafe.
But when we bought it, back in 1982, Brent Council was giving 90% grants to kick-start those streets back to life. I go past the house regularly, and the street it’s in is a thriving, lovely little street. It took us 18 months to bring our house back to life, but it worked. We were just a normal young couple, and there are tens of thousands of young couples now, like we were then, who are willing to put in the effort. They would do exactly what we did if given the chance.
The problem is funding. We’re not talking about vast sums. Liverpool City Council says the houses in the Welsh Streets are worth at most £50,000, and that it would cost another £75,000 to renovate each one. I just don’t believe that. That might be what someone is quoting the council, but doing it yourself with the right builder would cost a maximum of £35,000, in my view.
The irony is that banks would lend a young couple £100,000 for a new flat, but not £50,000 for an old house and a further £35,000 for renovation. I understand why: there’s a risk the couple would just pocket the £35,000. What we need are draw-down mortgages where banks release funds for each stage of repair. Yes, it would be hard work for the banks, but it would be worth it. The same applies to the young couple. Putting that effort into your own home is part of learning to grow up and settle down. Most couples would jump at the chance of giving up a couple of nights out a week to work hard at making a good home.
Not only would it bring streets back to life, it would also create communities. Investing sweat into your home is a shared experience; you make friends and you help each other out. When you put that much into something, it’s human nature to love it and cherish it. What’s more, it creates bonds and longevity in a relationship. I know it cemented mine.
It might sound like I’ve gone all utopian, but believe me, it’s not impossible.