Culture of destruction

McGovern has chronicled life in working-class areas of Britain for television. Now he is fighting to

Jimmy McGovern and I are pounding the streets of Liverpool in the bitter cold. The writer, who has given British television some of its most memorable, hard-hitting series - Cracker, The Lakes and, most recently, The Street - has something he wants to show me. The destination he has in mind can be appreciated only, he explains, on foot. "You've got to walk around it and look at it to understand what's going on."

From Lime Street Station, we have turned in the opposite direction to the one that the thousands of visitors to the city during its year as European Capital of Culture will take. With our backs to the docks and the shiny new architecture gleaming away in the centre of town, we pass through the still down-at-heel area of Everton, where McGovern grew up in the 1950s and early 1960s. He reminisces briefly about his days "in a two-up, two-down, cockroach-ridden slum house", the fifth of nine children. "We were always skint - but so was everybody else."

Today, McGovern lives in "leafy Allerton", further to the south; the hard-luck stories belong to other people, and they're just around the corner. As we cut through Kensington, heading towards the western end of Edge Lane, a five-kilometre arterial route into Liverpool, we start to see them: boarded-up houses, vacated, "tinned up", some in an advanced state of dereliction. Steel front doors bear the scrawled words "Gas off, leccy off". In street after street running north and south of the main road, the feeling of absence is palpable and overwhelming - if anything, the handfuls of dwellings that are still occupied make it even more poignant.

This part of Liverpool is a ghost town, where the living coexist with only the memories of their vanished community. "It's like the area is being eaten away by a cancer," McGovern says.

In the city's corridors of power, this destruction is regarded simply as the protracted prelude to regeneration. The aim is to transform Edge Lane into a major "urban boulevard" with funding to the tune of £65m. The scheme will involve the purchase and demolition of roughly 500 homes, the widening of Edge Lane and the building of new housing. This gateway will reflect, according to the blurb, "Liverpool's Capital of Culture and World Heritage City status and its aspirations as a leading European city".

The regeneration of Edge Lane should have been completed in time for the Capital of Culture year, but a small number of remaining residents, objecting to the issuing of a compulsory purchase order on their homes, have held up the project. With half a dozen regional regeneration agencies involved in the scheme, it's a David and Goliath scenario - and McGovern, as ever, is angrily siding with the underdog.

"If this is about road-widening, it's madness, because every traffic expert is agreed that the city centre cannot handle more traffic," he says. "If it's about regeneration, just look at the quality of many of the houses they are knocking down. These are lovely Victorian houses and they are going to replace them with new-build tat.

"Capital of Culture my arse, when we're allowing people to destroy our architectural heritage like this!"

McGovern, 58, has a personal reason for getting involved in this campaign: his elder brother Joe lives in a close bordering Edge Lane and has seen at first hand his neighbourhood, a mix of private houses and housing association accommodation, gradually turn into a wasteland. Today, with boarded-up properties on either side of him, Joe, a 61-year-old booking-office clerk for Northern Rail, vents his frustration at the shattering of his retirement dreams. For him, it's a case of can't budge, won't budge. The valuation placed on his house is derisory, he says.

Yet, he says: "The money isn't the thing with me. How can they come to me and say, 'We want your home'? Where I live, they can build dozens of luxury flats. They're telling me to get out of my home while they make a profit. I can't accept that." If Joe stays on, he and his wife will suffer deteriorating circumstances and greater risks to their health. "It's horrible living among derelict housing," he says. "It's freezing. You can't do things you want to do. There's no point in putting a new carpet in. Our kitchen is falling apart. My wife feels unsafe, but she's agreed we need to fight."

McGovern takes me round the corner to meet Elizabeth Pascoe, a disabled grandmother who has been using legal aid to take on the forces of urban renewal. She made headlines in late 2006 when she challenged the outcome of the public inquiry that followed the first compulsory purchase order and won at the high court.

Quiet and self-possessed, Pascoe, 61, is preparing her case for a second public inquiry, due to convene imminently, which follows the issuing of a second CPO. She is confident of her chances of success. "If the inquiry decides against us I'm prepared to go to the high court again. I think we will win," she says.

Pascoe believes the plans could be scaled down, still enabling road improvements, and also saving a fortune in costs. "It is so easy to destroy; it makes you look extremely powerful. To create is a far more gentle, intimate, messy process."

At the top of the council, the Liberal Democrat leader, Warren Bradley, offers no words of comfort. "It's a big frustration, Edge Lane. At the end of the day, it's about redesigning a road fit for the 21st century. Business sees it as the link from the motorway. Frankly, I feel let down by the system on the CPO. The high court decision set us back 18 months. I've been assured it won't fail again."

McGovern admits the public has not rallied to the cause. "But that's because people think the area is devastated," he argues. "Why fight over an area of devastation?"

He vows to keep shouting long and loud about what he sees as an outrage. "I want Capital of Culture to be a success, but I'm not going to let people lose sight of the cultural vandalism that's happening in this city. If I had to trade in the success of this campaign and the failure of Capital of Culture, I would want this campaign to succeed and Capital of Culture to fail."

Joe is more forthright: "When I see publicity for the Capital of Culture, I feel sick in the stomach. The people who've got the Capital of Culture and who run this city are not up to it. They're trying to make a lot of money on me and my neighbours and friends. I hope the Capital of Culture is a complete failure, because I hate every one of them."

This article first appeared in the 21 January 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Art is the new activism