Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Memoranda

Memorandum by Local Government Association (GRI 37)


  The Local Government Association is pleased to make this submission to the Urban Affairs Select Committee Inquiry. The LGA represents all local councils in England and Wales, and this response has been initiated by the Association's Urban Commission. In doing so, we have benefited from in-put from a range of the Association's executive committees as well as from a number of responses received directly from authorities themselves.

  The LGA welcomes the broad scope of the committee's inquiry. Regeneration has been a key area of local authority work over several decades now and we recognise it as a complex process involving a range of partners. The LGA's influential New Commitment to Regeneration initiative promoted this partnership approach to regeneration which is now reflected in many Government initiatives. We have been actively engaged in creating mechanisms for evaluating what works and we strongly agree with the Committee's emphasis on sustained improvements and long-term impacts.


  Despite all the work which has gone into regeneration initiatives over the last few decades, it is clear that there is still much to be done to tackle the problems of Britain's poorest neighbourhoods. While there is no single definition of poor neighbourhoods, the English House Condition survey identified at least 3,000 neighbourhoods with concentrated problems of run-down, vacant or derelict housing and/or problems such as vandalism and graffiti. Forty-four local authorities were identified by the Government's Social Exclusion Unit as having the highest concentrations of deprivation in England with nearly two-thirds more unemployment, one and half times the proportion of lone parent households and almost a third of children growing up in families on Income Support. More recently the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund is targeted towards the 88 authorities with the worst levels of deprivation.

  Although poor neighbourhoods share many key features, there are also critical differences between them. Some areas are experiencing the consequences of economic re-structuring, with the decline in manufacturing and heavy industry. Others, such as parts of London, co-exist next to areas of great affluence, but fail to share in that economic prosperity. Physical features likewise differ, as do the structure and patterns of housing tenure, from heavy concentrations of council or other social landlords to areas of predominant home ownership.


  The Audit Commission, in its report "A Life's Work: Local authorities, economic development and regeneration,' succinctly summarised the evolution of government-led regeneration initiatives. They highlighted three critical turning points:

    —  The publication of the 1977 Urban White Paper which heralded the end of decentralisation and New Town development.

    —  The development of business-led Urban Development Corporations of the 1980s.

    —  The 1991 launch of City Challenge with local authorities being brought in and invited to form partnerships to bid for resources. City Challenge was, in turn, followed by the establishment of the Single Regeneration Budget (SRB).

  Since 1997 the critical developments around urban regeneration have been:

    —  Launch of the LGA's New Commitment to Regeneration.

    —  New Deal for Communities initiative.

    —  Launch of the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewa.l

    —  Rolling of SRB into a new single funding pot administered by the Regional Development Agencies.


  While City Challenge and SRB represented a welcome advance on the business-led approach which had characterised the 1980s, it was clear that there were some important drawbacks. In particular, the element of bidding, which was a key feature, had some unintended consequences. It meant, for example that the relationship between need and resource allocation could be hazy as some areas with considerable deprivation lacked the capacity to put together effective bids. Likewise, the process of bidding, while it could unleash creative synergy, was also capable of leading to disappointment and demoralisation amongst those who tried but failed. But perhaps most fundamentally, the City Challenge and SRB approach forced authorities and partners to think narrowly rather than linking into a wider strategic policy framework.

  Consequently there were a number if criticisms which centred on:

    —  The short-term nature of the funding meant that retention of staff was difficult, particularly towards the end of funding periods.

    —  There was a lack of continuity or progression in policy and service delivery.

    —  The transaction costs involved in bidding were high.

    —  The bidding process could detract from the "day job" of ongoing good management.

    —  Administrative costs were often too high.

    —  Long-term planning was difficult.

  In addition, it was increasingly recognised that:

    —  The mainstream resources going into areas far outstripped the special regeneration funding and that the potential for regeneration would be far greater if these could be harnessed.

    —  It will always be difficult for time-limited initiatives to tackle long-term and deeply embedded issues that regeneration initiatives often expose.

    —  The management of neighbourhoods and their mainstream services significantly shape the quality of local life.

    —  Local players are powerless to influence some of the most important factors shaping the local economic context because they stem from wider trends and policies.

    —  Time-limited programmes made sustainability a problem, for example in meeting on-going costs.

  The more recent developments around the use of the single pot by Regional Development Agencies and funding through the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund are still attracting criticisms around the lack of a joined-up approach at local level. There are still real question marks around whether all agencies and Government departments are fully contributing towards the development and delivery of local community strategies and there are still too many pots of funding which require bidding or which are too tightly ring-fenced. The LGA continues to promote the need for mainstream funding to under-pin the approach to regeneration with Government departments being prepared to take a far more hands-off approach to the development and execution of local priorities.


  Through the development of the New Commitment to Regeneration the LGA has contributed significantly to the wider understanding of what works in regeneration schemes. NCR was less a new initiative than a new approach to regeneration. It brought no new money but was intended to encourage a strategic approach and to foster longer-term thinking. In particular the NCR was designed with the following features:

    —  Focus upon a wider area—city conurbation or county—than previous area-based regeneration initiatives, involving whole local authorities or multiple local authorities.

    —  Encompassing mainstream budgets and programmes as well as special regeneration funding and activities.

    —  Involving national government as a partner.

    —  Seeking to encourage greater creativity and innovation.

  Perhaps most importantly, the NCR pioneered the role of Local Strategic Partnerships which have now been taken up by Government as a key feature of successful neighbourhood renewal and community planning.


  There is no doubt that meaningful community involvement holds the key to successful regeneration efforts. But engaging with dispossessed and alienated communities can be difficult and maintaining a real sense of involvement is more difficult still. There are problems overcoming cynicism, there can be language and skills barriers, there are difficulties encouraging people to find or make time and there are real challenges involved with ensuring that the voice of a whole community is heard, not just the motivated few. Local authorities have worked hard to develop creative solutions to overcome these barriers.

  Involvement and engagement need to happen in different ways at different levels. Taking the strategic level as a starting point, the advent of Local Strategic Partnerships have now become a mainstay of regeneration initiatives. Local authorities need to be in a position to offer good quality political leadership through broad partnerships which include health authorities, the police, the Benefits Agency and others as well as the private and community sector and education institutions. Good partnerships require trust and an understanding of the perspectives, fears and aspirations of others and they take time to develop.

  Strategic level partnerships are not, however, sufficient to meet the needs or understand the ambitions of neighbourhoods. At this level there are different challenges in ensuring that all sections of communities are able to engage effectively. Many local authorities make use of skilled community development staff in helping marginalized communities to help themselves. Effective deployment of Community Development Workers has been found to be a critical factor in ensuring a good quality of community in-put to regeneration projects and maintaining a two-way dialogue. However, there are issues of recruitment and retention amongst this group of staff, and of the development of good shared professional practice, which the committee might like to consider further.

  Likewise, the organised voluntary community sector should be seen as a vital partner in developing communication strategies. Many local authorities already fund much of this sector and have established relationships. Ensuring good two-way communication is not always easy, and issues of trust and understanding can arise which sometimes take time to resolve.

  The methods used to involve the local community can be critical in determining success. The model of residents' meetings, area forums or other mechanisms for bringing people together has much to recommend it, creating the scope for dialogue and discussion. Using small-group formats and imaginative ways of securing feedback can help to prevent such gatherings from simply being dominated by the confident, the articulate and the professional meeting-goer. However, it is still the case that meetings are unlikely to attract many of the hardest to reach and those in poor areas are entitled to ask why they are attending meetings when their middle class neighbours are enjoying their leisure time. Other means of community engagement, from opinion polling to citizens panels can therefore be effective in supplementing the meetings format.

  Under-pinning all of these approaches to involvement and communication is the place of locally elected representatives. Councillors can act as the key bridge between the regeneration "professionals" and the community as a whole. They start with a base of local knowledge which is generally unparalleled. Their range of contacts, understanding of the issues facing a community and position as local leaders can be critical in determining the way in which projects are seen through. Local councillors are also the only players in the process who are accountable, through the ballot box, to the community as a whole.


  The criticism that the professionals "pack their bags" when the funding comes to an end, or that disproportionate funding flows out of the area into the hands of consultants, architects and other associated beneficiaries, is all too familiar to local councils who have been working to lift communities over the long term. Much of the thinking behind the New Commitment to Regeneration arose in an effort to ensure that project-based work brought the real, long-term benefits which can transform communities.

  In the first instance it is necessary to draw distinctions between the under-lying issues and the different contexts in which regeneration projects are operating. These can vary from the economic re-structuring necessary in the context of the loss of a significant industry, such as the former coalfields areas, to the areas of widespread and persistent low housing demand, such as in areas of the North East or North West, to a focus on physical up-grading in areas of decay. Sustaining improvements and ensuring that they flow into the communities which need them, represent a significant challenge for local authorities and for all those concerned with regeneration.

  It is clear that regeneration is not an activity which can be delivered by one agency alone. The role of partnerships is therefore vital, a fact which is being recognised in the Government's approach to Neighbourhood Renewal Funding. It is important to remember, however, that there is a capacity issue around sustaining LSPs and that this generally falls upon local councils. There is also a need to ensure that LSPs themselves do not develop their own democratic deficit. The LSP should be used to enhance involvement, not become a substitute for wider engagement.

  Successful long term regeneration requires a level of economic activity which can support communities. Without jobs all other regeneration measures are unlikely to succeed. The long process of industrial decline and skills mismatch are creating chronic problems in many areas. The role of local authorities in attracting and supporting inward investment is often insufficiently recognised. They adopt a range of measures, including the direct provision of industrial and commercial premises, the offer of grants and other business support services and through supporting "grassroots" economic enterprises with activities ranging from schemes for credit unions to local exchange and trading schemes.

  On the other side of the equation, many councils are involved with a range of "supply side" measures to help people in to work. There are many barriers to work, even in areas of considerable labour shortages. These can include lack of childcare, access to transport links, lack of skills and confidence and discrimination on ethnic or other grounds. Local authorities can help with some of these issues both in their role as mainstream service providers and through specialist schemes aimed at targeted groups. In order to be effective councils need to operate in the context of strong links with the range of other agencies, again reinforcing the importance of partnership at the strategic level.

  Councils themselves are also large scale employers and contractors of labour. They employ a considerable proportion of very local labour, and of the skilled and semi-skilled labour which can be particularly significant in areas of economic decline. The impact of council and other public sector employment as a driving force in local economies remains relatively under-examined, but many authorities would like to be able to make greater use of flexibilities around the use of local labour.

  Regeneration often involves complex issues of land assembly and development. The LGA's recent inquiry into the development of Brownfield land provided the opportunity to share experiences and draw a number of conclusions on how to improve this complicated process. One of the key findings to emerge from the inquiry was the way in which fiscal policies still tend to discourage Brownfield land development and there is a need to address these, as well as the planning issues, in order to encourage further substantial Brownfield land development. The inquiry also highlighted the need to situate the approach to Brownfield land issues within overall local authority community strategies. Bringing together the physical and community planning processes are the key to this. In addition, a number of underlying funding issues emerged, including the idea of establishing a new Land Reclamation Grant Programme to replace the former Derelict Land Grant.

  The other major factor affecting quality of life in poor neighbourhoods is the condition of the housing stock. Earlier regeneration initiatives took place against a backdrop of large-scale public housing, with councils as the predominant "social landlords". The last 20 years have seen big changes in the pattern of housing tenure. There has been a steady growth in home ownership and a significant increase in the number of Registered Social Landlords now providing affordable rented accommodation. Set alongside these developments have been the twin issues of housing abandonment in many parts of the North of England and the severe squeeze on affordable housing in areas of London and the South East.

  These complex dynamics need to inform local regeneration strategies. The lack of investment in public housing means that up-grading of the physical infrastructure of estates is often long over-due. Finding the resources to fix roofs, replace window frames, up-grade lifts and install estate security measures can make a huge difference in some areas. However, it is also clear that estates renewal alone is not enough. Regeneration strategies need to embrace more than just physical repair to tackle the underlying factors contributing to decline and despair.


  Despite the criticisms, initiatives such as City Challenge and many SRB projects could and did yield real community benefits when they were able to be followed through in the right context and could resonate with wider economic developments. What emerged from those experiences were the following key ingredients to inform more successful approaches to regeneration:

    —  Partnerships which are anchored by the local authorities able to demonstrate high quality political leadership.

    —  Investment at levels sufficient to make a real difference to the physical infrastructure and to support sustained economic development.

    —  Well developed community engagement and empowerment strategies.

    —  Strategies which link with wider economic and infrastructure developments.

    —  The need to ensure that different local initiatives and individual funding streams "join-up" effectively at the local level.

    —  Ensuring that mainstream funding is properly focused to meet local needs to help lift deprived areas over time.


  The LGA's long involvement with regeneration issues has led us to conclude that the most important lesson has been that there are no quick fixes to sustainable regeneration, it's a long term process:

    —  We strongly believe that what is needed is better targeting of mainstream funding towards areas of need rather than relying on Area Based Initiatives. While small scale area based approaches such as New Deal for Communities can bring benefits, they should be seen as complementary to adequate mainstream resources.

    —  Local Strategic Partnerships have emerged as an important framework for the regeneration process. There is a need to ensure that all the partners are fully involved and working towards a shared commitment to the "vision" for their area. The LGA has been working with local authorities helping them to develop their leadership role around LSPs and we are committed to continuing that work.

    —  The involvement of the community is critical. It is quite apparent that schemes or initiatives which are not "owned" or supported by the community are not sustainable over time.

    —  The Government needs to look closely at how it can do more to support local authorities in bringing Brownfield sites back into use. It is clear that local authorities have a key role to play but they need to be able to access appropriate funding streams, they need resources for planning and a supportive statutory framework and they need partner organisations to work with them collaboratively.

    —  Finally, successive Government's have come to understand that working with local authorities is the critical factor in bringing areas of decline back to life. The business-led model of the early 1980s simply failed to deliver. Local authorities provide the key ingredients of leadership, vision and commitment which are the requirements of long-term success. The Government should be working to support councils in driving forward those improvements and helping them to turn their urban visions into reality.

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