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.

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