Communities must not be forgotten in government’s regeneration plans

Guest blog by Locality's chief executive, Tony Armstrong.

There was much in the prime minister’s speech on poverty and life chances this week to spark comment and controversy. But the key announcement, which was trailed in the Sunday press, was the plan to bulldoze 100 of the country’s ‘worst sink estates’ while providing around £140m of new funding to support communities, councils and housing associations undertake the task.

Firstly, I’m pleased the government has revived an interest in regeneration as a concept, as this has been a low priority for central funding and attention over the last few years. But alarms bells are ringing on the basis of what I’ve heard so far; if we are to “regenerate” neighbourhoods, then the priority must be to support the people living in estates.

The £140m announced as funding equates to £1.4m per area which, as many have pointed out, will not go far. Another popular line of criticism has focused on whether this is an assault on social housing and an attempt to disperse communities in favour of private developers. But let’s be optimistic, and take the prime minister at his word that this is about improving life chances for people who have been particularly ill served by the state and the economy in recent years. We then need to learn lessons from the past - decades of learning on how to improve neighbourhoods facing multiple disadvantage - to ensure that the lives of people living on these estates truly are improved.

Locality members, most of whom operate in challenging areas, are the cornerstones of many of these neighbourhoods and have seen regeneration attempts come and go, with mixed success. They know from experience that we need a multi-faceted approach to regeneration which looks at wider social issues, and promotes people’s ability to help themselves, as well as community-wide action.

Our members are community organisations which act as ‘anchors’ in their neighbourhoods, providing services for local people, helping them get training and employment, access health and social care support, debt and financial management advice, children's and young people's services and a whole lot more based on what local people need and want. A significant number of them are successor bodies to some previous regeneration initiatives - such as the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) or the New Deal for Communities (NDC) programmes – many of which had mixed success and a patchy range of legacies.

We know from past attempts that focusing on housing alone does not work in regenerating neighbourhoods, and it would be a missing a huge opportunity if the focus of this initiative were to be on housing alone. Knocking down post-War estates and replacing them with new builds might be appropriate in some circumstances, and on a selective basis, but poor housing is not the main problem in many challenged neighbourhoods. Even if it were, moving everyone out of an area and building new types of housing is not so much regeneration as replacement.

Community-led regeneration must be the main guiding principle, and work to support community organisations should be the first step in this new government programme. Local people know what is needed in their neighbourhood and they should be the ones who set the priorities and own the process. There are countless examples of where this has not been done and where developments have therefore not been supported by the local community - wasting money and failing to see lasting improvements to the life chances of local people.

Where there are existing strong community groups and organisations, they should be put in the driving seat of any plans and where there is limited existing community activity, we need to mobilise local people and get them together to focus on the future of their local area - using effective tools such as community organising. Neighbourhood planning, which gives local people control over what kind and scale of development they want to see in their areas, should also play a key part of the regeneration process.

Community ownership of local assets - like community centres, housing stock, leisure facilities and health centres - are crucial in successful regeneration schemes. People in the neighbourhood have control over what happens there and benefit from any income generated as it is reinvested in the local community. From our own analysis, communities which own assets, such as buildings, are able to generate higher income levels than those which don’t. It’s interesting that many of those historic regeneration projects which successfully managed to establish an ongoing legacy organisation were those which bought or negotiated the transfer of buildings and land.

The powers enshrined under the Localism Act 2011 have given communities the power to register assets of community value, which is a very helpful tool. But we know that communities need support, funding and capacity building to take on assets, and that the attitude of local authorities and other public sector agencies is mixed when it comes to their approach to communities taking control.

I look forward to more detail emerging on the government’s plans but a focus on supporting the people living in these estates, rather than the bricks and mortar, is essential in helping these neighbourhoods thrive.


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