FOUR of Britain's biggest developers have been chosen to spearhead the biggest-ever regeneration deal signed in Liverpool.

Up to 15,000 new homes will be built across the city as part of the Housing Market Renewal Renewal Initiative (HMRI), estimated to be worth at least £750m.

Yesterday, council officials signed agreements with four developers, tying them into the project, which includes four separate "zones of opportunity", for 12 to 15 years.

David Wilson Homes was appointed lead developer for the city centre north area, Keepmoat for the Stanley area, Bellway for Wavertree and Gleesons for city centre south, following months of negotiations.

It comes as Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott is to visit Liverpool today when he is expected to defend his wider housebuilding scheme, which is facing growing criticism from campaigners wanting to save thousands of terraced houses.

Among those to be demolished in Liverpool are former Beatle Ringo Starr's birthplace in Madryn St, Dingle.

Mr Prescott's Northern Way vision will see the biggest housing clearance programme since the demolition of slums in the 1950s and 60s.

Cllr Flo Clucas, the city's executive member for housing, said: "This agreement is a fantastic achievement and testament to the hard work of the city council's housing service.

"We want to improve those areas that are suffering from years of under-investment and market collapse, but at the same time we want residents to have a major say in how their community is shaped for the future.

"We are preserving the best of the old while creating the best new buildings."

Cllr Clucas said the four companies would build up to 15,000 new homes for sale, rent or share ownership.

She insisted that there would still be opportunities in the four zones for other developers.

The four developers will underwrite most of the risk associated with large-scale housing developments and ensure they work on designs with the local community.

Each company will put several millions of pounds into helping regenerate what are some of the poorest areas in Liverpool.

Cath Green, Liverpool's lead officer for the project, said: "This is a key milestone in the development of Liverpool. It is yet another example of the innovative way in which the council works in partnership with developers to benefit the local community."

Pauline Davis, managing director for New Heartlands, said: "Effective partnerships are key to the delivery of Housing Market Renewal on Merseyside. "We are delighted to welcome four major developers to our team and look forward to working together to deliver high quality housing right across the Pathfinder."

Meanwhile the Government's flagship Northern Way initiative, which takes in the HMRI programme came under attack last night.

The initiative is failing Liverpool companies in seven key areas, according to the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).

The FSB believes the Northern Way scheme, which aims to bridge the £30bn output gap that exists between the North and the rest of the UK, needs to have a greater focus on how planning, transportation, education, crime, employment, entrepreneurship and business impact on small businesses.

The federation is lobbying MPs in London on December 14 as part of its campaign to ensure Liverpool companies get the best deal out of the Northern Way initiative.

The FSB is also planning to meet the Northern Way's Steering Group and the North West Regional Development Agency.