Regeneration has become a difficult word. I find that lots of professional colleges are increasingly choosing not to use it. It is controversial. Every day I cycle past Elephant Park, a massive development site that used to be known as the Heygate Estate regeneration. Many displaced residents locally feel dissatisfied with how the benefits of huge corporate investment will ultimately benefit them. On the other side of London, the political challenge to Haringey’s Development Vehicle is rippling across councils.
It is actually a bit surprising that MHCLG – and this Knowledge Hub Network – use the term. As ‘regeneration’ causes eyes to roll and eyebrows to raise, those proposing new development have often shifted to focusing on ‘place-making’. And local authorities talk about their role as ‘place-shaping’.
Good projects ‘deliver’ things that are widely welcomed: improved homes, new homes, quality facilities and open spaces, new social and economic opportunities for citizens, and better services to support well-being and address social needs.
Why should the word we use, to describe a programme which can stretch decades, matter?
What is lost (and gained) by ditching regeneration in favour of adopting ‘place’?
All of us involved in ‘regeneration’ have seen projects and programmes which have changed the physical environment while the social and economic challenges remain – either located in new buildings or displaced elsewhere. The notion of ‘placemaking’ is, in my mind, a concession to this outcome. It is a retreat from the aspirations for social and economic regeneration. There are successes to point to in regenerating the scale and quality of opportunities for residents on estates. Many of us are pursuing that goal under the ‘estate regeneration’ banner, recognising that a masterplan alone is insufficient.
Having worked with Rochdale Boroughwide Housing since the end of 2016 in the Lower Falinge and College Bank neighbourhoods, I’ve been impressed by their dual focus on ‘people and place’. They have made this explicit in their communcations to residents and others.
These two adjacent neighbourhoods sit right next to Rochdale Town Centre, and, if it wasn’t for a dual carriageway, they’d probably feel like part of the town centre. A physical regeneration masterplan is being finalised, addressing public realm issues as well as replacing blocks of flats.
Our role has been to help RBH make plans for what should change for existing local residents in the Lower Falinge and College Bank neighbourhoods in the future. A steering group includes several areas of the council, other key partners like colleges and health. Our meetings are hosted at RBH offices and chaired by Greater Manchester Combined Authority.
Like most deprived areas, our work started in the context of a mixed legacy of previous initiatives. Looking back a decade, there is more community activity and a great partnership between frontline public services addressing the challenges of a minority of residents with acute struggles and chaotic lives. But after 10 years of national economic recovery from recession, talking today to those in low paid work or unemployment, you get the sense that Rochdale feels like a place where many economic challenges remain. In particular, a high proportion of people are stuck, involuntarily, in part-time work, and many people have health issues which determine their access to benefits which support their income but aren’t functioning well in terms of helping them find work appropriate to their health limitations.
Most importantly, at every stage of public service design, we have been listening to, and asking questions among, residents of Lower Falinge and College Bank. After 15 months we are now finalising a proposal that will seek funding to address some of the particular local challenges, for those who the current labour market and welfare system is leaving behind.
We call this the New Pioneers Programme. It will involve careers brokers who are involved intensively in people’s lives, with caseloads under 15, meaning there’s time to meaningfully support people to co-defined goals. It will involve an alternative income provision, asking people to exit DWP benefits and join and independent locally administered scheme, underpinned by reciprocity rather than sanctions, penalties and conditions. And it will need a space to meet, talk, plan, learn and share, a space for new kinds of work (remote working, regrouping between gig economy gigs, self-employment) and a space for the New Pioneers themselves to support one another.
In this programme, people won’t just be fellow service users, they will be neighbours pursuing a range of career goals, be that an increase to full-time hours, a volunteering placement in a new industry, a permanent contract or someone’s first paid job.
We want to view this as an experiment, though we don’t want this language to scare residents away from signing up to be a part of it. We need new approaches to ‘people’ as well as new designs for ‘place’, and it is only by trying new things, responding to the (extensive) feedback about what isn’t currently working on the country’s most deprived estates, and evaluating them well, that we can recover the pride we want to have in regeneration.