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Want genuine community-led regeneration? Learn from what HMR tells us

It’s vital we learn from programmes like housing market renewal if we’re serious about putting communities at the heart of regeneration, says Jennifer Strutt

Walker Riverside Newcastle HMR

A billboard advertises new homes in the Walker district of Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, one of the city’s HMR areas, back in 2007.

With housing market renewal (HMR) wound up – apart from transitional funding to support those areas left most in limbo – what is the future of regeneration? Whatever is next, communities need to be at the heart of the process.

The government has spoken in favour of an approach to regeneration that ‘puts residents, local businesses, civil society organisations and civic leaders in the driving seat’. This is something that previous programmes, such as HMR, have been criticised for failing to do, and is vital if regeneration is to succeed.

In light of this, and the many other challenges facing regeneration, the Building and Social Housing Foundation (BSHF) has published a research briefing, Delivering Effective Regeneration. The briefing summarises key findings and recommendations from research into the impact of regeneration, with particular emphasis on the Bridging Newcastle-Gateshead (BNG) pathfinder.

Empty homes in an HMR area of NewcastleUnderstanding communities
The research reveals the huge impact that major regeneration can have on a community. This is particularly the case for those communities that have been subject to multiple regeneration programmes over many years. One BNG resident who had been moved to allow demolition described her feelings in this way:

‘It was a real trauma moving… [it was] where I’d lived all my life, a home and we’d all been brought up together and we’d had happy times.’

Even if the experiences of regeneration have been positive, communities may be unwilling to engage in further programmes: residents in BNG described themselves as suffering from ‘consultation fatigue’. The upheaval of regeneration must not be underestimated and care must be taken in any new approach adopted.

Listening to communities
As well as recognising the previous experiences of communities, it is important to understand how residents view their community and their aspirations for regeneration. This was some that the research found was lacking in BNG’s approach:

‘There was one bit missing in [BNG’s] analysis and that was how the community sees themselves – the personality and character of Walker – that should underpin the vision for Walker Riverside.’

There is often a marked difference between the problems described by local communities themselves and those described by politicians, policymakers and regeneration practitioners.

Discussions with BNG residents revealed that they desired an improvement to their communities for themselves, their families and friends. This desired improvement included a regular public transport service, local banking facilities and greater availability of places to purchase healthy food. They did not want masterplans and new people imposing their ideas and lifestyles on them. They wanted regeneration on their terms – a vibrancy and renaissance that they understood and actively desired.

Communities are also dynamic, with the needs and aspirations of communities having the potential change profoundly and sometimes rapidly. It is therefore vital to assess the needs of communities throughout the regeneration process.

Defining communities
A related issue is the need to define exactly which communities are intended to benefit from regeneration. In any area, there will be multiple communities with competing priorities, and unless the desired outcomes are clearly identified, the key needs of certain communities can be neglected.

A clear definition of the intended outcomes also makes it possible to tailor support to different communities and assess the extent to which they benefit from regeneration programmes.

A particular concern with BNG was that it placed the needs of future communities above those already living in the area. These future communities were often better off middle class groups, who were seen to have a beneficial impact on the area simply by being there. However, this gentrification failed to take into account the needs and aspirations of working class communities that were displaced.

If regeneration is truly to be a success, then considering of the needs of the existing community is vital. Putting communities ‘in the driving seat’ is a great aspiration, but for this to become a reality, we need to learn from the past and put local people at the heart of regeneration.

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