Regeneration with a human face

Take a look at the picture in the first slide [see above] of people admiring the fountains and stainless steel artwork at Sheffield station. Does it make you proud to be part of this city?

Now take another look at the picture and the people in it. Ask yourself a question: are they strivers or skivers? Are they workers or shirkers? Which box should we put them into: people who are contributing to society, or people who are taking from it?

Of course the question sounds absurd. But while the physical regeneration of Sheffield is brought to life by all sorts of people, we have welfare policies that suggest only certain types of people have value.

This paper is a short exploration of how we can breathe new life into concepts of regeneration so that they recognise and value the connections between people and places, and create lasting value for the people and places that need it most. I’m going to start with a brief look back over some of the ideas and policies that got us where we are today; highlight some difficulties in the way the regeneration debate is currently framed; and then focus more specifically on the approach and recommendations that came out of a report I recently wrote for the think tank ResPublica, Responsible Recovery.

By way of contextualising all of that I’d like to briefly consider the idea of ‘home’. Any attempt to grapple with what policy experts call the ‘wicked issues’ of persistent poverty and deprivation sooner or later rubs up against the question of why people often stay in places that appear to have very poor prospects, and why certain places are disproportionately populated by people whose life prospects are very poor.

The dynamic of how those factors work together is often presented negatively: people and places are problems. But people living in poor areas more often than not feel a genuine attachment to their communities and neighbours. A couple of years ago there was an ethnographic study of people in Stockbridge Village, one of Liverpool’s more notorious overspill estates: the title the researchers used was a quote from a local resident: ‘We’re lovely, us people in Stockbridge’.[1] Local people will often see positives to their communities that are lost in a ‘deficit model’ of regeneration that simply problematises them.

‘Home’ is a loaded word. Its associations aren’t always positive.[2] But the desire for home, even when it’s frustrated, encapsulates a sense of aspiration and rootedness that is fundamental to human existence: we are creatures who are bounded by place and space, and by our interactions with others in those places. Home is emotionally, physically and economically foundational – and that’s why building a sense of belonging needs to be at the heart of concepts of social, physical, and economic regeneration.

Government interventions in social or spatial policy have struggled to do this. In 2008 the Joseph Rowntree Foundation produced a report whose title sums up the difficulty. It was called Person or Place-based Policies to Tackle Disadvantage? Not knowing what works.[3] As community development experts Gabriel Chanan and Colin Miller have observed, the closer you get to the issues the harder it is to fit them into departmental boxes.[4]

As a result the language of regeneration continues to be interpreted in widely differing ways by different sectoral interests. We could call this Humpty Dumpty regeneration – in the words of Lewis Carroll, ‘when I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’.

The graphic on slide 6, taken from the evaluation of the national strategy for neighbourhood renewal, tells us something about why we don’t know what works and struggle to grasp all the issues. We’re dealing with ingrained and intertwined challenges that stubbornly refuse to respond to simple narratives of how to make a place or a community better.

A look at Sheffield, mapped according to deprivation, shows how inequality and disadvantage have persisted despite a quarter of a century of regeneration initiatives. Men who live in the most deprived parts of Sheffield are expected to live nearly nine years less than people in the least deprived communities.[5]

In 2007 Gordon Brown’s government produced the temptingly-titled Review of sub-national economic development and regeneration; the following year Creative Sheffield produced an economic masterplan for the city.[6] Both documents acknowledged that inequalities were not narrowing and certain neighbourhoods and groups of people were consistently being left behind. That was in the boom times. All the growth of the previous years had failed to change either the scale of disadvantage or the patterns of deprivation to a significant degree. Why then should we expect any change in these patterns if we return to the economy of 10 or 15 years ago, but with much reduced public funding?

So I would argue the starting point must be to redefine what ‘regeneration’ is seeking to achieve, who it’s for and what can be expected to happen. That’s why I suggest we need to focus on the idea of ‘home’ – people reimagining and rebuilding the places that matter to them in order to face new challenges. The pioneer of town planning, Patrick Geddes, used the phrase ‘folk, work and place’ to sum up a similar set of ideas: people acting productively in meaningful settings for the common good.

Geddes drew his ideas from the world of ecology, by observing how complex organisms survive and thrive. Regeneration policy in England is a world away from that Geddesian approach. The government’s response to the 2011 select committee inquiry into regeneration is revealing.[7] We’re seeing a retreat from complexity: policy has become a one-trick pony of growth, growth and more growth, with an assumption that this will sort everything else out.

This regeneration non-agenda takes us into some tricky territory. If regeneration is seen entirely through the lens of economic growth, people and places who are not contributing to that growth become a problem. The easiest way of dealing with that problem seems to be to blame those people for not trying hard enough, or – as George Osborne puts it – ‘doing the wrong thing’ by not having a job.

The ‘blame the victim’ approach is a denial of geography and neighbourhood. It assumes that everyone has an equal chance of finding work and there is enough work for everyone. The reality is very different: nearly 2,500 people applying for just 22 jobs at a sofa store in Wolverhampton, or 1,700 competing for just eight jobs at Costa Coffee in Nottingham. The real challenge is an emerging ‘precariat’[8] who move from in-work poverty to out-of-work poverty, degrading their social, financial and emotional capital as they do so.

* * *

It’s striking that despite the persistence of poverty and disadvantage, policymakers continue to view the world and frame their discussions in the same ways. This persistence of palatable paradigms allows policymakers to avoid asking the really hard questions: what if our policies are part of the problem rather than part of the solution?

The graph on the left on slide 13, from Richard Murphy of Tax Research UK, shows what happened during the New Labour years of easy credit, property speculation and relatively high public investment. In good times, the rich got a bigger share of a growing economy, while those on low incomes stayed about the same. But when the pain is shared out in bad times, those on low incomes get squeezed harder and faster because they have fewer assets to draw on.

The graph on the right, from the Earth Policy Institute, tells us what might happen next: steeply rising food prices hit the poor much harder than the well-off because they have fewer resources to draw on. The effect is like being a third class passenger on the Titanic: you are less likely to be able to find a lifeboat if the ship goes down.

The second ‘palatable paradigm’ is a growing anti-welfare culture. Politicians will tell you they have to be tough on welfare because public opinion demands it, as the poll quoted in slide 14 suggests. But if you create and reinforce a climate where people think in a particular way, the consequences become self-fulfilling. And just as the only way to keep benefiting from growth is to have more of it ad infinitum, so the only way to keep up with demands for tough policies on welfare is for them to keep getting tougher. But neither the resources of the planet nor the resources of the poor are infinite: something has to give.

So it is important, as economists like Jeffrey Sachs have argued,[9] to have a wider perspective on issues of equality and wellbeing. There is a precedent. Between 1945 and 1951, while we had rationing, bomb sites and the trauma of war hanging over us, we created a national health service, formed the first national parks, built a string of new towns and invested in public housing. The question is how to build shared values and a rediscover a moral compass.

Bill Clinton’s catchphrase was ‘it’s the economy, stupid’. It’s time to rephrase Clinton: it’s the stupid economy. How can we destupefy the economy so that it reconnects people and place and gives hope to those who most need it?

* * *

It’s no coincidence that alongside an emerging critique of the growth paradigm there has been a new interest in mutual and reciprocal approaches – what Michael Lewis and Pat Conaty call the ‘social solidarity economy’.[10] I’d like to highlight three stories of social solidarity in action.

First, the story of a community who fought and won a battle to stop the council estate where they lived being sold to private developers.

Westminster Council wanted to sell the Walterton and Elgin estates as part of its plans to change the social make-up of the borough. Local residents not only fought off the proposal, but went on to take control of their homes. The new landlord, Walterton and Elgin Community Homes, has now been going more than 20 years, so it’s mature enough to tell us a thing or two about what works – and why its own surveys suggest it is more popular and effective than other landlords.

There are three keys to its success. First, the housing is owned and controlled by the people who live in it. You can’t raise rents, sell buildings or develop new homes without residents’ approval. Second, it’s responsive to local residents’ needs. It focuses on the things that are important to people on low incomes such as keeping rents low and getting repairs done.

Thirdly, WECH believes in building community. Grown-up children of local residents are given priority for housing because WECH knows that families that live near each other look after each other. A local police officer has been given a tenancy. WECH knows that this helps reassure local people who are afraid of crime, and breaks down suspicion among those who don’t trust the police. All of this makes it easier for people who have few resources to get by.

The second story is about Giroscope, a small housing charity that has been operating in the west end of Hull for 25 years. It buys up local homes, trains and employs local people to repair them, and then offers them to local people at affordable rents.

Giroscope is working in an area where national government decided ten years ago that the housing market was so dire many homes would have to be demolished. As a result the only people who would invest there were unscrupulous private landlords who would house anybody if housing benefit could pick up the bill. Whole streets were boarded up awaiting demolition. Others fell into disrepair because the absentee landlords wouldn’t maintain them.

One of the worst was Wellsted Street. Giroscope bought a few homes, not just because they were cheap but as a way of stopping the rot. When the local shop closed it bought it up, because a shop provides an anchor point in a community that’s struggling. The shopkeeper knows what’s going on in the neighbourhood. People-centred regeneration is about having someone you can turn to when you need it.

The third story started out as a DIY response to the challenge of climate change and local food production. Mary Clear dug up her rose garden in Todmorden, west Yorkshire, and planted vegetables. She put up a sign encouraging passers-by to help themselves. Nick Green planted herbs and vegetables in a derelict health centre. Small actions started to change the public realm.

If you go to Todmorden now you’ll find strawberries growing outside the doctors’ surgery. You’ll find sweetcorn outside the police station and cherry trees by the fire station. The motto of Incredible Edible Todmorden is ‘if you eat, you’re in’. A simple message shows people they can do something about environmental challenges where they live.

But it hasn’t stopped there. Last year Todmorden was flooded, twice. The Incredible Edible people immediately set up a group of ‘flood angels’ to prepare meals and provide supplies for people who’d been flooded. That wouldn’t have happened if the networks hadn’t been built already. When people come together in a shared endeavour, you get a virtuous spiral of social capital: people know people who can get things done. So the starting point has to be to build community.

The government’s attempt at creating a brave new world of reciprocity was called the big society. It was based on the premise that government was the problem, and took a view that if you got rid of government interference the people would devise their own solutions. But what people saw was the government removing organisations and funds that had been helping them achieve exactly the outcomes David Cameron had said he wanted.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, asked the right question in his critique: what does it mean to be a citizen? Implicit in citizenship is a social contract of rights and duties and a concept of belonging: the starting point is not the role of the state but how we can engage with each other in ways that create respect and trust.

There’s a heated debate at the moment about how we can reform the welfare state to create a sense of contribution rather than simply a culture of entitlement. The problem is that the idea of contribution is drawn too narrowly and discussed mainly in terms of finance. It may be more helpful to begin with what Graeme Cooke calls ‘relational practice’.[11] This centres welfare on people’s needs and capacities rather than on what the state can afford or wishes to demand. So for someone who’s out of work but does cash in hand jobs like hairdressing for neighbours, it’s about helping them from informal to formal work rather than penalising them.

In the ResPublica report I argue that there are three ways in which every citizen can contribute: tax on income, time in civic or community service, and talents that can be employed in mutual support. The combination depends on the individual’s circumstances. In return the state contributes by providing a safety net in times of hardship and by enabling individuals to be rewarded for their labours. This has always been the aim of the welfare state: nobody should be destitute, and everyone should contribute.

So we need to reframe the rules of engagement in society in ways that build trust. It’s a reapplication of the old idea of the commonwealth: the starting point and the goal is a common good that we all share in. Initiatives like time banks and community land trusts are starting to build that at a local level; so are tried and tested models like co-ops. In the commercial world new forms of ‘collaborative consumption’ are beginning to value access above ownership.

To build a reciprocal society we have to recognise the things that are important to people in their lives and work to sustain them – an ‘asset-based’ approach rather than one that regards people as the problem.

Working with low income families in Stockton-on-Tees, Oxfam and Church Action on Poverty identified a four-stage ‘livelihoods ladder’ with surviving at the lowest rung, followed by coping, adapting and accumulating. How far up the ladder people could climb depended on their access to human, social, physical, financial and public assets (including public services and facilities such as transport connections or open spaces).[12]

* * *

Helping people to move up the livelihoods ladder takes time. It demands application and consistency from government and a sensitivity to where government can help, and where it needs to step back and enable others to lead. The Responsible Recovery report talks of these long term actions as stepping stones rather than solutions. They’re not quick fixes but foundations that need to be laid.

The first is to build and support local social networks. It’s the connections between people that create social capital and confidence. Policies like the bedroom tax, which forces people to choose between sacrificing income or moving out of their immediate community, rip up that social fabric.

The second step is to build resilience: the capacity to deal with and overcome shocks and setbacks. If a plant has deep and connected roots it’s more likely to grow back when you cut it. Despite the difficulties facing local government, we need to see voluntary and community organisations as part of the root system of society and not just as an easy cut. They need to be connectors, exercising what Andrew Zolli calls ‘translational leadership’  – communicating and conversing between different interests and organisations and keeping alive a shared vision.[13]

Third is to build participation in society. Having strong locally based organisations is important, but so too is opening access to decisions about public spending and priority setting. A study of a participatory budgeting scheme in Govanhill, Glasgow,where £200,000 was allocated to a local action group to spend as they saw fit, found that ‘within a neighbourhood where community engagement has proven especially challenging, the participatory budgeting process has enabled purposeful and reciprocal dialogue between community members and the public and third sectors’.[14]

Fourth, as capacity in a community grows, is to pass on ownership and management of key assets. Over 35 years Coin Street Community Builders has transformed 13 acres of derelict land on London’s South Bank; Royds Community Association in Bradford runs a business park to create an income stream for the community.

What’s important is to create a long term investment in the community and an income stream rather than simply dumping expensive liabilities onto a neighbourhood because the council no longer wants them. The key question is whether and how the transfer empowers local people.

Fifth, we need to find effective ways to reward people for serving their locality. Everyone needs to be valued. That value should be as visible for people who volunteer in their community as it is for people who do paid work for local institutions. Loyalty schemes like and WiganPlus are being developed that use new technologies to make it much easier to log and reward contributions to local wellbeing.

And finally, we need to build local labour markets from the ground up. Social care, security and police community support, property repair and maintenance, environmental services and youth work, and many aspects of primary healthcare could provide employment at a neighbourhood level for local residents. A good example is the approach taken by the social enterprise Fresh Horizons in Huddersfield, which provides volunteering opportunities within locally run community centres and trains residents to improve empty homes.

We also need to make the benefits system work better. The process of moving from welfare to work – or from the informal economy into legitimate business – needs to be owned by the people who are most affected. A Community Allowance could enable people to do useful work within their neighbourhoods while keeping their benefit entitlement – an option that would be more constructive and rewarding for both the local community and the jobseeker than stacking shelves in a supermarket.

I’ll finish by coming back home, to Sheffield.

When Alderman John George Graves handed the land that is now Graves Park over to the city of Sheffield, what did he have in mind? He made three separate purchases of land on and around the Norton estate, between 1925 and 1935. It wasn’t just a mad flash of philanthropy. This was a deliberate attempt over an extended period of time to create an asset for the city that could be shared by all – a redistribution of value from the private to the public domain.

Alderman Graves started life in Sheffield as an apprentice watchmaker and ended up running a mail order business employing 3,000 people. Unlike many contemporary business leaders, he didn’t think he was doing the city enough of a favour simply by giving people jobs. His contribution to the common wealth of the city includes the Graves art gallery, funding for the central library, Sheffield University students union, Ecclesall Woods and Tinsley playing fields. He saw his own citizenship in terms of civic responsibility, saw the citizens of Sheffield – all of them – as worthy or the assets he could pass on.

That’s as far as you can get from today’s narrative of strivers and skivers. Perhaps part of the answer to the question Rowan Williams posed about citizenship is that we should think of citizens as people who value the neighbourhood or town or city they call home, and by valuing the place add value to it.

So to move towards people-centred regeneration I suggest we need to reawaken three kinds of redistribution: a redistribution of income, through the tax and benefits system; a redistribution of time, to value and encourage activities that build society; and a redistribution of value, from economic growth that serves the better-off to building the common good.


This paper is the text of a lecture given at the University of Sheffield’s Interdisciplinary Centre of the Social Sciences on 30 April 2013.

[1] Robin Pharoah and Tina Basi, 2011. ‘We’re lovely, us people in Stockbridge.’ Report by Esro for Knowsley Council

[2] See work by Lynne Manzo, for example:

[4] Gabriel Chanan and Colin Miller (2013). Rethinking Community Practice, Policy Press.

[6] Department of Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform: Review of sub-national economic development and regeneration:

[7] Government response to the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee Report of Session 2010-12: Regeneration:

[8] Guy Standing (2011). The Precariat: The new dangerous class. Bloomsbury.

[9] Jeffrey Sachs and Richard Layard (2012). World Happiness Report:

[10] Michael Lewis and Pat Conaty (2012). The Resilience Imperative. New Society Publishers.

[11] Graeme Cooke (2012). Contributory Welfare.

[12] Cooper, N. (2009). ‘Promoting sustainable livelihoods: making welfare reform truly personal.’ Benefits, 17:2, pp171-182.

[13] Andrew Zolli and Ann Marie Healy (2012). Resilience: Why things bounce back. Free Press.

[14] Harkins, C. and Egan, J. (2012). The role of participatory budgeting in promoting localism and mobilising community assets. Glasgow: Glasgow Centre for Population Health.