Regeneration must get on its bike

Jonathan Werran sets out what is needed during the next political cycle if regeneration is to be successful, including a return to regional spatial planning.

The results of the recent local elections are counted. All that remains is for the date of the next General Election to be set, which makes this moment a very opportune one to be talking about regeneration.

The election will represent an opportunity for the public to vote on the levelling up agenda, the totemistic flagship domestic agenda from the Conservative 2019 manifesto. It is an agenda that has now been realised with the legislation and taskforce and a dozen missions. Levelling up secretary Michael Gove has compared progress to a half-built cathedral, asking for full judgment to be stayed until 2030 and the original timeline set out in the white paper. The electorate will have to make this judgement call, clearly.

This choice notwithstanding, Localis has since last autumn been investigating what the smart regeneration journey to the end of the decade should look like. Our finished study sets out a framework for best local practice in regeneration that we hope has the potential to unlock place prosperity in the next political cycle in a holistic manner, one that also improves community health and helps tackle climate change.

In the research we examined five main pillars crucial to attaining successful regeneration. These included the role of place leadership, local government financial capacity, net zero and climate change factors, the role of the private and third sectors and the role of health and wellbeing.

In this context, we argue that successful regeneration in the next political cycle will require:

  • a return to regional spatial planning and establishment of regional planning offices to pool talent and resources to support local and sub-regional planning;
  • an end to the revenue/capital funding split in local authorities and in its place a single budget for local authorities alongside a separate regeneration account – akin to the HRA – to efficiently allocate capital for regeneration;
  • ability to use regeneration as tool to leverage capital funds for retrofit and climate resilience measures to invest in local energy-proofing housing stock;
  • involvement of private and third sectors to boost capacity of community housing initiatives allowing for greater small-scale, community-led development within regeneration projects.
  • central government to work with the health service and local government chiefs to drive a strategy for community-driven healthcare in urban centres that can inform the development of local and subregional plans.

In the next political cycle, the vexing problem of improving the public realm in a situation of parlous public finances will keep regeneration of our towns and cities as an economic and political imperative. The overarching question is, as we enter the end of one political cycle and await the start of a new one, what lessons, both broad and particular, should our placemakers be drawing from and putting into good practice from now until the end of the decade?

In answering this question, it is important to understand both how pressing concerns for our councils undertaking regeneration projects can be addressed, and how the current position has been arrived at through recent decades of central government policy.

And in the light of the recent local elections, in which nearly half the English population had the opportunity to vote for one of the 10 metro mayors, we would do well to start thinking of how future devolution involving even greater local empowerment could augment powers for regeneration and the long-term investment funds, local development corporations and fiscal powers to power ahead. Regeneration programmes could see mayoral authorities with a flexible ‘consolidated pot' to fund local growth and place-making, housing, and regeneration – including programmes for retrofit.

Changes in regeneration projects and policy will be unavoidable as the course of time and events impact upon local economy and society. However, it must be the goal to minimise such fluctuations in policy and governance as we move forward. Consistency is key to prioritising the issues that are keeping parts of the country mired in high levels of deprivation and poor economic growth. As the country moves into another season of potentially immense change, it is necessary to stress the benefits and the safety of working to existing regional and local frameworks.

Regeneration is at once the nuts and bolts of how our town centres and high streets, our public realm can be maintained and improved for future generations. It's about creating strong conditions for how and where we live out our lives at ease. It's as much about health and wellbeing as culture and leisure to where we live, work and shop.

But at a fundamental and human level, regeneration is a form of encouragement, planting the seed of civic courage in the ground for the lives of others, for residents, students, visitors and workers alike. At its best, regeneration is an act of hope for our localities. Understood this way, it is vital we make regeneration practice universally successful in the next Parliament.

Jonathan Werran is chief executive of Localis

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