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The end of regeneration is just the beginning

It’s official. Regeneration is dead.

For the first time since the creation of the Urban Programme in 1968, England has no national regeneration programme.
Housing Market Renewal, the New Deal for Communities, the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal, the Single Regeneration Budget. All have finished, and nothing of a similar scale or nature has taken – or likely will take – their place.

Like the passing of an elderly relative, the death of regeneration comes as a shock, but not a surprise. There was talk in 2008 of ‘Regeneration turning 40’. But there was no sense of birthday celebration. We spoke instead in hushed tones, as if discussing a patient whose prospects darkened with every passing day.

It was clear then that the assumptions and business models which had underpinned regeneration for decades no longer worked. They had been beached by post-crash financial realities, and lay in the sand ‘like old systems which await / The last transgression of the sea’.

Available land, easy credit, cheap raw materials, investor interest, consumer confidence – the fundamental elements of regeneration deals are in even thinner supply today, outside of a few marquee locations. The closure of the British Urban Regeneration Association last year symbolised the end of a significant era in UK urban policy.

The experiment with neighbourhood renewal has also come to end. Not the victim of economic uncertainty, but of weak leadership, overloaded expectations, and a fundamentally confused strategy. Neighbourhood renewal was supposed to be the corrective to the failures of regeneration, but it collapsed under the weight of its own contradictions.

The response to public service failure was the formation of ever bigger and more bureaucratic public sector partnerships. The remedy for ‘top-down’ solutions was the imposition of centralised targets and rigid monitoring regimes.

The poorest neighbourhoods have been regenerated and renewed again and again over the past forty years – without being fundamentally altered. Places which lost their economic rationale in the 1970s are still struggling to re-define themselves. Some of the places hit by riots in the 1980s and 1990s were struck again in August 2011.

Waves of intervention have arrived with a splash, then subsided with a murmur, leaving communities in need of Karmic salvation from the ocean of perpetual rebirth.

The failure of regeneration and renewal inevitably means that thousands of deprived neighbourhoods, home to millions of people, are still in need of urgent assistance. Still living in damp and over-crowded houses. Still stuck at the shitty end of poor quality public services. Still excluded from an ever tighter and more demanding job market.

So what must be done?

We’ve been conditioned by decades of reliance on large national programmes to look up, at central government, regional bodies, the ‘big players’, for solutions to problems when the response needs to be nurtured locally. Even the strongest critics of government failure fell prey to Stockholm syndrome and ended up calling for smarter, more sustained, more holistic state intervention.

As Jim Diers argues in his book Neighbor Power: Building Community the Seattle Way, ‘Government, like social service agencies and other institutions, tends to disempower communities by focusing on their deficiencies and fostering dependence on outside interventions’.

The new economic and political realities are forcing us to look elsewhere. This is creating a new model of intervention in the poorest neighbourhoods, drawing on the lessons from regeneration and renewal, but making a distinct break.
Instead of major capital programmes like the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders or public-sector initiatives like the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund, we have Community First, the Community Organisers programme, and People Powered Change.

By themselves, these initiatives can’t do everything to tackle the deep-rooted and multiple causes of area deprivation. The risk with the current trend for localism and change driven by civil society is that the higher-level interventions needed to reverse area decline, including enlightened economic development policies and pro-density, pro-mix spatial planning frameworks, will be neglected.

The state is usually too heavy-handed to get small-scale renewal right. But it must do the heavy lifting of planning and economic development to create the right conditions for neighbourhood action.

Within that framework, neighbourhood change has to be driven by communities. This is what ties together the new programmes in the post-regeneration world – a basic belief in the ability of people, including the most excluded, to envisage and achieve change.

They share the conviction articulated by Sail Alinsky that ‘self-respect arises only out of people who play an active role in solving their own crises and who are not helpless, passive, puppet-like recipients of private or public services.’

Done well, the new model of intervention in poor neighbourhoods should lead to radical outcomes. What starts with community engagement and organising can end up with the transfer of assets, the formation of local enterprises and the reconstruction of public services on co-operative and mutual lines.

You’ve heard some of this before, of course – noble promises of empowerment, new commitments to bottom-up change. Putting the people in charge and all that.

And most of the time, all of us involved in regeneration have forgotten those commitments and fallen back on the requirements of the system; the need to get approval for the strategy, to hit the targets, and to get money out the door whether the community is ready or not.

The difference this time is there’s no big national programme to fall back on. It’s up to local communities and leaders to develop their own plans, like the co-operative agenda in Lambeth and Rochdale, the resilience pilots in Salford and Manchester, and Stevenage’s investment in service delivery through social enterprise. In the US, Storm Cunningham describes this trend as a shift to Civic Renewal 2.0.

Regeneration as we know it is dead. And while the need for action remains, the new models of intervention are only starting to take shape. The political theorist Antonio Gramsci defined a crisis as the moment when the ‘old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’.

If policy-makers and practitioners cling on to the old model in the vain hope of miraculous recovery, then the only outcome from the current crisis will be the morbid symptoms of decline. But if we move on, and embrace the possibilities created by the new models of intervention, the end of regeneration can be the start of new and more successful period of deep-rooted change.

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salford star
salford star
12 years ago

What the hell is a `resilience pilot’? We’re from Salford and have never heard of this – whatever it is, it can’t be as bad as Pathfinder, NDC et al!

John P Houghton
John P Houghton
12 years ago

Hi Salford Star,

There is more information about the Manchester and Salford resilience pilots here: http://www.urbanforum.org.uk/events/urban-forum-and-cles-launch-new-research-into-community-resilience

The Salford pilot is focused on the Broughton area.

Hope that helps,

John

Real Salford
Real Salford
12 years ago

Ah, the salford star, that bastion of bad journalism. No surprise they haven’t heard of the pilot since they think that regeneration begins and ends with knocking houses down. And because they lack the sophistication and critical faculty of more serious publications, the only response they are capable of articulating is to pour scorn on any kind of change, attacking public agencies, private companies, voluntary organisations, charities, local communities and individuals alike. A paper like the salford star actually undermines a place’s resilience because it exploits people’s disadvantage, compounding a sense of hopenessness and deterring investment (or it would if it had half as much credibility and influence as it likes to think!).

Robin Beveridge
Robin Beveridge
12 years ago

John,
Completely agree with the thread of your analysis – with bureacratic, funding-led approaches out of the window, the space opens up for community-led regeneration. This is where regeneration started – people saying “enough, let’s make things better for our community”. Are there real examples that this is happening though?

Matthew Mckeague
Matthew Mckeague
12 years ago

For a few years now we – The Churches Conservation Trust – have been working with communities to create community assets from historic, redundant churches. You can watch a short promo on our project in Bolton here http://bit.ly/qsmJiW. Many of the ideas originate with the communities we work with and then we help them deliver through capacity building, professional support., funding links – and often by trying to deal with some of the funding and bureaucracy headaches on their behalf. I agree with the Alinsky quote and the other points you make but what i don’t think can be forgotten in the ‘bottom up’ ‘top down’ debate is that it shouldn’t be a binary choice. There’s a balance to be struck and professional skills and networks can’t be underestimated. It’s where the balance sits that we need some further debate.

Garry Haywood (@_garrilla)
Garry Haywood (@_garrilla)
12 years ago

I don’t want to get into an internecine conflict between two types of Salfordians, but Real Salford’s response to Salford Star is great introduction to one of the points I’d like to make about John’s blog: tension/conflict seems to be missing from your excellent summary of this current juncture. It was the elephant in the room in the last four decades of Urban Policy and will be central to

There are two constructs of place: real places, i.e. what a place is when people don’t think about its role as a place, when they’re just using it; and abstract places, i.e. what we do to a place when we subject it to policy, frameworks, action and so on. And these two constructs are constantly in tension, a dialectic that is exposed most visibly through prism of change.

In the confluence of that tension are these things you mention about expectation, solutions, participation, ownership, linkages, requirements, specifications, appreciation, resilience and so on. This is expressed most prominently in the competition for resources. In each new bout a contest begins in which history, efficacy, legacy, justice and so on are are mobilised in pursuit of the future. We can get a sense of this tension in the two responses from Salford, I think it reflects the dynamic that exists throughout communities.

As you raise Alinsky implicitly and Dier explicitly then it would appear to me that conflict (and conflict mitigation) will be central to the renewal of the process, not something we should shy away from. So my question to you (after such an extensive preamble) is: if we need to focus on these tensions, harnessing the extant energy and emotion, does conflict need more legitimacy in our thinking and does tension-locating need to be raised in the hierarchy of tasks to be done?

My second point, is perhaps more semantic.You write “done well, the new model of intervention in poor neighbourhoods should lead to radical outcomes.” I’m more of the Trotter Inc. school: “no money back, no gurantees.” So I’m wondering if we need to drop this type of certainty and move to a more experimentalist honesty, in which we say there are no answers to multiple problems we’re trying to tackle, but working from the bottom-up from a platform participation might be the key the radical outcomes, but if we fail we fail together?

Thirdly, in this brave new world of asset-based community development, where there is much excited talk about gaining assets is the new elephant in the room the liabilities that come with them?

Paul
Paul
12 years ago

I think @_garrilla above raises a lot of important stuff about conflict (brought as a legitimate expression of power by those who have not had it before), but I think he saves the most important to last:

‘Where there is much excited talk about gaining assets is the new elephant in the room the liabilities that come with them?’

In wider terms, are we (as the professionals etc) now happy to hand over power to the people only because there are no material resources to go with it?

Is the resilience project in Salford, deep down, just a way of helping is say: ‘ah, you’ll be fine’ before buggering off with what remains of the cash? (This is not a go at this project in particular, but as John uses it as an example).

In other other words, are we just falling back into a meaningless ‘big society’ mantra, and wasting money doing so, when we should be spending that money trying to raise and handover more investment cash?

Oh, and as someone born and bred in Salford, I’m firmly with Real Salford on this one.

David Marcmann
David Marcmann
12 years ago

I wish more on this subject would be written, and shared between us all. You want more renewal? Talk about it, and better yet act on it! When all is said and done, I’m not sure weak leadership alone leads to failed regeneration. Of course in the complex efforts of revitalizing, whether a neighborhood or region, all the loose ends need be tied into the warp and woof of a fine tapestry that displays the vision of its creators. Storm Cunningham (ReWealth) has been saying for some time, and now emphasizing more than ever, that renewal is about process; can never be about projects. It’s not about these poor neighborhoods, those old buildings or the deplorable commercial interests. It’s about the process that is used to make the community vision come true. The projects are no more than threads in a carpet being woven together by the Master weaver selected by the vision driven community. You could end up with a rag rug, or a fine Persian carpet (of the same projects) if the weaving process isn’t done well, with careful planning. Imagine a disparate lot coming together to achieve as one, (because common ground always exists) if allowed. Have a look at Cunningham’s latest project, http://www.revitalizNOW.com, an attempt to magnetize renewal needy community residents into starting their own renewal campaigns. This looks like a fine process to organize inhabitants around their own respectful and responsible common vision. Houghton is right when he hints that, more renewal progress will be made when people, “play an active role in solving their own crises.”
You can look at Cunningham’s site and see this outlook built into it upfront. Let him know what you think, but even better, try it out. Then you can let him know how it is working in your area, “…whether the community is ready or not.”!

John P Houghton
John P Houghton
12 years ago

These were such stimulating comments – thanks all for taking the time.

As David Marcmann says, “You want more renewal? Talk about it”. So here are my responses to the direct questions.

The first from Robin Beveridge (@R_Beveridge):

“Are there real examples that this [community-led regeneration] is happening though?”

Here are a few examples which have lessons for other places:

Walterton and Elgin Community Homes: http://www.wech.co.uk/

The Eldonians: http://www.eldonians.org.uk/ces_general.nsf/wpg/welcome_page!opendocument

Shoreditch Trust: http://www.shoreditchtrust.org.uk/

And Matthew kindly provided a link in his comment to the Trust’s work in Bolton: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bh9MBM1hHzY

Then the three questions from Garry Haywood (@_garrilla):

“does conflict need more legitimacy in our thinking and does tension-locating need to be raised in the hierarchy of tasks to be done?”

Short answer: yes. Longer answer: yes, policy and practice needs to get more serious about recognising the inevitability, even desirability, of tension.

The recent Pathways to Participation report made this point well. If localism is going to happen, then tensions between people / groups / places will occur, and we need to collectively get better and recognising and channelling them.

“I’m wondering if we need to drop this type of certainty and move to a more experimentalist honesty, in which we say there are no answers to multiple problems we’re trying to tackle, but working from the bottom-up from a platform participation might be the key the radical outcomes, but if we fail we fail together?”

Like tension, we need to get more realistic about failure. Our over-centralised UK system institutionalises failure by passing it off the norm or even the best we can hope for.

A more localised system would allow for greater experimentation.

But to make this devolution work for the most deprived, the state has a role in providing support; de-risking the process; and tilting incentives toward the people who might otherwise get stuck at the back of the queue.

“Thirdly, in this brave new world of asset-based community development, where there is much excited talk about gaining assets is the new elephant in the room the liabilities that come with them?”

Yes, there are liabilities, risks, costs and other potential negatives. I get that – and I qualified the statement with “Done well” – but I was guilty of talking about new possibilities without balancing them with the risks.

Organisations like the Asset Transfer Unit offer advice and support on these issues, so I’m not sure it’s an elephant in the room.

Now Paul’s question:

“In wider terms, are we (as the professionals etc) now happy to hand over power to the people only because there are no material resources to go with it?”

A good question. Governments, and professions, only get interested in devolution when they have tough decisions to pass on to other people.

We can be realistic about that.
My argument is that whatever the motivations and flaws with the current localism / Big Society agenda, those of us interested in bottom-up change should grab it and turn it to our advantage.

And to make it last, we should push asset transfer and investment in things which shift the power balance.

Yes, the lack of money is going to make life harder. But money is only ever one part of the equation. I’ve seen projects with lots of cash achieve very little; and project with very little cash achieve lots.

The determining factor, it seemed to me, was how far the project energised local people.

“In other words, are we just falling back into a meaningless ‘big society’ mantra, and wasting money doing so, when we should be spending that money trying to raise and handover more investment cash?”

This is a related but slightly different question, so my answer is equally related but slightly different.

Big Society can mean everything and nothing all at once. Josh Booth and Will Brett highlighted the “essential conservatism of ‘Big Society’ rhetoric stems from its willingness to talk about social reform without talking about radical market reform”.

But it opens up a space and, as I said above, my suggestion is that we make of it what we can. My point about community development leading to radical outcomes is that empowered communities can re-model service, take on assets (including potential liabilities!), form social enterprises and do other things which generate and make good use of local investment.

Finally, not a question, but David wishes “more on this subject would be written, and shared between us all”.

I couldn’t agree more. The problems and potential solutions for neighbourhood deprivation are so poorly understood, it’s great that New Start (and others) creates a forum for discussion leading to action, and that people take the time to comment and debate.

So thank you again.

salford star
salford star
12 years ago

Hi John – thanks for that, we’ll look into it, if anything’s been done yet.
As for `Real Salford’, get real! The Salford Star is about holding public bodies accountable and giving people in the community a voice. You obviously don’t like or agree with that.

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