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Who killed neighbourhood renewal in England?

John-HoughtonPolitical arrogance and administrative cowardice killed neighbourhood renewal in England. A wealth of new research from the London School of Economics demonstrates just how badly ministers and officials under the last government dropped the ball.

The LSE’s detailed analysis of New Labour’s record on tackling urban deprivation describes three broad phases: initial ambition and commitment to neighbourhood renewal; a period of transition when ideas like mixed communities were briefly in fashion; and a final phase of transformation, when neighbourhood renewal was effectively junked.

Their analysis is similar to the pattern I described a few years ago in ‘A job half done and half abandoned’.

The crucial year was 2007, when two changes occurred.

By this time, according to the LSE’s independent reckoning, the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund on top of increases in mainstream funding was ‘generating large and considerable improvements in neighbourhood conditions and services’.

The earlier investment in projects, partnership infrastructure and delivery skills was starting to pay dividends. And not in piddling increments, but serious, significant improvements.

At exactly the same time, ministers effectively pulled their support for neighbourhood renewal, and officials did pitifully little to influence their thinking.

What happened?

Gordon Brown’s government-in-waiting wouldn’t be in waiting for much longer, and the new man had a much narrower view on how to tackle poverty. Economic development was all, income was the only indicator, place didn’t matter. In this, as in so much else, Brown’s spell at Number 10 was a grim fandango of trampling arrogance and stumbling ineptitude.

The growing delivery record, the wealth of intelligence, the momentum built up over ten years of investment in neighbourhood renewal was instantly discarded.

Could you imagine a company spending billions of pounds developing a product, honing it over many years, then pulling it just when it starts to show serious results?

That’s what happened to the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal in 2007 – and the LSE’s research underlines just how costly that mistake was in terms of financial cost and missed opportunities.

New Labour bought all the parts for a car, spent years assembling it and just when the engine was starting to purr, the new driver sent it to the scrap heap. A few more years of intelligent commitment could have made a lasting change to the poorest neighbourhoods, instead of the brief improvements that have since been all but reversed.

The political cost was equally high. When Eric Pickles accused Labour of abandoning the poorest estates, ministers had little come-back. What could they say? They had already run away from their own record.

The well-paid officials who should have made the case for neighbourhood renewal, who had echoed their Ministers in promising that this time it was different, that the National Strategy was a genuine twenty-year commitment, didn’t speak truth to power in the transition from Blair to Brown.

It didn’t help that ODPM had such a dire reputation at the Treasury. Even junior officials joked that the department’s acronym stood for ‘One Day Pigs Might’ – an estimate of the likelihood that it might deliver something successfully and within budget.

In her analysis of the LSE research, Polly Toynbee has sought to explode the ‘myth’ that Labour wasted billions on ineffectual programmes. Indeed, the research into neighbourhood renewal suggests that the investment in tackling worklessness in the poorest areas generated savings five times greater than the cost.

But when it comes to neighbourhood renewal, there was a great deal of waste: wasted opportunities, wasted momentum, wasted investment. It was waste by omission, not commission. The waste of undervalued achievements, not over-spent projects.

It’s unlikely that another government will make a similar commitment to tackling urban deprivation. And if they do, we shouldn’t believe them.

Government is only ever an occasional and unreliable ally to neighbourhood renewal.

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