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The return of regeneration

Regeneration may be back on the agenda but have we learned from the failures of the past? John P. Houghton reports from the Regen 2017 conference in Liverpool

1.     The R-word is back…

According to the Homes and Communities Agency for the north west of England, ‘regeneration is back in the dictionary’. This comes after years of being left discarded in the dustbin.

The evidence offered in support of this claim was the government’s recently released plans for estate regeneration and an industrial strategy, alongside the even newer housing white paper ‘Fixing our broken housing market‘.

Post-Brexit, it seems ministers are more alert to the concerns of deprived areas (and alive to the potential political benefits of such a strategy).

Regeneration may be back in the dictionary, but it will remain on the page in places which cannot show a willingness and desire to make things happen. The Homes and Communities Agency has been instructed to ‘work with the willing’ i.e. those places that are prepared build houses and invest some of their own money in development. Good news for places that have already struck devolution deals.

But what are the prospects for neighbourhoods that warrant regeneration in areas with councils that are anti-housing, anti-growth or simply don’t know how to strike growth deals?

2.     …but it may be a very narrow definition of regeneration

There was an interesting clash of perspectives on the second day of the conference.

A speaker from the Northern Housing Consortium highlighted a two-bedroom terraced house in Willow Street, Burnley as the kind of ‘legacy’ housing stock that has no possible future. The ‘regeneration’ of such areas was an ‘unavoidable truth,’ the speaker said.

Regeneration in this sense implied a return to the days of housing market renewal, and the demolition of perfectly good housing stock in many parts of the north and midlands.

‘What are the prospects for neighbourhoods with councils that are

anti-housing, anti-growth or simply don’t know how to strike growth deals?’

The next speaker was from Urban Splash, the company that made its name by refurbishing and redeveloping units that had been written off as obsolete.

If regeneration is about to return, we need to look at Willow Street and see the potential for another Chimney Pot Park, and resist the temptation to demolish first and ask questions later.

3.     The other R-word – reputation

Remember the scally kid from Wythenshawe who ‘shot’ David Cameron back in 2007?

In the days after the image went viral, he confessed / claimed that he had been paid by a film crew to make the provocative gesture.

According to the same speaker, the makers of the programme ‘The Duchess on the Estate‘ (also filmed in Wythenshawe and featuring Sarah Ferguson ‘hoodie hunting’), stirred up anti-social behaviour and scattered littered on the streets prior to filming. They were literally making trash TV.

Magnificently, the residents launched a counter-campaign to reclaim their reputation with the support of Creative Concern. The initiative included the deployment of place ambassadors, a social history tour and corporate events to attract investment – or at least tempt people to take a second look at the place.

What does all this tell us? Reputation is an increasingly important part of regeneration.

4.     A city of two tales

The people of Liverpool can tell you a thing or two about the importance of reputation. For the third year, the conference was held in the city.

I was struck by the two very different versions of regeneration in Liverpool that were on show this year.

Peel Holdings gave a very impressive account of their plans for both sides of the river Mersey. The Liverpool Waters and Wirral Waters projects combined are worth tens of billions of pounds and will transform the ‘the city’s front porch’ and the waterfront of the peninsula ‘over the water’.

At the same time, and in nearby streets, you can find very different models of regeneration in Liverpool. This is the regeneration of place through people not property, a version of economic development through community development.

Are these models at all compatible? Will they eventually come into conflict? Can Liverpool carry on telling these two different tales of its regeneration?

5.     Inclusive – the new ‘sustainable?’

New Start contributor Neil McInroy critiqued the notion of ‘inclusive growth’ shortly after the release of the RSA Commission’s report into the topic.

The Commission’s lead researcher, Atif Shafique, exercised his right to reply and argued that inclusive growth is a more radical concept than Neil allowed.

I will leave you to judge the merits of their case but the few mentions of inclusive growth at the conference were not encouraging. Just as speakers would describe plans for development, which would of course be sustainable, so we heard of plans for growth that would – of course – be inclusive.

As with sustainability back in the day, there was no firm commitment or articulation of what this actually means in practice.

6. Still pining for strategic planning

Why are we still building far fewer homes than we need? Several speakers at the conference highlighted the same cause: the absence of a national spatial plan. Practitioners do not like operating in the vacuum where there used to be a strategic planning framework.

The white paper ‘Fixing our broken housing market’ has done little to plug this gap. It acknowledges the failures of the past, not least in its title, and offers a set of unarguable imperatives like building more houses where people want them.

Participants at the event welcomed the additional resources to boost planning authorities’ capacity, but argued that without the framework of a national strategic plan, there would be no consequences for disinterested areas and no structure for resolving cross-boundary conflict.

7. Spatial blindness persists

A further consequence of the planning vacuum may be Whitehall’s spatial blindness when it comes to formulating and delivering policy.

Research by the Royal Town Planning Institute revealed that only 37% of national government policies included any kind of spatial appreciation of impact assessment.

Virtually all government decisions have spatial implications in the shake-down. As the Institute argued, this ignorance of place points to an urgent need to educate policy-makers.

8. Bringing global commitments closer to home

In the absence of national anti-poverty commitments, can we look to global leadership? The UK is a signatory to the UN’s sustainable development goals, including those that apply to ‘sustainable cities and communities’.

Leilani Farha, the UN special rapporteur on the right to adequate Housing, spoke on this topic in London earlier this year. She argued that the goals can be used to hold all government to account for their obligations with regard to housing citizens.

There is a tendency to think of sustainable development goals as applying only to developing countries. However, as the British Council points out, they reflect a commitment to ‘global poverty, everywhere, permanently’. Will we see the goals being used in this country on behalf of people who are denied adequate housing?

9. Sustainability = volume

I argued previously that, in the regeneration world at least, the term ‘sustainable’ is usually used as a tokenistic bromide to denote a vaguely green wholesomeness. Something that can be discarded when times are tough. ‘Cut the green crap!’ was how David Cameron reportedly put it.

Credit then to the Green Building Council for making the case that properly-planned sustainable development is the way to deliver volume housebuilding. It is easy to see regulation and ‘red tape’ as the barriers to new homes, but nothing does more to rouse public opposition to housebuilding than poor quality construction.

The Green Building Council argued that density, effective community engagement and smart construction (using new techniques that can boost the UK’s post-Brexit economy) offer a pathway to new homes.

10. Old lessons for new towns

Another pathway to providing new homes is through garden villages and cities. The government is already committed to the creation and expansion of several cities across of England, although plans for come have been scaled back in the face of local opposition.

If the government is to stick by these commitments, it should ensure everyone involved in their constructions digests the Town and Country Planning Association’s research programme ‘Lessons for Tomorrow’.

The research details all the things that have worked well and less well with previous garden cities.

We so often speak in regeneration world of ‘learning the lessons of the past’ when formulating and delivering programmes. Here we have the perfect opportunity to put that pledge into practice.

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