Take a poor, semi-derelict and crime-ridden neighbourhood, apply money, skilled workers and vision and hey-presto! You have a ‘good thing’, surely? Only if the beneficiaries come from a tightly proscribed group, according to one commentator.
There’s a thoughtful fellow called John Harris who has written a series of absorbing articles about the regeneration of British cities for the Guardian newspaper. One in particular caught my eye – his analysis of regeneration in Bristol.
Take five minutes and have a read – then see if you’re left scratching your head, as I was.
In twenty five years working in regeneration I’ve noticed a few things. Skilled, well-paid folk earn a good living applying their trades and professions; once-derelict land and buildings begin to earn hard-pressed local councils rateable income; crime falls as grot-spots are taken out of the equation and more people are attracted to an area; and service businesses spring up, rejuvenating high streets and employing people as they go – painters, decorators, shop assistants and the like. Property prices begin to rise, creating the most necessary of all conditions to attract further investment – the prospect of capital growth – and so you have a virtuous circle of improvement with many ordinary working folk among those who benefit.
What’s not to like? Quite a lot, it would seem. The sub-text of the piece on Bristol seems to be that unless a certain type of person is given control over the process and a share in the proceeds – without bearing any of the cost or risk – then regeneration is unwelcome. And unless the improvements follow a carefully-proscribed route in terms of product and tenant mix, then it’s not worth a candle either, and all the hard-working sparks, brickies, chippies and other skilled tradesmen can go whistle. Better to live in an ideologically pure poverty than to secure improvement, it seems.
The sub-text that the people who then choose to live in improving neighbourhoods are somehow ‘the wrong type’ grated, too. Do they have to be vetted? You know, to check that they have the right accent, went to the right comprehensive school and do the right type of job? And if they don’t, are they to be sneered at and is their faith and investment in a neighbourhood of no worth?
There’s a good point to be made by Mr Harris amidst his desire to direct and control and it is this: that really good regeneration takes the community with it and finds a way to try and share the benefits out. But the community has got to take some of that responsibility on its own shoulders. Harris’s article on Bristol identifies a number who have done just that and it is a pity that they lose out when it’s they that have held the place together through the tough times. But the response to that, surely, is not to question the value of regeneration per se and to seek to impose unworkable controls on it – a sure-fire way of ensuring it grinds to a halt – but to find a smarter way of matching existing interests with those of developers and local authorities.
I think that’s what Mr Harris is suggesting. If he were to drop the desire to control every element of the process so that the outcomes fit with his worldview then I might have been cheering his piece rather than scratching my head.
There’s another interesting article by John Harris here, this time chronicling Plymouth’s attempts to recover from the closure of its naval yards. Whilst the Labour leader of the council welcomes private investment and higher income residents, Harris seems suspicious of both. Why, I wonder?