News and Comment

Regeneration in the next decade: beyond bricks and mortar

Tuesday 26 July 2011


With a credit crunch, a recession, and now public sector spending cuts in train, most of the big, physical regeneration projects seen over the last 15 years have dried up. The local authorities, partners, regional and national agencies who were once sprucing up their neighbourhoods with new community centres, learning centres, children’s centres and the like no longer have the means to do so. Undoubtedly the impact of this will be a negative one in those areas crying out for better facilities.

But might that scarcity of resources also force us to get better at real, long-lasting social regeneration that goes beyond bricks and mortar?

Reflecting on the relative successes and failures of regeneration initiatives over the last 30 years, a recent report by Demos highlighted that:

‘Genuine community involvement and democratic outreach to encourage collective efficacy helps to generate positive results (as well as being the right thing to do).’

Too often, regeneration projects – whether public or private sector led – have appeared to land like spaceships, met by a combination of awe, cynicism, indifference or bemusement by local people who had either lost faith in the ability of the state to make a difference or, even if they were glad of the attention, felt they were not part of the process to make things better.

Councils these days know they must consult and engage on local development, but some have been more enthusiastic about this than others. Drawing up the plans behind closed doors, holding an open day and asking passing residents ‘do you like it?’ is hardly good engagement practice, but that’s what local people have often experienced.

The result has sometimes been excellent new facilities, much valued by residents and kick-starting wider investment in an area. And sometimes, the result has been unwelcome, costly developments which achieve far too little in comparison to their cost, are ignored by local people, and which have completely missed the opportunity to build the skills and capacity of the communities in which they are located. There are too many low-income neighbourhoods across Britain which, in spite of high-profile bricks and mortar investment, continue to feel ‘forgotten about’ by those in power, remain pessimistic about their area and voiceless in local decisions.

Regeneration – a new mindset

The way we think about regeneration in the next decade has to be different. Not only do public sector finances demand it, but policy drivers on active citizenship, co-production and the Big Society positively encourage it. NESTA’s recent Compendium for the Civic Economy includes some fantastic and inspiring examples of how regeneration can work when it grows out of the energy and commitment of local people. It shows how councils can be clever and creative about how they support regeneration in their areas, and that securing economic viability and vitality doesn’t just mean installing a Tesco Metro on the ground floor.

In the years ahead, improving life in our communities will be about maximising capacity – making the most of the skills, resources and energy that can be marshalled within a place. Buildings can only be the start of successful, sustainable regeneration. The importance of regenerating our local environments should not be underestimated, but the route to doing that should be through regenerating our communities first – not just sending in the builders and hoping for the best.