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A new narrative for regeneration?

David Cameron and Lord Heseltine with Richard Mawdsley and Peter Nears of Peel Holdings tour the £4.5bn Wirral Waters development on Merseyside, one of Britain’s biggest regeneration schemes.

The new select committees of the House of Commons are proving very active in scrutinising government policy as it unfolds. An inquiry at the public administration select committee on the subject of  Big Society received so many submissions that its inbox was reportedly full before the deadline. The communities and local government select committee has wasted no time in establishing a wide-ranging inquiry into the coalition government’s published plans for regeneration, scrutinising the document Regeneration to Enable Growth: What Government is Doing in Support of Community led Regeneration.

The new CLG select committee has many members with extensive experience of local government – from Clive Betts in the chair from Sheffield, Heidi Alexander from Lewisham and James Morris, formerly of Localis (and New Start columnist).

In responding to this call for evidence CLES made the following points:

•    CLES welcomes the opportunity for a debate about the role of central government and localities in rebalancing the economy and the government’s commitment to a framework for regeneration.

•    The title of the document, Regeneration to enable growth: What the government is doing to support community led-regeneration, would suggest the document would make this connection. It does not in any authoritative or meaningful way and is weak in developing an over-arching narrative for regeneration. It must offer something more than unconnected tables of actions. This lack of narrative fails to create a context in which local actors can be enthused and galvanised towards local economic activism to promote growth or the community activities which contribute to it.

•    The document fails to focus in on social, economic and spatial inequalities. Regeneration is part of wider (indeed global) economic forces and dynamics. Policy in this area is about challenging market failure and policy interventions around the speed or scale of changes to places.

•    The document implicitly conflates local economic development with the statutory planning obligations of local authorities.  This is a dangerous misreading of the nature of local economic development and regeneration.

•    Far too little is made of the value of partnerships, connections and relationships in place. Regeneration has to be about partnership and joining up various components of place. It is a core duty of local authorities to develop mediation mechanisms within and between communities and neighbourhoods as it is the only democratically legitimate player at this scale.

CLES’ approach to regeneration in partnerships includes:

•     Viewing overall place resilience and the networks that underscore places as a policy objective.

•     Alternative models for exploring the combination of public, private and social assets (such as making more of procurement spending and ‘sweating these assets’).

•    Holistic approaches which embed regeneration activity within the wider ambit of the public sector (such as linking worklessness interventions to health improvement).

•    Co-ordination so that fragmentation and waste of scarce resources is avoided (such as  investing in localised transport infrastructure).

•    Decentralisation of power and resources is not an end in itself but a way to challenge the issues regeneration faces. The localist policy agenda must address this and invest in the capacity and capability of civil society to adopt this core role in order for regeneration to be community-led.

We will watch with interest as this inquiry unfolds, particularly how far such challenges to the overt modus operandi of the department are responded to by the secretary of state and his ministerial team, whose mantras of localism, the six degrees of decentralisation and the big society combine with a mistrust of local authorities and the planning system to create a difficult climate for those pursuing regeneration activities and interventions within communities under the cosh of swingeing spending cuts.

Read the full CLES response here.

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