What is regeneration?

Regeneration, broadly, involves policies to improve social and economic conditions and the physical environment in a particular area.

Typically, the area, which can range from a housing estate to a whole region, will be relatively deprived, and so regeneration is bound up with tackling geographical inequalities.

As such it differs from, though often complements, policies that tackle individual deprivation, such as benefits, tax credits and social care.

As the name suggests, regeneration is often associated with restoring areas that have suffered decline, for instance former industrial heartlands.

It is sometimes divided into three categories – physical, economic and social – though the distinctions between them are not always clear.

Physical regeneration, for instance, can refer to housing projects, city centre revamps and large infrastructure projects.

But all of these have an economic aspect, in terms of attracting businesses and people with valuable skills into an area to boost growth.

Social regeneration, which is often referred to as neighbourhood, or community, renewal, refers to schemes to tackle poverty and boost social inclusion in deprived areas.

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Residents often play a lead role in the design and delivery of programmes, as with New Deal for Communities projects, on the assumption that regenerating an area involves giving people the capacity to support themselves.

But not only is neighbourhood renewal often dependent on jobs coming into an area, but it frequently has a physical aspect, for instance the redesign of housing estates to improve community cohesion and pride.

Indeed, the government’s neighbourhood renewal strategy, published in 2001, was based on the premise that the worst off areas faced multiple deprivations, social economic and environmental, that fed off each other.

Its conclusion was that they had to be tackled in a joined-up manner, to be successful.

Regeneration has predominantly, though not exclusively, been an urban issue, because concentrated poverty is more often than not found in town rather than country.

Of the 88 most deprived local authority districts identified by the government in its 2001 strategy, 72 were urban.

Modern regeneration policy dates from the late 1960s, with the launch of the Urban Programme.

This and later initiatives, such as the Inner Urban Areas Act 1978, stemmed from a recognition that general welfare policies were failing to improve the most deprived areas.

However, despite three decades of regeneration policy, Labour came to power in 1997 facing a huge gap between the richest and poorest areas.

Part of this has nothing to do with regeneration policy itself, but with the politics and economics of the 1980s and 1990s.

According to the 2001 strategy, the proportion of people living in relative poverty doubled between the late 1970s and the early 1990s, and deprivation also become more concentrated.

Successive recessions and the collapse of manufacturing created mass unemployment in many areas, while policies on taxes, benefits and mainstream public services widened inequalities.

However, there is evidence to suggest that regeneration policies themselves had failed to close the gap between rich and poor areas and, in some cases, may have made things worse.

A 1998 Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, Towards a long-term strategic approach to urban regeneration, exposed a range of problems with regeneration policies, notably a lack of strategic direction.

It found policies were fragmented both nationally and locally, were driven by short-term thinking, excluded communities, forced neighbouring poor areas to compete against each other for funding and divorced physical regeneration from economic and social renewal.

The Conservatives had begun to tackle these issues through the introduction of the single regeneration budget in 1994, which Labour persisted with until 2002.

This brought together 20 initiatives from five government departments, targeted funding at broad-ranging local partnerships, which included community representatives, and prioritised measures to tackle social exclusion, poor health, low skills and educational under-performance.

However, its funding, which totalled £1.3 billion in 1995-6, was negligible, and the Conservatives left many significant regeneration programmes outside the SRB.

When Labour came to power, the figures for area-based inequalities were stark: according to the 2001 strategy, in 1998 twice as many people lived on means-tested benefits in the poorest 10% of wards than in the country as a whole.

Similar disparities existed across health, education, crime and employment indicators.

Regeneration since 1997:
Labour’s approach to regeneration, like its general attitude to public services, has combined increased investment with new targets and attempts to reform service delivery.

The idea of a national strategy for neighbourhood renewal was unveiled in 1998 in the Social Exclusion Unit’s Building Britain together: a national strategy for neighbourhood renewal.

It identified many of the same problems with past regeneration policy as the JRF report, concluding that only a national strategy could transform the plight of poor neighbourhoods.

Labour’s guinea pig initiative was the New Deal for Communities programme, which was launched in the same year and aimed to give communities a key role in driving regeneration in their areas.

Each of 39 NDC areas received £50 million to tackle a range of interrelated problems – joblessness, crime, educational under-performance, poor health and bad housing – with residents holding an elected majority on each board.

The SEU also set up what it described as “an unprecedented exercise in joint working within and outside government” with 18 policy action teams created to look at the problems facing deprived neighbourhoods.

Their work paved the way for the 2000 spending review and the national neighbourhood renewal strategy, launched a year later.

The former coupled investment in regeneration with a host of public service agreement targets designed to improve conditions in the poorest neighbourhoods and close the gap between them and the rest.

The latter laid down the government’s key pledge on neighbourhood renewal: that within 10 to 20 years no one should be seriously disadvantaged by where they live.

It also spawned the neighbourhood renewal fund, which poured £1.35 billion into the country’s 88 most deprived neighbourhoods between 2001 and 2005, with a further £1.575 billion committed until 2008.

The strategy argued that it would avoid the mistakes of the past through sustained investment, involving communities, tackling social, economic and physical renewal together and joining-up policy nationally and locally.

To the latter end, it made local strategic partnerships – council-led coalitions of the public, voluntary and private sector – responsible for NRF programmes and neighbourhood renewal more generally.

The national strategy far from signalled the end of government policy-making in this area.

The 2004 spending review introduced a new PSA calling for a “measurable improvement” in area inequalities in health, education, crime, joblessness and housing by 2010, backed by a host of new targets.

And following the November 2004 public health white paper, funding for primary care trusts has become increasingly targeted at poorer areas in a bid to tackle health inequalities.
In January 2005, the government published a progress report on the strategy, Making it Happen in Neighbourhoods.

The report shows that some inequalities between NRF areas and the national average have declined.

For instance, the gap in the proportion of school-leavers getting five good GCSEs narrowed from 10.2% in 1998 to 8.3% in 2003, while the gap in burglary rates was cut by a fifth between 1999-2000 and 2003-4.

In January 2006, the government published an evaluation of the NDC programme found “there had been as much progress as might reasonably have been expected”.

Survey showed a 14 per cent increase between 2002 and 2004 in the proportion of people who had thought their area had improved, while between 2001 and 2003 people in NDC areas were 1.6 times more likely to exist sickness or disability benefits than people in comparative areas.

However, other indicators did not show an improvement on similar parts of the country.


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