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Regeneration lives!

Regeneration resources may have all but dried up, but regeneration ain’t dead. Regeneration lives! The belligerent spirit of wanting to get together to improve the lives of neighbours, constituents, citizens and place may be threatened, but it is indestructible.

Over the last few weeks I have been talking and exploring resilience and local development in a range of places, mostly ones that are distant from wealth.  It’s clear – many are striving to create new positive futures.  The spirit of regeneration and a collective will exists.

Some areas are falling fast. Welfare reform is starting to bite on individual lives and families, and is creating poverty, with deep and bad local effects on economies and places. Our local environments are threatened by ongoing change and we need to shield.  Social divisions are growing and we need to bridge them. Local communities need to see positive things happening, before total despair takes hold.

We may have very few special regeneration funds (though the big lottery Big Local programme is important), but we can’t just wait and expect more.  Regeneration has always been about changing places for the better and doing it quicker than if left to the market alone.  The noise from an over-exuberant neo-liberal fraternity, whose voodoo regeneration coupled to their voodoo economic development thinks the market will eventually solve these ills, is being rejected. Many of us know that the market is too weak, too slow and too geographically and socially skewed to help many places. As last year’s public administration committee report found, as a voluntary sector faces cuts and service delivery moves to big business, the fluffy notions of a big society filling the gap is fantasy.

However, in rejecting the obvious and with few regeneration funds at our disposal, we need to also face a harsh truth. Some places will not get economic growth. Thus we also must reject some of the past models of regeneration, predicated on economic growth, and ‘rising tides lifting all boats’.

At the start of the global financial crisis, I had the misfortune of sitting through a presentation from a regeneration ‘expert’, talking about the ‘principles of regeneration’.  To him the ‘principles of the good times would see us through the bad times’.  These principles were predicated on diverting public funds to companies under the guise of de-risking private investment, when no real risk was in evidence. He talked trickle down when it was barely a drip. He talked about regeneration masterplans as if places were built like factories. He waxed lyrical about partnerships, as decisions were made behind the doors of unaccountable quangoes. His principles were the worst excesses of a ‘regeneration industry’ which often served the interests of companies and the powerful at the expense of place and the powerless.  We can’t go there again with scarce public funds.

So where do we go? What can we do?

Well nothing for it but a more self-determined, collectivised place-based regeneration.  This is not just the job for the community, it’s also the job for local government and business who have the spirit of regeneration. We need a belligerent regeneration fuelled with ideas of social and environmental justice, economic and social inclusion. A regeneration which seeks to erode hierarchies, working in networks and collaborating – building resilience.

There is much happening already.  Last week I was with a social business delivering employment and training opportunities in the north east – Building Futures East. They are a key anchor organisation in the Walker ward of east Newcastle. They are catalysts.  They are starting something. And are looking to gather and help stimulate Walker’s resilience and regeneration. Around the table were key people from local government and from the private and social sectors who wanted to do good with the people of Walker and were keeping alive the spirit for Walker’s regeneration.

It’s early days, but starter ideas and plans are afoot.  Maybe a new progressive commissioning processes in which public money spent is money used for local social and commercial benefit and outcomes. Co-operative councils with co-operative models of delivery and co-production. The commercial sector oozed appreciation of place and people inputs and wanted to give something back and look after its employees and the place in which it does business. And while the social sector, ravaged by cuts, was fearful, they had a new hunger and desire to pop up and do more. Regeneration lives!

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