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


Memorandum by Dr Mike Rowe (GRI 14)

SUMMARY

  This memorandum suggests that, while the current government's agendas for regeneration and neighbourhood renewal present a coherent argument for change, there is little understanding of the processes involved in delivering these agendas. Its philosophy, values and evidence are persuasive. To foster these in practice needs a more robust framework than hope and aspirations. It needs a coherent view of what good practice might look like. At the heart of the failure to understand delivery is the word partnership. It is all too easy to bring different people round a table, but that is not enough to make them work together in the interests of the wider community. Nor is it enough to rely upon a handful of people to speak on behalf of the diversity of views to be found in our most deprived communities. If the government is to make the changes they aspire to, understanding the mechanisms through which to overcome the complexities of local politics, of a history of mistrust, of exclusion, of self-interest and of all these elements combined is key to achieving those changes. Underestimating these problems and assuming that pots of money, granted with few strings to local "partnerships", will transform deprived communities is naïve. Past experience suggests this. Current evidence affirms this.

  There is also evidence that suggests that the current policy statements could be made to work. Yet there is no sign of a deliberate attempt either to learn from the past or from present experience. This memorandum summarises some of the learning from one successful participatory regeneration programme, that anticipated the current agendas, in order to move discussion on from policy frameworks to processes.

INTRODUCTION

  1.  The evidence presented in this memorandum arises from two funded research programmes and from participation as a voluntary director of an EU funded regeneration partnership over a two-year period. This organisation, The Partnership Council in Nottingham, was perhaps the most successful EU URBAN programme in the UK, engaging residents throughout the process while also committing 97 per cent of the funds available[10]. The lessons learned from this programme underpin the material presented in this memorandum. In responding to the Committee's call for evidence, I shall address each of the key questions in turn.

THE CONTRIBUTION OF AREA-BASED INITIATIVES TO BROADER REGENERATION INITIATIVES AND REGIONAL STRATEGIES

  2.  While it is possible to make links between the plethora of recent government policies, there is no coherent description of these links. Indeed, for many practitioners, there appears to be no integration between action zones, Sure Start and New Deal for Communities initiatives. Nor are links made to other policies, notably the Local Government Modernisation Agenda. As a consequence, it appears that implementation takes place in almost total isolation. Thus Community Strategies have not been linked to regeneration programmes or to Best Value, for example[11].

  3.  In large part as a consequence of this, new initiatives form a new set of local silos. These often overlap but rarely share common boundaries. They compete for the time and resources of those participating in partnerships and consult and engage resident communities separately. Integrating programmes, sharing resources and engaging communities in a coherent, joined-up manner would both ensure that programmes were co-ordinated and address a common holistic agenda.

  4.  There is potential in the new local government and regeneration agendas to combine to transform services locally. Without a coherent concept of how they might link together, however, this potential is not merely lost. Rather, the different initiatives compete and conflict with each other. Engaging with the plethora of initiatives and partnerships detracts from basic service provision in areas where these are already failing local communities.

THE CHARACTERISTICS OF SUCCESSFUL REGENERATION SCHEMES

  5.  Concepts of success are too readily reduced to spend. New Deal for Communities commits substantial resources to small areas for a ten-year period, yet politicians and public servants at a national and local level place pressure on partnerships to deliver quick changes. Evidence suggests, however, that partnerships need time to build trust, to work effectively together and to develop a coherent strategy that will deliver the kind of sustainable change that the National Strategy for Neighbourhood Renewal talks about. This strategy envisages: empowered communities influencing the funding agendas; the development of local social capital; and innovative local solutions to long-standing problems. Yet swift results and evidence of spending substantial amounts requires capital investment, the purchase of buildings, installation of CCTV and other oft-tried and rarely effective regeneration stand-bys. The process of spending funds is as important as the spending itself. It is the process of shaping the community in which one lives that builds social capital and empowers communities.

  6.  Time is also necessary to bring clarity to the nature of the partnership body overseeing the programme. We cannot expect a diverse range of people, with different backgrounds and experience, to be innovative and accountable simply because they have been named a partnership. For many inner city communities, there are long histories of distrust and suspicion founded upon poor relationships between public, voluntary and business sectors and resident communities. This tension and diversity need to be addressed and resolved for partnerships to work effectively in the interests of all in the community[12].

  7.  Nor can a board simply hope to represent the range of diverse minority ethnic communities and interests in the area of benefit. Instead, their agenda must be founded upon a robust programme of consultation and action planning that allows all residents to shape the agenda of the regeneration initiative. Once a clear agenda is established, a board can bring key partners together to ensure that it is delivered. Too often, boards are operating without a clear agenda and are, therefore, free to create their own—frequently one that will serve the interests of the individuals on that board and not those of the wider community[13].

  8.  At the same time, partnerships need good advice and guidance to deliver on the new agendas. However, the balance between empowering communities to make their own decisions and directing them to take "correct" decisions has not been thought through. As a consequence, "empowerment" often entails watching partnerships make ill-informed decisions and then "rescuing" them by imposing more direct control.

INVOLVEMENT OF LOCAL COMMUNITIES

  9.  There is substantial evidence that residents bring new knowledge to regeneration[14]. In practice, however, they represent the hardest groups to engage in the processes. Policies exhort regeneration programmes to involve residents but give no guidance about achieving this in practice given that evidence suggests that they will be hostile. How can mistrust be overcome? How can they be genuinely engaged as partners alongside public, voluntary and private agencies? Nor does the research evidence available point to many examples of successfully addressing these problems. Where there are examples, these are rarely understood by policy makers or by civil servants and, as a consequence, are all too easily overlooked.

  10.  In practice, local authority councillors, as representatives of the community, are a further group that need to be engaged with the processes of regeneration. Understanding themselves to be the sole avenue for the expression of local opinion, many councillors see efforts to engage the wider population as undermining their role. Thus, not just regeneration schemes but also initiatives such as Best Value and Community Strategies are undermined by the narrow agendas of councillors. Positive guidance needs to address how partnerships deal with these tensions. Links should be made between wider participation and the role of councillors, enhancing the representative role by informing it in a more meaningful manner than local elections.

  11.  Perhaps, given this context, it is understandable that, rather than seek to engage people from across communities, programmes take the easy options. Typically, they engage community organisations, organisations that are more about providing services than they are about representing the diversity of views within a community. More recently, programmes have turned to resident elections, ensuring that residents are on the board but that they are unaccountable to the communities they purport to represent[15]. Unless there are robust mechanisms for evaluating the engagement of local residents, symbolic practice will dominate genuine efforts to overcome the barriers to engaging with residents.

DEMOCRATIC ACCOUNTABILITY

  12.  The concern for democratic accountability lies at the heart of participatory structures. However, in a participatory context, accountability cannot be simply understood as a matter of representation. Rather, it must take on a participatory democratic understanding of accountability. Engaging as many people as possible in the process of setting agendas, of designing projects and of monitoring those same projects provides a more meaningful model of accountability. It ensures that projects meet genuine needs before they are implemented and are flexible to respond to problems or changes during the course of the project. Such an approach also brings participants on board as advocates for projects, a factor key to reaching those who would not normally engage with public services[16].

  13.  Local, regional and central agencies often express concerns about the loose financial frameworks within which regeneration initiatives work. However, engaging local communities in the development of projects can actually bring a more rigorous form of accountability than more traditional forms of control and audit. They bring a sense of ex ante and in process accountability not normally to be found in the public sector. At the same time, experience suggests that local communities are better placed to spot the waste and misuse of public funds, and are less tolerant of such phenomena. Getting structures of participation right and engaging a wide range of people can bring a more robust sense of accountability[17].

WHETHER AND WHERE AREA-BASED INITIATIVES HAVE BROUGHT ABOUT SUSTAINED IMPROVEMENTS TO DEPRIVED COMMUNITIES

  14.  There is little evidence of sustained changes in deprived communities. This is not surprising, given that the latest initiatives are still relatively new. However, there are two key elements to sustained change. The first is to influence the way in which mainstream public services are provided within deprived communities. In all cases, regeneration funds will be dwarfed by the sheer amount of public money spent year-on-year in those same communities. To make a long-term difference, small amounts of regeneration money need to influence the core services.

  15.  The second element of sustained change is within the community of benefit. Investment in social capital needs to be for the long-term. Too often, the networks and capacity developed within communities are lost as soon as the funding runs out. The next regeneration body to come along finds nothing left. If engaging residents and building that capacity takes time, it is very quickly lost.

WHAT ARRANGEMENTS NEED TO BE PUT IN PLACE AT THE END OF A REGENERATION INITIATIVE TO ENSURE THAT BENEFITS TO LOCAL RESIDENTS CONTINUE?

  16.  Following on from the points made above, some investment in community networks and capacity needs to continue beyond the life of a programme. Simply winding up partnerships is both short-sighted, in terms of sustaining change in the area of benefit, and misses the opportunity to engage communities in other government modernisation agendas, such as Best Value, Community Strategies or Local Strategic Partnerships. Funding for the continuance of partnerships might come from local government or through central funding streams attached to regeneration programmes.

WHETHER POLICY HAS TAKEN ACCOUNT OF LONG-TERM IMPACTS AS WELL AS THE OUTPUTS CREATED

  17.  Most monitoring and evaluation is narrowly focused upon short-term spending and evidence of improvement. In large part, this reflects political imperatives but also what is administratively easy. Outputs are much easier to count, to measure and to compare. Outcomes are more problematic, particularly when it comes to understanding the development of local social capital. Nor is there an apparent understanding that what counts is often quality as much as quantity[18].

WHETHER INITIATIVES HAVE HAD AN EFFECT ON THE MAJOR GOVERNMENT AND LOCAL GOVERNMENT PROGRAMMES

  18.  As noted above, sustaining change in deprived communities requires change in mainstream services. There are examples of programmes and projects demonstrating new ways of working that have influenced the delivery of services[19]. Key to effecting change in mainstream services is the articulation of a clear and evidenced perspective drawn from the community, those best placed to comment on the problems and failings of current service provision and to identify changes, often simple, that could significantly improve those services. Yet there is little evidence of policies learning from these examples of good practice nor of this approach being taken in other programmes. Rather, regeneration schemes fund alternative or additional provision, which may be better than the mainstream services but simply disappears once the money has run out.

WHETHER LESSONS HAVE BEEN LEARNED FROM PREVIOUS INITIATIVES, LIKE CITY CHALLENGE, AND APPLIED TO NEW REGENERATION INITIATIVES, SUCH AS THE NEW DEAL FOR COMMUNITIES AND LOCAL STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS

  19.  Numerous evaluations have been undertaken of many regeneration programmes and much of the material points to failings. Yet regeneration schemes seem destined to repeat mistakes and to learn lessons anew. There is no evidence with which I am familiar that any lessons have been learned from the evaluations of past regenerations schemes[20].

HOW THE GOVERNMENT SHOULD DECIDE WHEN TO INTRODUCE AN AREA-BASED INITIATIVE, AND WHETHER THERE ARE SUCCESSFUL ALTERNATIVES

  20.  Rather than focus upon area based initiatives, the wider agenda of Local Strategic Partnerships and Community Strategies offers a more coherent approach to neighbourhood renewal. Together with investment in community networks and social capital, particularly in the most deprived neighbourhoods, these might enable excluded voices to contribute to the development and shaping of all mainstream services. Where there is additional funding, informed decisions about investment in change could be taken within this framework. Within this wider decision-making framework, investment might take the form of area-based initiatives, but these could be shaped and influenced by inclusive local agendas.

CONCLUSION

  21.  While much of the current government's agenda presents a coherent picture of the need for change, there is little understanding of the problems of implementation at a local level. Partnership working, engaging residents, overcoming mistrust, challenging mainstream providers and building long-term capacity are tasks that have rarely been managed in practice. What lessons have been learned in the past have been too readily forgotten in the present. Nor does there appear to be a willingness to look at current practice, to admit failure and to learn from it. Indeed, there appears to be no clear understanding of what success would look like. Without such learning and understanding, the new agendas are almost certainly doomed to repeat the failings of previous regeneration schemes.

Dr Mike Rowe
Nottingham Business School

Nottingham Trent University


10   Ekos (1999), URBAN Interim Evaluation Report, London: DETR Back

11   Lovell, A and Rowe, M (2002), "The Missing C's: connecting and contextualising Best Value". Paper presented to EIASM, Dublin, September Back

12   Rowe, M and Devanney, C (2002), "The Challenges of Partnership Working: a case study of a participatory regeneration project". Paper presented to IRSPM VI, Edinburgh, April. Back

13   Rowe, M (2002), "Partnership Working? A tale of two programmes". Paper submitted to the Journal of Contemporary Issues in Business and GovernmentBack

14   Rowe, M and Devanney, C (forthcoming), Nottingham's URBAN Programme. A qualitative evaluation of projects, Nottingham: Nottingham Business School. Back

15   Rowe, M (2002), "Partnership Working? A tale of two programmes". Paper submitted to the Journal of Contemporary Issues in Business and Government. Back

16   Rowe, M and Devanney, C (forthcoming), Nottingham's URBAN Programme. A qualitative evaluation of projects, Nottingham: Nottingham Business School. Back

17   IbidBack

18   Ibid. Back

19   Ibid. Back

20   Rowe, M (2002), "Partnership Working? A tale of two programmes". Paper submitted to the Journal of Contemporary Issues in Business and Government. Back


 
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