I mean seriously how can we begin to know whether a given regeneration strategy, policy or programme is right or wrong, effective or ineffective when we seem not to have the first inkling as to what we mean by regeneration.
For some regeneration is simply the process of transferring money to poor communities rather than redistribution to poor people. It is a victory for the collective outlook, for the idea that deprivation is communal rather than personal and individual. And the worst among these people are the poverty-mongers, those who argue against the sin of ‘gentrification’ who seem to delight in the existence of the poor. For whom the elimination of poverty is a goal until the improvement of a place transforms its demographics when we are told we’re pushing poor people out.
Others see regeneration as a process of development – the improvement of the physical environment of a place so as to enable change, most usually economic change and typically change driven by shiny office blocks or sleek business parks. This – what we might call the ‘field of dreams’ approach to regeneration – relies on the belief that places cannot fix themselves, that inward investment is critical to regeneration. And they make a mission with the poverty-mongers by promising the jobs and economic advancement they demand as the price of preventing gentrification.
Whatever approach to regeneration is taken it has a vital element – government funding. Here’s the conclusion of the communities and local government select committee:
Funding for regeneration has been reduced "dramatically and disproportionately" over the past two years, and unless alternative sources can be found, there is a risk of problems being stored up for the future
The government is wrong to place so much emphasis on funding streams such as the New Homes Bonus, the Regional Growth Fund and rail investment, which, "whatever their benefits, are not focused primarily upon regeneration"
The withdrawal of Housing Market Renewal funding in particular has created significant problems, "leaving many residents trapped in half-abandoned streets"
The government has "apparently paid little regard" to the lessons from previous approaches to regeneration
There are concerns that, in spite of its aspirations for ‘community-led regeneration’, the government’s approach will do little to support it. At a time of significant spending reductions, many of the community groups most closely involved in regeneration are uncertain about their future
Other than learning lessons from past regeneration programmes, every single one of these conclusions is about funding – about the direction of taxpayers’ money to the process of regeneration. Yet the very lesson from the past – one that coalition ministers seem to have learned despite the best efforts of “experts” to persuade them otherwise – is that 40 years of intervention in “deprived communities” simply hasn’t worked.
Targeted, area-based regeneration doesn’t work – especially when it’s mostly nice middle-class community development workers going into poor communities and stroking them while sympathising about the lack of good schools, jobs and aspiration. Yet the regeneration industry trooped down to London so as to give evidence to this select committee – or rather to plead the case for their industry’s continuing existence despite forty years of failure.
The truth about poverty – and poor people – is that most of it (that is most of those poor people) isn’t in places with multiple deprivations. For sure, those deprived places have a high proportion of poor people but people without jobs, the elderly without savings or pensions, single mums and others struggling to get by are in every neighbourhood.
Our regeneration efforts should be directed to people who are poor – be it in cash or aspiration – rather than to selected communities chosen because there’s a concentration of poor people. Our aim should be to “renew” people rather than to “regenerate” places.
In the end the regeneration debate is a dead end. Scoffing at the government because they say “it’s up to neighbourhoods” takes us nowhere. And saying there’s no strategy suggests that, without those middle class community development and regeneration “experts”, people and places can’t improve.
If those “experts” want to make a difference, let them go to these places and make a business of improving them. Not by grant farming but through enterprise and effort. Not by taking government cash to pay themselves good wages but by reaping the dividend from the success of others – the value that comes from helping someone out of poverty.