What is Regeneration Worth and Who Decides?

April 2013

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Chris Brown considers the central role that local communities play in regeneration.

We are in a period where the disciples of the free market hold sway in England but in Wales there is an opportunity to undertake regeneration that takes account of not just the profits but also the social, economic and environmental benefits.


The religion of the free market believes that only markets can best allocate resources. Despite the ample evidence to the contrary, the best argument for this is the frequency with which the alternatives, usually the government, fail to properly allocate resources to achieve the best outcomes.


The policy outcome of this free market belief is the removal of planning policies that seek to mitigate the negative externalities of the market and the removal of any form of subsidy. We have of course been here before. I still remember the occasion in 1991 when the Minister for Local Government and Inner Cities, one Michael Portillo, said to the assembled regeneration industry ‘if you won’t invest, why should I?’. The involvement of the private sector in regeneration collapsed overnight.


However all sides of the political spectrum are increasingly promoting the idea that there is a third alternative. That communities might be the best judge of how scarce resources should be allocated.


And we are all well aware how scarce the uncommitted resources currently are.

In physical regeneration the ability of the public sector to invest to achieve policy goals is currently severely restricted by the level of government debt, the scale of the deficit, the vagaries of the government bond markets and the spend that is committed in areas like interest payments, health and welfare.


The ability of the private sector to invest is restricted by reduced property values and limited availability of credit, particularly for property development and low deposit mortgages.


And while resources in communities are not abundant, particularly as many people are struggling to make a living, the reality is that as greater numbers reach retirement age and as unemployment remains high there is capacity and motivation within communities to make neighbourhoods better places to live.


The mechanisms to achieve this self-renovation of neighbourhoods are many and varied but inevitably start with community organisation. Talking to neighbours, knocking on doors, finding out what people want and what they can offer is the foundation for community action.


This organisation can be stimulated from the outside, as organisations like UK Citizens have shown, or it can be self-generated by one person with energy. There are many ways to facilitate it. Fighting against something; crime, an ugly development or road, the closure of a library, post office or pub can all be the catalyst. Slower, but potentially more long lasting, are incentives to organise through the ability to make a neighbourhood plan or deliver affordable housing for local people.


These sparks then need kindling to grow into a fire. Small amounts of money to pay for a member of the community to act as administrator can be transformational and the offer of the free use of public buildings out of hours can help too.


These financial and human resources can create neighbourhood fora or urban parish or community councils which in turn can raise small amounts of annual revenue funding to ensure their longer term resilience and sustainability.


On this foundation communities can make plans, allocate and supplement scarce resources and more importantly secure investment from outside the neighbourhood. Whether it is creating things for teenagers to do or renovating a historic building to provide new jobs (eg the Heritage Lottery Fund Enterprise Programme) there are often national programmes or charities looking for robust community organisations to fund.


Regeneration, by definition, will always require money to flow into a neighbourhood from outside. But when money is scarce the difference between successful regeneration and none at all can be the strength of organisation of the local community.


And key to this is how we measure successful regeneration.


We can talk at length about measuring social impact and for those at a distance from the regeneration, whether governments or investors, this is an increasingly important indicator.


Unfortunately social impact is hard, and often expensive, to measure. So when money is tight we can avoid the expense by trusting communities to make decisions that they know will best benefit local people. Although this will be heresy to many in the regeneration ‘industry’, communities don’t always need to be second guessed by expensive consultants with untested and inadequate measurement tools.


Often regeneration successes are more statistical than real. By displacing poor households and attracting in wealthy ones average scores on the index of multiple deprivation improve. But the outcomes for individuals may not have changed or indeed may have got worse through being disconnected from their families, friends and support networks. The introduction of inequality to a neighbourhood may increase unhappiness and crime.


In regeneration we are dealing with complex systems. They are dynamic, evolving and sensitive to initial conditions and measuring the change resulting from regeneration is equally challenging. Sometimes simplifying our approach, in this case trusting the regeneration process to create better outcomes is a more efficient approach.


 It won’t always work and the failures of community led regeneration are inevitably well publicised and used to scare national organisations into requiring top down control. A better approach might be to focus research resources on the failures and use the lessons to improve the alignment of incentives and the design of the systems to help achieve better outcomes in the future.


At a national level though it is really important to be able to measure the cost of concentrations of deprivation in neighbourhoods (the problem to which regeneration is the solution). Until we understand the costs to society of increased crime, reduced educational attainment, poorer health, less access to employment opportunities and so on we will be unable to properly allocate resources.


There will always be neighbourhoods with more deprivation than others. The challenge is to know the cost to this of society, to know the cost of reducing the distance between the most deprived and the average and to be able to decide the right amount of resource to invest and how best to invest it. Resourcing well organised communities in deprived neighbourhoods is a strong platform from which to build.



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