Friday, 4 November 2011

A social democratic regeneration policy?

So, my adoring fans seem to want the second blog post. Well, Tony Bovaird and Dr Dave O'Brien do, anyway.

Picking up from what I was saying yesterday, the thing I did find most concerning that was mentioned by the CLG Committee was the fact that the poor communities that were "selected" for Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder (HMRP) now find themselves in half demolished neighbourhoods with little prospect of new development any time soon. The HMRP was controversial and became quite the cause célèbre, for example with the campaigns to save the various homes of members of the Beatles. It was trying to do something quite bold - in areas where local housing markets had completely collapsed and very was extremely low, or no, demand it was attempting to renew the area, and the housing market, through comprehensive rebuild. In many respects it was a modern day version of 1950s slum clearance through Comprehensive Development Areas. Like the CDAs, they involved the difficult and controversial process of demolishing homes, uprooting households and communities, to upgrade the value of the property.

It's difficult to cut through the myth of cohesive working class communities to fully get at how disruptive CDAs were to people's lives. However, it is entirely wrong to ascribe all the problems of "sink estates" to the CDA policies. Concentrations of deprivation exist because of the circuits of capitalism and cycles of disinvestment and investment in our cities and, in the UK in particular, because social housing has become marginalised and we like to put all our social housing in one place. This is how I define the problem and because of this, I kind of agree with this Conservative Councillor from my home city of Bradford. N.B. that moment, because I doubt it's going to happen again any time soon!

Regeneration will never "turn around" neighbourhoods. But does that mean we should give up on it? My answer would actually be a firm no. And my reasoning links back to the poor residents of HMRP areas who have half their built environment missing. My doctoral research was into a regeneration policy called New Life for Urban Scotland that was very much of the knock-down and rebuild variety. The policy evaluation was as ambivalent as most evaluations of similar policies - it made some difference, particularly to the built environment, but overall its attempts to "turn around" neighbourhoods had failed. And the evaluation suggested that the gains of the policy in the four neighbourhoods would be temporary once funding was withdrawn. However, going back to two of the neigbourhoods a decade after "regeneration" ended demonstrated that these gains actually meant a lot to the communities, especially long term residents. In both neighbourhoods the housing had been in a shocking state, whereas now two community based housing associations could be rightly proud of the homes they let. This achievement was trivialised by so many people who were not residents as "all it did was provide new homes". And? What's wrong with that if that is what was desperately needed?

So, I particularly agree with Simon Cooke's point that we need to differentiate between regeneration (probably impossible) and renewal (often needed). On the latter, this should be achieved with minimal disruption to households and communities. Communities should not be left in the state of the HMRP's which were, effectively "state-led gentrification", but now are in a worse situation than when the policy began. Generally policy needs to take a much more nuanced view of the functional role of deprived neighbourhoods in wider economic systems if we are actually to value them as neighbourhoods and not dismiss them as "sink estates".

Oh, and I ordinarily loathe the phrase "state-led gentrification" after someone suggested that had happened in one of the neighbourhoods that was a case study for my PhD. If the policy had managed state-led gentrification I think the residents would have been amazed, and probably pleased.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

On home turf - regeneration policy

The Communities and Local Government Select Committee published a report on the coalition government's regeneration strategy, or lack thereof to be more precise. The story was quite high up on this morning's Today programme and is still on the front page of the UK BBC news website as 'MPs criticise 'disastrous' cuts to regeneration schemes'. A tweet on my stream suggested this should be front page news. I sort of agree, the issue is important, but I sort of don't.

My main beef is with regeneration policy more generally. It's always been an absolutely piddling amount of government expenditure. The old Scottish Executive spent £345 millions on community regeneration over three years, out of a total managed expenditure of £100 billions. The cuts to the Housing Market Renewal Pathfinder that this report criticises amount to a reported £10 billions a year, out of total managed UK government expenditure of something around £400 billions. This is why regeneration will never be successful in "turning around" deprived neighbourhoods. One metaphor to use to describe this funding might be a pebble in the face of a tsunami of problems. I think I prefer the metaphor of pissing in a swimming pool.

The attention that the Select Committee are giving to this issue is the latest example of the extraordinary attention provided to such a piddling amount of money, dating back to the fantastic critical Gilding the Ghetto evaluation of the Community Development Projects; the Inner Area Studies that led to the Policy for the Inner Cities and the National Audit Offices fantastic unpicking of the Urban Development Companies in the early 1990s. Yet, as Michael Edwards noted right back in 1997(£) - is all this focus on processes management and policy actually making us miss the substance of the issue: poverty and inequality? But then regeneration policy is always going to be the focus of political interference, as Peter Hall argued, again back in 1997, because politicians like it because it provides tangible benefits (new homes, new community centres) that win them votes. More cynically, it will also always be the focus of attention because of a big strand of public discourse that basically says that these communities don't deserve extra investment and additional service provision. And if an article I've written gets accepted then it will be me arguing that point.

With a bit of luck this will be the first of two posts - the second I plan to grapple with the thorny issue of what sort of regeneration policy we might want.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Planning for the Digital City

In a previous post I suggested that planners might need to get involved in planning the digital city, as many of the issues of the digital world (infrastructure, congestion, social inclusion, sustainability) are all things planners try to deal with in the built environment.

Thanks to @suchprettyeyes I've just come across New York's Road Map for the Digital City. Only skimmed it, but I think this is what I was getting at.