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?