Opinion: Time for the regeneration sector to get back to what it was made to do

That is to improve the economic outcomes for under-served communities in the former industrial heartlands, writes Tim Williams.

About a year ago I wrote in this column a critique of the urban regeneration sector in the UK, of which I had been a part for many years before leaving for Oz at the end of 2010. I felt that for reasons both good and bad, based both on objective market conditions but also subjective policy choices, the sector had turned away from the original mission. That mission was the transformation of previously industrial areas and the creation of new economic opportunities for their communities.

I also suggested that in part this reflected a wider cultural and political rejection of the claims on us of such communities and the post-industrial working class. I saw the contempt felt by many of my colleagues and, indeed, the whole meritocratic knowledge worker class of which we are part towards Brexit voters as both an example of this ‘turning away’ and a further impetus to it.

I also wrote a piece advancing the notion that the Tories had, via Michael Heseltine, virtually invented urban regeneration while recognising the importance of John Prescott – wrongly patronised by others but not by our sector – in taking this tradition forward. Further, I wrote a defence of Boris Johnson as, in London, a one nation Tory with whom the boroughs had worked closely on such matters as the Olympic legacy work.

I recall now, by the way, that the whole ‘convergence agenda’, which the host boroughs came up with and which Boris and his agencies backed, was about reducing the gap over a 20 year period between the outcomes in key socio-economic policy areas between under-served and under-privileged communities in east London and the London average. I was involved in developing this approach with my work colleagues – former Greater London Authority planning advisor Eleanor Young and another Navigant co-worker, Anthony Brand - in collaboration with the talented CEO of the Host Boroughs Unit, Roger Taylor. ‘Convergence’ sounds very much what the Boris team are looking to achieve in relation to the gap between London and the post-industrial heartlands – or what they should be looking for.

Improving outcomes

We have seen the election of someone whose victory relied, irony of irony, on the left behind communities that the left seemed no longer interested in or passionate about. That judgement was made by those communities themselves, though is one I share as a former Labour government advisor angry about the dereliction of duty of the intersectionalist metropolitan sectarians now in charge of the left, who seem obsessed with any and all identities except the working class who formed the party. It now looks to me that Boris et al need the UK urban regeneration sector to get its boots back on and to get back into the work it was invented to do. That is to improve the economic outcomes for under-served communities in the former industrial heartlands.   

Beyond politics it is now the time for all good men and women – and anyone who falls anywhere along the spectrum - to come to the aid of the nation. And yes, as a Welsh-speaking Welshman I mean the UK. I add, the Tories ended the election in Wales only 3 per cent behind Labour in the popular vote though residual loyalties prevented Brexit supporting constituencies shifting party allegiance, as was seen in England. Despite the distaste felt by the Welsh elites towards Boris their communities voted for Brexit 55-45 per cent and, notwithstanding Wales has its own devolved parliament, Wales comes under Westminster rule for much that matters. Close collaboration between Wales and Westminster on the urban regeneration and the convergence agenda will be vital.

Despite the challenges of the moment and despite living thousands of miles away I am excited as an urban regeneration practitioner about meeting the challenges ahead – and of making the new government put its money where its mouth was. Our opportunity is to help them come up with the right strategies and interventions – and innovative ways of funding the future of a ‘national convergence’ programme.

As someone who spent more or less 13 years working on the renewal of east London – though part of it on initiatives under David Miliband and Yvette Cooper, which became the city regions programme subsequently – I hardly want to damage London to rebalance the regions. London will need imaginative policies too and closer collaboration between its mayor and the national government.

But I think what I am hearing from the Boris team about changing Treasury rules around infrastructure appraisal to enable projects that reduce the gap to be approved is right, as is also the attack they have launched on the European Union’s crazy state aid rules, preventing investment being targeted at areas of market failure. I well remember being prevented from doing such projects in east London and the associated madness of the need to advertise all public projects over 140,000 euros in value in OJEU – the dreaded Official Journal of the European Union. Let me let you into a little known fact. So law-abiding was the UK and so committed to the single market that usually such UK adverts formed more than 30 per cent of all OJEU notices for public contracts. Remembering we were one of 27 countries in the EU this tells you all you need to know about the actual protectionism of other member states and the weird and self destructive compliance of the British state. RIP OJEU.

Finally, amidst the positivity in this column a small but perfectly formed tragic coda. It concerns the loss of Caroline Flint from this parliament, an excellent and brave former housing minister for whom I was lucky to work. A woman of great integrity and commitment to her community – a person of high instinctive intelligence and great humour – was collateral damage from the actions and words of her colleagues in their abusive and contemptuous disregard of the referendum vote of the very communities they were elected to represent. I hope to see Dame Flint of Doncaster on the cross-benches as soon as possible. She is too useful at this moment to be absent from the battles for community renewal ahead.

Tim Williams is a former special advisor to the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown governments on urban regeneration.

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