Today the House of Commons communities and local government select committee publishes its report on regeneration. It finds that the government lacks a coherent strategy for regeneration in England and has failed to learn from previous programmes.
It’s especially cheering that MPs specifically refer to our concern that it is morally unacceptable to walk away from those who have already been let down by the markets and by public policy.
So what is the significance of this report and what should happen next? Here are some brief reflections.
What does it get right?
First, it accepts the need for a coherent approach that defines the issue, learns from the past and explains the rationale for future action. What was particularly dispiriting about the government’s ‘strategy’, Regeneration to Enable Growth, was that it lacked any of these.
Second, it accepts a continuing need to invest in and support our most disadvantaged communities, and recognises that vague hopes of creating economic growth and planning reforms will not cut the mustard. As the committee note:
‘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.’
Third, it recognises the importance of supporting voluntary and community organisations working in our most hard-pressed communities, and the damage being done by the removal of that support.
What does it miss?
Most of the report’s conclusions are helpful and welcome and the MPs have pinpointed the inadequacies of the government’s current approach with laser-like accuracy.
However, they have failed to acknowledge the wider context. Regeneration is happening (or, more accurately, failing to happen) against a background of unprecedented challenges, of which the state of government finances was the only one acknowledged by the committee.
There are three that are of particular importance and need to inform any future approach to regeneration.
First, the financial crisis is the outworking of a severely dysfunctional economy. A report released this week by the International Labour Organization demonstrates just how dysfunctional, with warnings of a new ‘jobs recession’ and social unrest (see this blog post for more).
The economy of the future needs to be different, offering real opportunities for work and fulfillment for people in our poorest communities. Regeneration activity needs to be part of that shift, not a palliative for those hardest hit.
Second, regeneration needs to be seen in the context of environmental stress and climate change. Activities that bring jobs or physical development while exacerbating the underlying problem of resource depletion and environmental pollution (including carbon emissions) cannot be described as regeneration. Our work to provide jobs and hope in the poorest areas needs to be good for our children and grandchildren, not just the current generation. The MPs did not engage with this issue at all.
Thirdly, they did not address the issues of unemployment, under-employment and worklessness in any depth. If regeneration does not bring people who are outside the workplace real opportunities to find value and worth in what they do, either as employees or as volunteers in their communities, it has missed the point. Regeneration needs to create opportunities for people to spend their time in ways that are useful to themselves, their families and their neighbours.
Where does it leave us?
The committee addresses its messages to central government, because it is commenting on a central government strategy. But central government’s argument is that its approach is to provide a toolkit for localities to use as they see fit.
As the committee recommends, there needs to be a joining up of the central and the local. But that requires engagement at a local authority level as much as, and probably even more than, in Whitehall. Given the abject performance of central government so far, it would be a foolhardy local authority that waited for ministers to point them in the right direction.
So local councils and, more importantly, the communities who live in our most deprived areas must be enabled to set their own agendas. They need to define regeneration for themselves and draw down government support to make it happen.
That requires a change in thinking, with accountability downwards towards communities rather than upwards towards Whitehall. A localist government should welcome such an approach.
What should we do?
The task now is to rescue regeneration from the ashes of government policy and – as we argue here – regenerate it. That means sharing and reapplying learning, investing in the skills and knowledge of all involved, and being clear about both the need and the implications of the new context we work in.