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Three guiding principles of regeneration for all

Rory SharkeyWe are asking you to do the humanitarian thing, the moral thing and the right thing and leave our homes. This is the future of London and our children’s future’.

In two sentences, Lindsay Garrett, one of the leaders of the successful New Era estate campaign, summed up the fears, anxieties and suspicions surrounding the dominant issue facing London today: regeneration, or, bluntly, gentrification.

Whether it is reports of activists rioting against police at the soon to be demolished Aylesbury Estate, mothers of Focus E15 squatting in abandoned houses on the Carpenters Estate or merely the constant churn of social housing stock being sold off to overseas developers, there’s a palpable sense that the make-up of London is rapidly undergoing a radical change.

The levels of investment involved in current regeneration, mostly from large private sector developers, show how fundamental change will be to places like Newham. This change has the potential to bring great benefits to residents, both old and new, but this will not happen by chance.

Community Links has been helping to shape regeneration efforts in Newham since 1977. The experiences we’ve gained through campaigning, working with planners and developers and our relationship with the local community form the basis of a policy briefing which sets out three guiding principles that we believe can make regeneration inclusive and beneficial to all, delivering for people as well as places.

The first is ‘Meaningful Understanding’. Developers and planning authorities must recognise and seek to build on the shared histories, ambitions and desires of places. Residents must be given enough time to articulate their aspirations, whilst developers have to be clear on what is and what is not open for consultation.

The second is ‘Positive Process’. The community must have a positive experience with the process, as well as the outcomes, of regeneration. This makes it vital that work passes with as minimal disruption as possible and is done in such a way that enables networks and communities to be maintained.

The third is ‘Long-term Social Investment’. Investment is needed in social, as well as physical, regeneration to encourage new communities to use newly built resources, and to bring together old and new communities.

But in thinking through our experience, it’s also clear to us how important questions around regeneration are often left unanswered. Three such questions need to be borne in mind by all actors involved:

1. Who will regeneration benefit? A seemingly obvious question, yet the radical changes envisioned in recent regeneration efforts make its answer far from clear. Too often efforts have centred on attracting new people to the area rather than helping residents already in the locality. Cuts from central government, alongside other factors, have encouraged local authorities to build more expensive homes and attract wealthier businesses to expand their tax base.

Meanwhile public policy continues to claim producing ‘mixed communities’ will inevitably lead to significant improvements in the quality of life of poorer residents. It is assumed by government that disrupting areas of social segregation will positively influence the behaviour, aspirations and life opportunities of residents. It is remarkable, however, how little evidence there exists to support these assumptions: at the individual level it is simply not clear that it brings tangible benefits. Planners need to explicitly state which mechanisms will allow residents to benefit from the influx of wealthier residents, rather than relying on the un-evidenced belief that physical and demographic changes to their environment can fundamentally alter the systemic causes of poverty.

2. What is regeneration seeking to achieve? Compared to current developments, previous regeneration attempts in Newham were relatively clear on this issue; improve an area without fundamentally altering its character. Regeneration now seeks to implement an entirely new ‘mixed communities’ vision for an area. The assumption, however, that residents, both old and new, will naturally interact and form mutually beneficial relationships is misplaced: instead we often see communities living side by side with at best little interaction and at worst longer-term residents feeling isolated, stigmatised and uncomfortable. In light of this challenge, as new residents move in at the Olympic Park, Community Links are working to ensure that there are a wide range of initiatives in place to unite local communities and connect them to the park.

3. Who is undertaking and who is paying for developments? Much of the current focus is on the physical landscape and building houses that – particularly in London – will lead to profits for developers, with comparatively little attention paid to the wider social and economic conditions. At present, 106 agreements do not ensure that private sector led regeneration ‘trickles down’ to all and it is time that money from other budget lines are brought into regeneration financing, so as to have a genuinely transformative effect.

We know that ensuring benefits of regeneration are felt by all is a job not just for planners and for developers but for all organisations working in places like east London. Community Links will continue to use these questions to help us understand how regeneration efforts can best benefit those who most need support in our society. We hope they are useful for other organisations in similar situations at this most transformative of times for London.

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