Whats the deal?, by Will Hatchett

20 Jul 06
It seems that time is running out for the big regeneration programmes. But, despite government rhetoric about 'mainstreaming', practitioners fear that their resources might not transfer into the community.

21 July 2006

It seems that time is running out for the big regeneration programmes. But, despite government rhetoric about 'mainstreaming', practitioners fear that their resources might not transfer into the community. Will Hatchett reports

A huge change is afoot in the funding and scope of regeneration programmes. Large-scale, time-limited programmes such as the New Deal for Communities, Neighbourhood Renewal and Market Renewal Pathfinders are preparing, in theory, to make way for more locally run community projects.

It's called 'mainstreaming' – moving money from short-term initiatives back into core budgets and services. And the challenge that regeneration professionals and the government are now discussing is how to hang on to the benefits of the closing programmes, including their assets and knowledge – a wider definition of mainstreaming.

Coincidentally, but significantly, a plethora of other funding streams are running out. Because of European Union enlargement, Merseyside, South Yorkshire, Brighton & Hove and parts of Scotland are set to lose their assisted status, and pots of money.

Last year, government departments and the regional development agencies convened a 'cliff edge' group to talk about the implications. It came to no conclusions, a well-informed source told Public Finance. But the chancellor requested a follow-up – a community sector task force, involving major players from the voluntary sector, to come up with recommendations for the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review. It reported to the government this summer.

Matthew Pike, former director of the Scarman Trust and author of the task force's report, suggests that the spending review is likely to promote the large-scale transfer of empty and underused buildings from the public sector into the community, as well as the idea, floated this month, of a 'social investment bank', using money from dormant bank accounts to fund community projects.

Pike suggests that the ending of area-based programmes and EU money provides an opportunity for a huge new 'public economy' worth potentially £5bn, with voluntary and community providers taking over health and regeneration contracts on a significant scale.

The prospect is not as improbable as it might seem. The rising political stars of the moment – Communities and Local Government Secretary Ruth Kelly, Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Secretary David Miliband, his brother, Cabinet Office parliamentary secretary Ed Miliband, and Economic Secretary Ed Balls – all extol the virtues of neighbourhood management, and see the third sector as a legitimate service provider. These elements are already emerging as the themes of a potential future Gordon Brown administration.

Down in East Brighton, where a New Deal for Communities partnership called eb4U is based, the question of 'mainstreaming' services when the big programmes run out is more than academic. The New Deal's staff, including neighbourhood manager Paul Allen and programme manager Colin Brown, are determined that when the project finishes in 2010, its carefully acquired knowledge and skills will not end with it and its benefits will continue.

This part of Brighton received a lightning visit from Prime Minister Tony Blair during the 1997 Labour Party conference. Back then, levels of ill health, academic under-achievement, teenage pregnancy, crime and physical blight were high – it was an ideal candidate for one of the first wave of New Deal partnerships in 2000.

Most of the 17,000 population here live on two large council estates – Whitehawk and Moulsecoomb – which sprawl on to the South Downs, on either side of Brighton racecourse. Moulsecoomb contains inter-war council housing, utilitarian but with large gardens; Whitehawk has a mixture of styles including 1950s stock, 1970s maisonettes and a sprinkling of tower blocks. The housing is in reasonably good condition but, traditionally, this has masked the severe and multiple problems of residents.

However, that has changed. Eb4U, Allen explains, has now shrunk down to six core staff based in an old primary school. It is deciding how to allocate the last £12m of its ten-year £47m budget. The project's performance indicators – it uses the same ones as Brighton and Hove Council's Local Area Agreements – show a dramatic improvement, says Allen. 'Satisfaction with our area has gone up massively, by 20–30%. People used to scrawl “not on Whitehawk or Moulsecoomb” on their application forms for council housing. But those days are gone – people actually want to live here now.'

Driving around the estates, you can see spruced-up community and adult education centres, a gleaming business centre, a state-of-the-art housing scheme and a new £1m children's centre with a wind turbine. There are no boarded-up houses, no walls covered with graffiti, no burnt-out cars. Total recorded crime, says Allen, is now 25% less than in the city centre. But the teenage pregnancy rate remains stubbornly high.

How can eb4U ensure that its successes continue when its staff move on? Allen says: 'For the past two years, we have been carefully passing on information and transferring knowledge, project by project. A lot of mainstreaming is actually about knowledge transfer.'

Some eb4U posts and their salaries have already been absorbed by partner agencies – for example, enhanced cover from the police and an estate-based smoking cessation worker, funded by the primary care trust. Two extremely successful, locally based adult learning facilities, Whitehawk Inn and the Bridge, have been nurtured by eb4U and will undoubtedly continue beyond 2010.

There will also be a more tangible form of survival. After 2010, Brown explains, some of its assets, like the Westergate Business Centre, will pass to a community development trust. This will collect rents and administer grants to small-scale projects. Other New Deal for Communities projects, such as one in Shoreditch, east London, are also setting up trusts, to transfer their assets to the community.

Others, such as Clapham Park, are set to become substantial landlords. The Clapham Park Estate in south London was built from the 1930s onwards and houses 7,000 people. In 2001, the area gained a £56m allocation from the New Deal for Communities. With fears about crime paramount, early themes included better lighting and CCTV, neighbourhood wardens and personal alarms for the most vulnerable, as well as homework clubs and a community library.

This June, residents of the estate voted to transfer to a new landlord, Clapham Park Homes, which will give them access to total investment of £450m. Developments will include demolition, refurbishment and new homes for sale. There will be a park, community facilities and possibly a primary school.

Allen advocates a more zen-like form of mainstreaming. He hopes that eb4U's philosophy of working, which is resident-led and community managed, will influence how the local authority delivers its services.

The council seems supportive. Alex Bailey, director of strategy and governance, says that the 200-odd projects of the New Deal have 'positively impacted on health, education, community safety and employment. We are supporting eb4U, to make sure the programme has sustainable benefits for East Brighton and the rest of the city.'

Of course, he would say that, wouldn't he? But history tells us that local authorities, at their worst, have not been very good at listening to their communities and responding to their needs. Their attempts to introduce neighbourhood management have often been tokenistic or unsuccessful.

There is a consensus in the regeneration community that the New Deal for Communities has made a significant impact on some of the most deprived areas of England, at a relatively affordable cost. An official evaluation of the first phase, carried out by a team led by Professor Paul Lawless of Sheffield Hallam University, says that the partnerships spent about £827m on 5,000 projects and 'made considerable progress', particularly on housing and environment, worklessness, crime, health and education. They involved people from black and ethnic minority communities 'more than any previous area-based initiatives', reduced the fear of crime, stabilised populations and provided an 'unprecedented' learning opportunity for the wider neighbourhood renewal community.

Given this success, many people think it's a pity that the New Deal won't be repeated. Brown of eb4U comments: 'We are now in year seven and we have really begun to click as an organisation, as a programme and as a way of working. Just as are we are succeeding, the money is running out. That is frustrating.'

Many commentators are also sceptical that the features that made the area-based programmes effective will find their way into the mainstream. Julian Dobson, editor of the weekly regeneration magazine, New Start, comments: 'It was clear from quite early on that the New Deal, which has had the highest profile in urban regeneration, was a one-off and would not be repeated. There is a feeling now that there will be a far stronger focus on local strategic partnerships and on Local Area Agreements, which are local authority-led. There is a worry that, if these resources go back to local authorities, rather than into community capacity building, over the next ten to 15 years local authorities will make the same mistakes that led to the need for urban renewal in the first place.'

Not everyone is so pessimistic. Dermot Finch, head of the Centre for Cities, New Labour's urban think-tank, says: 'There is obviously a big strategic decision to take, over whether the large programmes, like the New Deal and Neighbourhood Renewal, will continue in their current form, or whether you say “that was a ten-year project, the job has been done”.'

He suspects that, as the big programmes are wound down, they won't be replaced. But he also believes that following Sir Michael Lyons' report and the local government white paper later this year, local authorities will enjoy more autonomy, such as a limited power to set local business rates and to raise taxes.

He is also excited by the prospect of city-regions becoming the new engines of urban renewal, and takes heart from Ruth Kelly's recent speeches on the concept. England's 'core cities' – Newcastle, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield, Birmingham, Nottingham and Bristol – are negotiating with the government for new powers and new forms of governance. He believes that the first city-region – the front-runners are Birmingham and Manchester – could follow the white paper.

Almost everyone agrees that large-scale programmes are likely to wither on the vine, particularly in a Gordon Brown administration, and Local Area Agreements, buttressed by minimum standards, will replace them through the medium of local authorities, Local Strategic Partnerships and primary care trusts. Funding will be more explicitly tied to themes, such as reducing teenage pregnancy or smoking rates.

Pike is not averse to this. But he says: 'At the moment, mainstreaming is not happening. Unless Local Strategic Partnerships become far more efficient and outward-facing, the results will be disastrous for the most disadvantaged people in our society.' He believes the police have been particularly effective at developing effective neighbourhood-based services.

So does Allen from eb4U, who says: 'The police are our best partners.' Pike advocates the setting up of 'community service agreements', in which groups of small local voluntary providers join forces to provide services to LSPs and PCTs. Unless this happens, he fears that only larger voluntary organisations will flourish.

It is clear that Conservative leader David Cameron is on board with a mixed economy, community-based focus. The main arguments over the next few years are likely to centre on the regional dimension of regeneration. What future do the regional development agencies have? The Conservatives see them as enemies of business rather than friends of deprived communities. And what about the Government Offices for the English Regions? Should they be combined with the RDAs? What of city-regions? Will they fall flat on their face, like elected regional government, or find favour?

When, or if, Brown addresses the problems of the UK on his first day as prime minister, these questions will be lurking in his in-tray. Not very high up perhaps. But they will be there.

Will Hatchett is editor of Environmental Health News


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