The Great Regeneration Resurgence…?

One impact of ‘austerity’ is that the government is investing less in ‘regeneration’, that mysterious process that brings uPVC windows and doors and new kitchens and bathrooms to some of our most deprived communities and/or takes neighbourhoods where only the poor and desperate choose to remain and turns them into ‘aspirational addresses’.

It seems to me that the former is usually led by a local authority in order to avoid the embarrassment and penalties that come with failing to provide ‘decent’ homes (better to provide no homes at all than homes that don’t meet the official standards).  The latter is usually led by the private sector and rests on the belief that we can smarten the neighbourhood up, displace the incumbent residents and replace them with brighter, shinier people.  With people who earn more money and pay more tax.  Who can afford larger mortgages and higher rents.   All sorts of ‘indicators’ move in the right direction (the neighbourhood is healthier, wealthier, greener, more beautiful) and we can claim progress as ‘jobs are created’ in the construction phase and the ‘community is regenerated’.  Profits are generated as houses are transferred from the poor to the rich with house prices and rents rising as we go.

Except of course the community has not been regenerated, but displaced.  The area may have been developed – but the community has been, in whole or in part, displaced and broken up.

Look around and you will see these processes happening near you.

As public investment in regeneration declines the pressure remains on local authorities to maintain momentum in the regeneration game – to ‘create jobs in construction’ to ‘stimulate economic development’ and to ‘provide new housing’.  And with less cash to put in the game they use other levers – more flexible approaches to planning (pdf – gaudy ‘enterprise friendly’ Planning Charter) and trying harder to attract inward investment so that we can keep ‘creating jobs’.  And there is talk of a ‘resurgence in regeneration’ as the private sector rides in to save the regeneration day, increasing profits and winning gongs and awards for ‘services to regeneration’.

This activity looks like regeneration and smells like regeneration but to my eye it looks like displacement and economic cleansing.  Most of the regeneration industry is driven by this economic development imperative which provides the dominant narrative at conferences, in development feasibility reports and in election manifestos.  You would think that there is no other game in town.

But there is.

There is a form of economic and community development that starts where people are at, works with what they have got, and helps make progress on what matters to them – much to the chagrin of policy makers this is rarely losing weight, giving up the fags and sharpening up the CV through a ‘work programme’.  This approach, which is often described as ‘bottom up’ or responsive provides no quick fixes but rather steady progress based on:

  • the development of aspiration, skills and knowledge
  • association, cooperation and organisation around common causes, reciprocity, generosity and mutuality
  • thinking  creatively and collectively to act in pursuit of progress

For me, ‘Bottom Up is the New Black’.

But this is a different approach to regeneration. One in which the current incumbents make little or no profit.  One that does not provide quick fixes based on electoral cycles and 15 year visions. One that makes new demands on local authority staff, elected officers and their partners.  It is a very different game with very different rules and very different tactics based on a different set of values.  One that puts the economy in the hands of people, rather than people in the hands of the economy.

But perhaps we should give it a go?




  1. Hi Mike

    Good piece as ever – just came across these guys via a tweet, thought you may be interested? (Though I am sur eyou know them already!) (Link to a blog post on Urban regeneration)

    Am now ensconsed at Chi Uni as an Enterprise Services Development Manager… self employment wasn’t right for me at the moment…

  2. Spot on.

    It’s mind-bending that, given councils’ post-war track record, announcements of new regeneration projects like the latest £180m PFI one in Leeds are still greeted with universal enthusiasm. Hurrah for the council, the defenders of the poor!

    Never mind that a major part of that project involves ‘regenerating’ an earlier failed Council attempt at regeneration less than 50 years ago, making it re-regeneration. Never mind that (yet again) more houses are going to be demolished than built. Never mind that no evidence is ever presented of how projects like these change communities for the better.

    You’d have thought that by now the penny would have dropped, but no, the council is still sticking to its old formula (a sort of slum-clearance-lite) of: knock x number of houses down, put the people that used to live in them somewhere else, build fewer, crap new houses (that will be candidates for demolition in 30 years time), plant 8 trees and a patch of grass, build a community centre (hang on, forget the community centre – it’ll only get dropped in the PFI value for money review) and…pray for a miracle.

    One thing is certain: that while regeneration remains a sacred cow that’s tethered to the local authority it’s going to get milked for all its worth by award-winning sustainable house-builders and their chums in the PFI banking consortia. Just think what could be done from the bottom up with the (at least) £2m a month we’ll be paying till 2032 for this latest bit of regeneration voodoo.

    Excellent article.

    • Mark James says:

      Leeds Citizen
      You are so right in what you say, but you have forgotten the great embellishment of our lives (within Stoke on Trent) the public sculptures! lol. We had 20 approx real trees cut down to be replaced with one stainless steel sculpture of a tree. these things occupy land where there were previously housing, althought terraced properties, still functional and being able to be renovated. True communities are rare now as they are fragmented and dispersed by local government that seems to like a Dresden like landscape to a more vibrant but older looking community.

  3. debi holbrook says:

    Interesting read + l whole heartedly agree with the ‘bottom up’ approach especially as a way to instil pride in areas where it is missing. The area l live in is in urgent need of this approach – the council/landlords have ‘done their bit’ by replacing doors + windows etc.. but the buildings they occupy are cold + damp + the drafts blow around the new shiny uPVC (useless) There seems to be little aspiration/inspiration/hope/unity + crime/unemployment are the norm.
    There are few gardens here but every 4th house has a bin yard – they are unused other than for dumping furniture, drug dealing + hiding from the police. In my minds eye l’d like to see them as little green havens, secure usable spaces but where do you start + how do you engage people who are too suspicious to answer the door even?
    Answers on a postcard please – l fear this project is bigger than I.

  4. After 40 years it has become a cracked record – we keep lurching from “community-led” to “business-led” and back again. And the result? Oh yes – after 40 years the poorest places then are still the poorest places now.

    We have to stop seeing this as a problem of geography and start seeing it as a problem of economics. Which means dealing with people as individuals rather than the nebulous, slippery nonsense that is “community”.

    Poor places are poor places becasue they have more poor people in them. But plenty – perhaps most – of the poor people (however you define them) don’t actually live in those “deprived communities”.

    Frankly regeneration as economic or social geography never worked and never will work.

    • Pretty much on the money I reckon Simon.

      Absolutely start with individuals and help them to make progress. ‘Community’ is what arises as a by-product as people learn to cooperate, collaborate and sometimes compete in the pursuit of progress. And, make whatever service you offer accessible to all regardless of post code.

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