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Twelve takeaways from Regen 2014

John-HoughtonI’ve just left Regen 2014, held in Liverpool’s Stanley Dock, part of the government’s International Festival for Business.

Here are my twelve takeaway observations.

  1. There is a hell of a lot going on in Liverpool…

‘The city is transforming in front of our eyes’, declared the Liverpool journalist Roger Phillips as he reeled off the current and planned developments in and around the city: Wirral Waters; the re-development of the old Tobacco warehouse; the continued growth of Lipa; the anticipated arrival of £1m visitors to welcome back the giants; two re-developed world class hospitals, to name just a few.

‘Look at what you’ve achieved over the past 35 years’ intoned Michael Heseltine ‘have confidence!’

  1. …and the wider north west

The conference saw the launch of plans for the ‘Atlantic Gateway Parkland’, which will ‘turn grey to green’ across the vast Merseyside-Greater Manchester Atlantic Gateway.

In his video address, Michael Heseltine described the gateway, with its links to the continent, Asia and America as the only corridor in Europe capable of matching the economic activity and growth levels of London and the greater south east.

Keep an eye on the Atlantic Gateway.

  1. Eighties-style regeneration is back…

For all that is exciting about all these developments, the ‘regeneration’ many speakers described had a very 1980s feel – the physical regeneration of city centre spaces that are derelict or under-utilised, making way for commercial use and middle- to high-end housing.

Most of the talk was of property before people.

  1. …and sustainability is back to being a sector

At one point, we were encouraged to visit the exhibition area, with its stands from across the regeneration spectrum ‘including the sustainability sector’.

I pulled my best ‘I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed’ face. Really? Is sustainability back to being a niche sector, the optional soft stuff that comes second to the hard stuff of bricks and bulldozers?

  1. The growth deals signed this summer will be very temporary

To no-one’s surprise Bob Kerslake virtually confirmed that the growth deals signed by Leps and government department in July will only cover 2015/16. The deals would be a ‘starting point’, with another negotiation for after 16/17 and beyond starting after the general election. It may even turn out be an annual process.

The original guidance suggested the deals would cover 15/16 – 20/21, giving areas the security and confidence to invest in long-term economic development.

Nobody believed this anyway – so why not just be honest from the start.

  1. Investments have replaced grants

The head of the civil service also described the current set up of Leps, funded through a process of competing investment propositions, as the ‘settled landscape’ i.e. we will not see a return to needs-based grant allocation regardless of who wins the next election.

Although I’m sure we’ll see some tampering with allocation formulae if Labour is in power, to tilt the flow of funding towards their heartlands.

  1. Only the fittest cities will survive

A final Kerslake point. He was adamant that there would be more devolution to places in future – but only to places which can demonstrate a clear vision, strong leadership and delivery capacity.

The chair of the Institute of Economic Development argued that this could punish places which have potential and business prospects but weak local authority leadership. Why should they be punished?

He warned that we were edging toward a ‘survival of the fittest’ amongst cities.

  1. Fuzzy boundaries are good

In his presentation on the Atlantic Gateway Parkland, Walter Menzies welcomed the uncertain boundaries of the Gateway area – this created opportunities, room for manoeuvre, as things moved on.

This is the attitude we need. Not the ‘must tidy everything up’ attitude toward Leps that I critiqued in this blog for New Start.

  1. Portas is not that popular – but high streets don’t matter anyway

The speaker from the Association of Town and City Management was rather critical of Mary Portas’ focus on trendy (and middle class?) niches like contemporary fashion and hi-tech start-ups as the future for high streets and town centres, at the expense of food and drink, which make up a much bigger and still growing part of their economies.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter. On the second day, Andrew Carter from the Centre for Cities described high street retail and restaurants as a bit of a sideshow anyway, a ‘second order economic activity’ for cities.

10. Universities, students and graduates matter a great deal

Roger Phillips paid tribute to the sometimes under-looked role of John Moores University in driving the growth and re-development of the city through its own ambitious (and apparently rather risky) expansion strategy.

Liverpool now has over 50,000 students, making an enormous contribution to the economy, culture and vibrant diversity of the place.

Graduates are crucial economic drivers. London has access to 2.2m graduates within 18km of its centre. The next city down the list, Manchester, has access to 0.5m. One of the many reason London is such an economic powerhouse far larger than anywhere else in the UK (until the Atlantic Gateway has worked its magic anyway).

11. Town planning is in the mire

‘Town planning has become less visionary, less inspiring and bogged down in quasi-legal process’, according to the contributor from the Town and Country Planning Association.

Dicuss.

12. Old school conferences are alive and kicking

I’m writing this on the train back from the conference. I left before lunch on the second day – I had to get out!

It’s rude to kvetch about a free event, but Regen 2014 was very old school. Presentation after presentation, to a set agenda, in the same room, with no natural light or air. No audience participation, beyond a few brief and uninspired Q&A sessions.

The result – same as always. People leaving early, fiddling with their smart-phones, even falling asleep. Q&A sessions flopping because the audience is in a totally passive receive mode.

Don’t get me wrong – I got a lot out of Regen 2014 and I’m grateful to the organisers, speakers and sponsors. I just feel we could have done more with the opportunity.

A few weeks ago, Phil Swann, the MD of Shared Intelligence, facilitated a two-day conference bringing together public health and local government officials, to explore the challenge of service integration. There was no pre-set structure and no keynote speakers. The participants set the agenda, based on their real-life challenges.

The idea behind this kind of approach is that the people in the room have the answers. They don’t need to be told or talked at – they need to be challenged, supported and stretched to come up with novel solutions.

There were a good two hundred people in the audience on the first day of Regen 2014. Imagine if we’d had them all up, talking, scribbling, designing, arguing, making, crafting.

If there’s a Regen 2015, I’ll happily facilitate that for them.

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