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Regeneration games
Local Government Chronicle – 3 November 2005

Moves to spruce up and revive cities gained momentum in the '80s - but their origins date from the start of the 20th century. Mark Smulian looks back

'Regenerate' has many dictionary definitions, and those to do with human tissue growth and magnified electrical output have little bearing on local government.

Others, such as "to develop or give new life or energy" describe the three-headed creature that is local regeneration: physical regeneration, of derelict sites; economic regeneration, of employment opportunities; and community regeneration, where residents have suffered multiple deprivation.

The three interact. Indeed, regeneration interacts in some way with almost all council services, and that is among the problems in defining this emerging profession. One does not qualify as a 'regenerator'. Council officers from a huge range of backgrounds work in it, and others become involved at times.

Regeneration as understood today is largely the offspring of the recession of the early 1980s and of the 1970s oil price shock, which wrought havoc on Britain's industrial areas. Towns that depended on mining and heavy manufacturing went into a sudden decline. Service industries burgeoned, but the main beneficiaries were southern towns.

Thus regeneration developed, even under Margaret Thatcher, as a way to counteract the market by breathing new life into places whose economy had taken a battering.

However, regeneration did not spring from nowhere 30 years ago. The social reformer Ebenezer Howard proposed in 1898 that the best of town and country life should be combined in garden cities, in which planned land use would enhance the quality of life.

At the same time reformers were urging the clearance of slums, echoed today in regeneration projects that include demolition of poorly built and maintained estates.

Howard's first garden city was built in 1903 at Letchworth, followed by Welwyn. His pilots were successful but not widely adopted, though his objectives proved similar to those taken up in the present government's sustainable communities plan.

A combination of bomb damage and slum clearance after 1945 saw the second wave of purpose-designed environments, the new towns. The idea was to attract city residents to clean, shining satellite towns and then to regenerate the places they had left behind.

Eighteen were designated until the programme ended in the early 1970s. As the economic problems of that decade took hold, councils began to try to attract new jobs and to combat unemployment.

The former Tyne & Wear CC, for example, promoted an act of parliament in 1979 that allowed it to levy a 2p rate for economic well-being - a power councils generally did not receive for more than 20 years.

Regeneration really hit its stride in 1981 when, by coincidence, the London Docklands Development Corporation was set up and inner-city riots directed the government's attention to urban decline.

Environment secretary Michael Heseltine set up the corporation to tackle the 2,400 hectares of wasteland left behind as the ports industry moved down the Thames.

He claimed councils had obstructed redevelopment and the job was beyond their capabilities. In keeping with the spirit of the times, the corporation was business-led and enterprise zones offered tax breaks to those willing to invest.

Docklands was followed by a Merseyside Development Corporation and the model was eventually extended to 12 more areas. The concept has since reappeared in the government's sustainable communities plan.

When Mr Heseltine returned as environment secretary in 1990 local government was part of regeneration, though rarely in the lead. He launched City Challenge, which required councils to compete for funds, awarded to the best regeneration projects.

Labour, with a political stake in urban areas, sought after 1997 to involve councils more closely in regeneration. Its innovations included the regional development agencies, which lead economic development and community regeneration work among socially excluded groups.

The billions of pounds invested in regeneration in the past 25 years have led to a growth in the numbers employed in the field.

Alan Clarke, former chief executive of Northumberland CC, is now chief executive of the One North East Regional Development Agency. He says: "Regeneration was always there but it did not have that title. It started from the planning and built environment professions in physical regeneration and then spread."

The old professional silos in which an earlier generation of officers spent their careers have gone, he says. "There are very talented people coming in from all sorts of backgrounds. Indeed, I can't get enough people with the key skills and competencies."

He explains: "We need various professional skills, but the main skill is the ability to manage complex partnerships and that is an issue even at quite junior levels because there is very little you can do in this just from your own resources."

According to Paul Evans, strategic director of regeneration at Southwark LBC, a distinct profession is emerging with a tendency for people "to describe themselves as working in regeneration and then to name their profession, rather than the other way round".

He says: "I would prefer to move away from the word 'regeneration', which implies that things have been fixed, to describe ourselves as working in the management of city and place. We manage change to make places better and - especially for big cities -the solutions are complex."

Daniel Dobson-Mouawad, director of economic development at Manchester Enterprise, the agency that promotes growth in Greater Manchester, says: "The profession has not got any statutory standing. Regeneration is a discretionary service, but it will be part of what councils do in the future."

Who will do it? Regeneration has been notorious for its plethora of overlapping quangos and agencies, but Mr Dobson-Mouawad thinks the specialist focus they can give will lead to even more new bodies.

Even the British Urban Regeneration Association concedes "there is not a strong professional identity", in the field. Research and policy director Simon Burwood says: "I'm not sure if regeneration is a profession, or a sector in which many professions work."

One obvious problem for regeneration is that it keeps happening in the same places.The Thames Gateway extends from the old LDDC area, and programmes in the north and midlands build, sometimes literally, on the urban development corporations' work.

Turning round an area's fortunes can seem a never-ending task. "You never quite know what things would have been like without all the work that was done in regeneration," Mr Clarke says.

Physical regeneration has numerous success stories, he says. But: "We have been less successful in the skills area, in education standards and in changing the lack of opportunities and confidence in economically deprived areas across the country.

Endless plans to regenerate the same places arouse Mr Burwood's suspicions.

"The Thames Gateway is a key growth area but they have been talking about it for donkey's years and it has not happened yet," he says. "There is progress but whether everything is in place for a massive initiative like that is questionable."

He does, though, think lessons have been learned from past attempts to impose uniform solutions on local conditions.

Mr Evans agrees. He says: "We have seen policy mature so it is recognised that no one action is right for every area, and so things are more subtle now."

Mr Clarke is leading the Northern Way, the vehicle for regenerating the north by harnessing the economic power of the travel-to-work regions of its leading cities. "Those must cross local authority boundaries, and the real challenge is how do you get leadership and legitimacy and how can different areas settle on agreed priorities?" he says.

How to make cities work is the greatest challenge, argues Mr Dobson-Mouawad. "There is a new economic landscape which is not based on the administrative regions," he says. "Our natural economies are the city regions, they are the magnetic pull that drives economic growth. The pressure will be how to integrate the policy with delivery. Cities are the future."

Regeneration is one of those professions that will only succeed when it has put itself out of business. Its test will be whether the old industrial areas and major cities are thriving or still in need of regeneration a few decades from now.