Monday, 24 October 2011

Trying to apply Occam's Razor to regeneration - the idea of 'busy-ness'

Many years ago William of Occam set out his little idea:

"Pluralitas non est ponenda sine neccesitate"

OK, so some folk say William didn’t come up with the idea but the principle remains very important – and so often ignored. In its clearest modern description Occam’s Razor says:

"...when you have two competing theories which make exactly the same predictions, the one that is simpler is the better."

It doesn’t quite say that the simplest explanation of something is the one most likely to be the right one but its close enough for that to be a working definition of the rule.

Let us apply it to regeneration.

Most of the debate around regeneration revolves around the dichotomy between the physical (what I term “shiny regeneration”) and the social (which we might call “right-on regeneration”). The private sector part of the regeneration industry focuses, more or less exclusively, on “shiny” – after all these are offshoots from property, real estate and development business so physical intervention is what they do. In the public sector – and its acolytes within the “third sector” – the emphasis is much more on the social aspects of regeneration with much talk of ‘community’, ‘social capital’ and empowerment.

In all this debate there is little discussion of why some places are successful and others are not. This is odd since the whole purpose of regeneration is to facilitate less successful places becoming more successful.  While this begs the question as to what we mean by success, the core element of success is economic – I’m pretty sure that people in poor communities aspire to a better, more comfortable life which can only come through economic advancement.

So what are the features of successful places? For me there are just two:

  1. They are busy – not busy in the sense of subsistence but busy in the sense of economic activity
  2. They are places that attract immigrants – people want to move there

And to identify less successful places we can take the reverse:

  1. They are quiet – in the sense that economic activity is limited
  2. They are places of emigration – people wish to move from them

So if we are to apply Occam’s Razor then we should be looking at ways to raise levels of economic activity – private, self-interested activity that is – and to make the place somewhere that firstly people no longer wish to leave and subsequently to which people want to move.

And the evidence from 40 years of regeneration investment in the UK suggests that our approach has failed – the successful places then are, in the main, the successful places now and the unsuccessful places then are still mostly unsuccessful. And these approaches have mirrored the two regeneration strategies – ‘shiny’ and ‘right-on’. Clearly we need a third strategy.

Given that we can’t make successful (or rather relatively successful) people stay in a place – the immigration/emigration issue is a function of free movement – we are left with the matter of private, self-interested economic activity. What we sometimes call business - or should it be 'busy-ness'.

Successful regeneration therefore must be about economic activity – everything else follows from that activity. And just as importantly the economic activity has to be within the place, conducted by the people living there – we can’t import economic activity. We must also remember that economic activity involves a buyer and a seller – dormitory towns in Buckinghamshire are successful and populated by consumers (or rather by people who produce elsewhere and bring that money to the place they live).

In the end regeneration is a matter of economics. And that should be the basis of our third strategy - an idea of 'busy-ness'.


1 comment:

theleedscitizen said...

Quite right, though I'm not sure that the two approaches are very different: 'right-on' is just 'shiny' with a bit of alderman's voodoo about 'sustainable community building' chanted over it. Regeneration is just knocking houses down, building (fewer) in the same place and praying that somehow things will get better.