What is the role of the state in regeneration?

The debate about the role of central government in reviving deprived places is stuck. The real issue isn’t more or less government, but where and what type, argues John P. Houghton.

The recent exchange between the regeneration select committee and the DCLG was a very depressing affair.

The select committee rightly criticised the government for having no meaningful strategy or consideration for reviving the poorest places. Its Regeneration to enable growth toolkit is a pretty feeble set of lists and platitudes that doesn’t engage with serious questions about the likelihood and type of growth we might see in different places.

What about neighbourhoods where growth is going to be very hard to achieve? What about the places where growth won’t benefit the neediest neighbourhoods? And that’s before we get on to deeper issues about the potential for post-growth or steady state strategies in other places.

I suspect many of you will share the committee’s conclusion that the government ‘lacks strategic direction and is unclear about the nature of the problem it is trying to solve’.

However, the committee’s proposals are equally problematic and ultimately rely on top-down government intervention. They call for several new government strategies, with additional guidance and outcomes, and a government assessment of regeneration schemes across the country.

The most dispiriting conclusion is their call for a series of government-designated regeneration ‘pathfinders’. After 40 years of short-term pilot programmes, the committee settled on the bright idea of launching another set of short-term pilot programmes.

And all this despite a richness of evidence from witnesses who critiqued previous interventions and put forward a wide range of ideas for more searching, long-term solutions.

The committee are right to criticise for government for doing nothing, but wrong to think that central government has the answers.

John Houghton

John P. Houghton is a writer on cities, housing and regeneration and a consultant at Shared Intelligence. Views are expressed here in a personal capacity.

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  • zvi weinstein

    Hi John,
    Reading your comments on regeneration let me tell you what a small country, Israel, is doing to tackle disadvantaged neighborhoods: 1. There is an inter ministry committee where all government departments are united in the policy and strategy for regeneration; 2. The official policy is bottom-up and not the opposite way; 3. Programmes are long term, to assimilate a programme you need at least 4 years and then to take all steps needed to pass the responsibility to the local authority; 5. It takes time to educate local poor people how to lead different projects done in their neighborhoods; 6. Building local services and community institutions are the most necessary elements to heal a poor and deprived place; 7. Government has to take collective responsibilities after the phaseout period; 8. We do not have displacement policy nor demolition; 9. I’ve followed for many years the NDFC and found many social improvements. I guess you know the Waltham Forest neigborhood which was my best example.
    You may read more about our Project Renewal in Google under my name.

  • Kevin Lloyd

    What you have encapsulated perfectly is that the current Government have a set of binary views of the world: at it’s crudest state or freedom; planning or freedom; integration or freedom etc.

    What this completely ignores is the need for nominal opportunity to be supported by genuine agency to secure change. And in turn that means planning and for this to be done at the right spatial scale; collaboration which is led by organisations at the right level; the role of public sector organisations as a partner and a catalyst (including for innovation); the need to bring the new LEP apparatus under some effective democratic influence and leadership and for local government, not just where there are Mayors, to be recognised as being a partner with a mandate to animate activity at local level. We could all go on.

    If I have to be optimistic, which comes hard at the moment, I’d say that there is a slim chance that one or two of the negotiations on city deals might just deliver something useful in addressing some of the issues identified above. But there are clear signs that many of the programmes that would be significant on economic development will not budge from central control and determination and that it is most unlikely that the LEP arrangements will be unpicked in any positive manner.

    What seems to be quite impossible at the moment is to have local traction on what need to be national programmes if they are to have the weight needed to shift matters substantially. Or for there to be some effective national engagement with local action.

    The current turf war in Whitehall over the extent of devolution is indicative of the ongoing lack of consensus on what is properly done at local level. Partly this is back to the earned autonomy school or argument but partly its down to the absolutely fundamental paradox at the heart of ‘guided localism’.

    At the moment, the offer from Government amounts to being shoved into the wasteland and told to bring your own shovel – but of course after that you’re entirely free to choose which bit of ground you choose to dig.

  • John P Houghton

    Dear Zvi – thanks for your comment. I did Google you, saw your experience and found a paper you wrote on ‘Citizen participation in Israeli Project Renewal’, which I have just started reading.

    It would be good to carry on sharing thoughts and experiences.

    I’ve written / spoken recently on the end of regeneration – the dificulty of resourcing any kind of urban redevelopment. And why this isn’t such a bad thing.

    Kevin – thanks for your comment, and I’ve really enjoyed your New Start blogs too.

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