Monday, 12 December 2011

Plus ca change?

I popped through to Glasgow this morning to the launch of Scotland’s new regeneration strategy Achieving a Sustainable Future. They got the Cabinet Secretary of Infrastructure and Capital Investment, Alex Neil MSP to present it. So here’s my initial thoughts. Bear in mind I’m writing this 20 minutes after I left the event and I’ve not read the dotted I’s and crossed T’s.

The good things

Scotland has a regeneration strategy. As my post on my academic existential crisis pointed out, the fact that regeneration is not the flavour du jour in austerity Britain was a concern for me. But Scotland still has the urban problems that regeneration policy, from the launch of the Paisley Community Development Project in 1972 onwards, have attempted to tackle – long-term unemployment, concentrations of poverty and deprivation in poor housing, vacant and derelict land. Chatting to a couple of people afterwards there was disappointment that it wasn’t a strategy – it doesn’t seem to contain much. But I’d argue it is a strategy – it highlights how the other Scottish Government policies, policy frameworks and strategies are contributing to regeneration and focuses the public services and investment on regeneration defined as “the holistic process of reversing the economic, physical and social decline of places where market forces alone won’t suffice.”

And not only do we have a strategy, but we have some money too. Not very much (more of that later) but we do. Another nice thing, although they rationalised the funding streams for regeneration, they have clearly demarcated hat some of that is for “People and Communities” (revenue) and some (most) of it is for capital investment.

The Minister’s speech and response to questions was very positive too. He argued that the present economic difficulties made regeneration even more important, as trickle-down (he didn’t say that, but said the “drip drip down”) doesn’t work and there was a need to get good job into our most deprived communities. In line with this he also highlighted how the coalitions benefit “reforms” (cuts) are going to make things a lot more difficult as they reduce investment in communities without providing the jobs needed for people. The aim of the Scottish Government was to fill the resulting funding gap by helping to create work through infrastructure investment.

In the text of the document there’s some very positive language about not talking about “problem” places as well. However, the Minister explained that he didn’t want to “repeat the mistakes of the past”.  As with Alasdair Rae, and many others, I agree that most of the mistakes of the past have been about very poor definition of the problem to be tackled by regeneration policy.

There was an interesting rhetorical flourish used to define the problem on a national basis. In a typical SNP way, the Minister highlighted that if we can successful “turn around” the communities then all of Scotland’s indicators will be improved.

The bad points

It’s not very much money. It’s been a long-term criticism of regeneration that the relatively small amounts of regeneration funding were never large enough to make sustained, dramatic change. Even the old Scottish Executive Community Regeneration Fund was £345 millions over three years, which was a whopping 0.5% of the Executive’s total managed expenditure for the spending review period. The funding announced today was: £7.9 millions for the People and Communities Fund (combining Wider Role funding and others) although I’m not sure if this is per annum, but I suspect not; £75 million for the Capital Investment Fund over three years, of which £48 millions has been allocated to the Urban Regeneration Companies (including £3 millions found for Irvine Bay and Riverside Inverclyde to stop them becoming complete disasters). Overall, it’s not very much at all, but the strategy contains the usual comments about partnership working and targeted services and investment. We’re in a better place now than we were 20 or 30 years ago in tailoring services to match needs, but we still have a long way to go. And this is in a context where the Scottish Government is estimating £600 millions will be lost to the Scottish economy from the UK Government benefit changes.

There was also something that was deeply problematic for me in the Minister’s speech. He emphasised how the money was going to communities and essentially set up an antagonism between communities, local authorities and the “consultants” – this was the key mistake of the past. I can imagine a lot of people in Scotland thinking this is utterly fantastic news. This was problematic for me as it burdens communities with their own problems. He highlighted how the Government saw Community Development Trusts as a key way to regenerate communities and I presume the new Amber Spruce investment fund is meant to facilitate these. Yet these and similar models require a great deal of skill and resources to get going. They’re not going to help a chaotic drug user to stabilise their lives. We need the big bureaucracies of the public services to deliver the everyday services in deprived neighbourhoods that are desperately needed. My soon to be revealed review highlighted how effective the middle classes are at capturing the state’s resources for themselves. I suspect the likes of community development trusts are going to be of greatest benefit to communities that can benefit most from them.

This brings me back to the Minister’s appeal to national identity to drive regeneration. As with the “Closing the Gap” strategy of the former Scottish Executive, the focus on the most deprived neighbourhoods places blame and burden on them. It ignores our role, in affluent neighbourhoods in producing concentrations of deprivation.

My other issue is the Scottish Government’s focus on early intervention. The Minister cited the work of Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer Harry Burns on how the stress of poverty affects long term outcomes for children from a very young age – well to be precise about what the Minister was saying, from before birth – and so this is where we need investment. This is very laudable, but like the previous UK Labour government’s focus on child poverty, it avoids the fact that these foetuses being discussed are actually inside a woman. Are to expect women in Scotland to report to their local “Early Intervention” centre when they’re vaguely thinking about getting pregnant? I’d say we need investment in lives throughout their course so the families that these children are part of are stable and supportive environments.

It's interesting as well that there will be a Scottish Cities Strategy launched this year too. I'd like to think this represented the Scottish Government taking urban problems very seriously indeed. However, the political cynic just thinks it's the SNP wanting to win control of Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen and possibly even Edinburgh council's in next year's election to shore up their vote prior to the independence referendum.
A final thought – the launch was proceeded by  a networking event. There must’ve been half a dozen women among the crowd of middle-aged, white Scottish men and most of these were Scottish Government staff. And of course all the men knew each other. It was a threatening environment. I’d forgotten this aspect of Scottish regeneration community. One thing has changed in five years since I started my research on Scottish regeneration, these men aren’t all talking about “the match” (usually in deeply, if not implicitly, sectarian terms)  when I entered the room.

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