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Inquiring into Regeneration

The Communities and Local Government Select Committee starts its oral evidence sessions this week. At a recent committee briefing I was struck by the thoughtfulness of the committee members led by experienced chair Clive Betts and supported by two of the best possible special advisors Nick Johnson and Michael Parkinson. The general impression was of a group of people keen to seek out the best approach to regeneration in the context of severely limited public and private money.

This seems to be in contrast with the attitude of the Department towards the committee. Both civil servants and ministers seem to feel threatened by the inquiry. For me this has highlighted a weakness in the system. The current Government has occasionally embraced the co-creation of policy in other fields in its first year and previous Governments have used, with varying degrees of success, groups of external experts and stakeholders to inform regeneration policy. Civil servants appear open to ideas to inform policy but the department’s publications in this area have a distinctly defensive air.

Interestingly a trawl through the published evidence displays a level of consensus about regeneration that I don’t think I have seen before. Urban regeneration in England has been developing since the early 1980s when Michael Heseltine led the response to the extreme concentrations of unemployment and deprivation that resulted from the collapse of manufacturing in theUK in the late 1970s and the riots that broke out in places like Brixton and Toxteth.

Unemployment today is not at those levels and I suspect that the Tesco riots a couple of weeks ago in Stokes Croft in Bristol may not prove the harbinger of a summer of violence although levels of youth unemployment do potentially sow dangerous seeds and the summer is the most popular season for local disorder.

As I sat on the stage at Central Methodist Hall last weekend (next to Ken Livingstone bizarrely) to receive our Living Wage recognition, and listened to Citizens UK’s plans for a Living Wage campaign against Tesco I did wonder if our anger about unfairness has transferred from Government to corporations generally and Tesco in particular. This seems true in popular culture where Dizraeli’s excellent tune Bomb Tesco and Banksy’s latest print of a Tesco Value petrol bomb seem to sum up the popular mood.

Many experts, including Michael Heseltine, feel that the City Challenge programme of the early 1990s represented the high point of regeneration competence. While not perfect the combination of a small area focus, an holistic approach (social, economic and physical), area based teams working closely with the community and co-ordinated funding has not been bettered since.

Much of the written evidence to the enquiry draws out these themes together with the required pre-conditions for regeneration being sub-regional economic prosperity, incentives to work and restrictions on urban sprawl.

In the past we have had cause to complain that the long term nature of regeneration has been poorly served by the ‘initiativeitis’ of successive ministers. Today the complaints are different as a lack of intervention is combined with a raft of sometimes contradictory policies that overall assist wealthier areas at the expense of the less competitive. And the idea, implied in the Government’s recent paper on the subject, that the most deprived neighbourhoods can regenerate themselves through Localism and Big Society without external support suggests a lack of understanding of the issues.

There is a fundamental and legitimate question here. Should limited public funds support the most competitive neighbourhoods, the most deprived or a category in the middle where deprivation can be most cost effectively addressed in neighbourhoods that need only a small nudge to become self sustaining.

It appears to be common ground that economic prosperity is a pre-condition for regeneration but there is less of a consensus on the relative importance of reducing concentrations of deprivation through regeneration compared with supporting growth in locations capable of achieving competitive advantage. The first round of regional growth fund appears to have been primarily focussed on direct state aid compliant support to private sector firms in assisted areas in the north and midlands which should help to balance the southern bias of funding streams like the New Homes Bonus and Crossrail.

But this is just the starting point. As IPPR North (who’s Kate Schmuecker gives oral evidence at the first session this week) says in their written evidence ‘in a context of severe cuts to public spending and on the back of a deep recession, the risk of ceasing targeted investment in the most deprived neighbourhoods risks significant longer-term social and economic costs. There is little evidence of learning from the extensive and detailed evaluations of regeneration practice over the past two decades. The current approach would appear to be driven more by an ideological drive to reduce the role of the state…’

I suspect we are in good hands as the Select Committee wrestles with these issues although I am less certain that the outcome will be better policy. Regeneration has never really been a party political issue. Everyone recognises its importance. What matters is that we do it as well as we can with the resources available. We all need to be working together towards this goal.


One Response

  1. […] early this year, as youth unemployment began to stabilise and marginally recede, in this blog I said ‘I suspect that the Tesco riots a couple of weeks ago in Stokes Croft in Bristol may not […]

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