Following the 2007-8 economic crash in which high property values played a significant part, the world of urban regeneration has, in part, struggled to find its feet again. Yet it was often said that the truly effective regeneration and renewal of some of the most deprived areas in the UK was always a 25-year change process— working to a rhythm of generations, not quarterly reports.
I want to suggest that it was the years leading up to the economic crash, let’s say 2002 to 2008 roughly, which were the aberration and that we are now poised to return – either to normality, or to repeat the earlier mistakes. And perhaps the biggest of those mistakes was to assume that ever-rising property values was the same as urban regeneration. It was clear to many at the time, and to many others with hindsight, that a world where property prices were rising faster than earnings year on year was not sustainable.
Instead, let’s go back to the drawing board. We need to remind ourselves of the underlying factors which are crucial for urban regeneration, and apply these timeless traits in modern times.
So, in no particular order we have:
1. A Masterplan
OK, these days even the youngest newbie in the team knows that you have to have a masterplan or you just cannot join the regeneration club. But, sadly, how often have we asked people for a masterplan, only to be handed a document. Yes, it has lots of colourful diagrams and maps. Especially the overlay maps that show the synergy between transport corridors (bus routes) and primary employment areas (bus stops). It might even touch on some of the headings below. It will have a vision statement. But, crucially, the writers of the document will have assumed that the document is the masterplan. It isn’t. The document is useful for various engineers who will need to know where to dig their holes. The masterplan is what people tell you when you ask them the question, why do they bother? If you get a coherent answer from a range of partners, brilliant! If you get unconnected answers or even no answers at all, then there is no masterplan, only maps.
2. An Economic Base
Bang in the centre of your urban community is an externally-funded non-transferable major employer with a commitment to, and proven results in local employment, and an order book that is full for the next 50 years. Lucky you. The rest of us have to work with less, and with what is real. Not everywhere will be a high-tech innovation hot spot. There just are not enough Googles to go round. So a me-too economic strategy will not work. Maybe for your area the niche, the economic USP, is something like world-class soft cheese making. Don’t knock it. Better to be real and succeed than to be pretentious and fail.
3. Partnership Working
Anyone who says that partnership working is easy clearly hasn’t tried it recently. Like childbirth, some say we only do it again because the brain can’t fully recall the pain from previous times. Partnership working is going back to your office and thumping the wall with frustration. It is putting down the phone and tearing your hair out. It is not about who sits on what committee. Nor is it who is on speed-dial with who else. It is hours and days of patiently going over the same simple point with the plonker from X until a glimmer of independent thinking is spotted. Every regeneration programme has at least one X. For me, I’m waiting for the day predicted in science fiction when arms-length agency ABC becomes self-aware. I’d fill in the gaps, but I need the work.
4. Community Engagement
So, this is (a) the minimum necessary number of community meetings to be endured in a church hall to satisfy the council so that planning permission will be granted, or … ah, there is no (b).
5. Jobs, Skills, Education
When asked, the majority of car drivers say they have above-average driving skills. Similarly, the majority of regeneration programmes have above-average expectations. Which sometimes is valid because there is a need to re-balance an area that has become mono-cultural. After all, blacksmiths did have to re-train as car mechanics. But too often the high-skills jobs focus says nothing for the many people who have lower formal skill levels but still want and need to play their full part in the local community, including the local economy. My first job was as a schools crossing officer, that is, I did a lollipop patrol. Long may they be.
Similarly to partnership working, this is not only about who runs which committee. Nor is it about management, a necessary but different task. Leadership is bestowed, not taken. You will know the classic definition, that the people around a good leader say, ‘this is what we have done’. But also, leadership is not about any one person, but instead it is a function in which many different people all have a part to play at different times. The teacher who stands up against the bully is a leader.
7. Inclusiveness, Fairness, Diversity, Tolerance, Equality
Unfortunately, there is a cheap and very nasty way to build community spirit, and that is to produce a scapegoat. The blame game. Sometimes it is blatant— let’s blame Travellers for crime, let’s blame immigrants for unemployment, or young people for litter. But there is also an insidious blame game— let’s blame political correctness. “Everything was going just fine until we had to be nice to…” A tell-tale sign of this approach is an exclusive focus on traditional communities, as in a bread commercial, which conveniently leaves out the minority voices that can be found if you search with an open mind.
8. Mixed Communities
What are the factors which influence the mix of any community, any area? The housing type? Access to transport? Skill levels? These are textbook answers, but in truth it comes down to two factors: secondary schools catchments and estate agents. All the rest is puff. If you want to regenerate towards a more balanced, mixed community, then start with teacher recruitment.
9. Sustainable Practices
It is a fact universally acknowledged that every urban regeneration programme with a sustainability strategy is in need of more eco-bling. (Sorry Jane, but you know others have mangled it far worse. I have names if you need them.) So, when the flood defence teams arrive with their wagons of concrete in the hundreds, and you ask them to fund the planting of some trees, and get *that look*, you need to realise that actually more eco-bling is needed instead. Think bigger. Artificial trees made from recycled plastic bottles, that kind of thing.
Most people walk. Some run. A few skip. Many cycle. Some use wheelchairs, some scooters. Doctors encourage us to take exercise. And walks with greenery around us are good for our mental wellbeing. So isn’t it marvellous how professors of transport planning have come up with concrete walled dual carriageways. Who would have the M602 in their CV, no-one I guess. And, as every economist knows, the required solution for any economic improvement is another motorway.
11. A Sense of Place
There are stacks of picture books for architects to colour in (sorry, palette) which show you how to make a distinctive and unique sense of place. Oh, wait a minute, …
12. Can-Do Attitude
This is perhaps one of the hardest aspects of urban regeneration to make happen. It is where “everything here would be just dandy if only the government / council / supermarket / whoever would give us X.” Maybe it would. It very probably would be an improvement. But urban regeneration is not a box of magic wands to be rationed out. “If only we had the power to do such-and-such.” Of course, funding helps massively and for some tasks it is indispensable. But it is all for nothing if there is no spark, no passion, no love, no animation, no attitude. And we all know places which have had the money and then some, but where there is nothing left to show for it.
You may disagree with some, or even much, of this blog. Great. Because that’s the attitude we like to see.