There was a time when most Government’s (regardless of political hue) would at least pander to the idea of taking a longer more thought out view when it comes to economic development. They would at least try to provide the best conditions and framework to enable the private sector to grow and flourish. Sadly with a few exceptions this attitude appears to have quietly died (sometime in the 1980’s) as politicians concentrated on short term popularity and tax breaks and getting their noses back into the trough after each election.
|Working public money hard?|
Much has rightly been made, from time to time, about the state of our High Streets, the economic consequences of their imminent demise and the pressing need to do something about it. Politicians (from the usual suspects) have periodically rolled out the usual cliches about redevelopment and regeneration and then after having paid some lip service to the idea of reviving our high streets carry with business as usual.
This is not cynicism on my part merely a result of some thirty five years of observation on what has happened to my home town (Newport) and to the small towns of Monmouthshire and much of the Gwent valleys. We have all seen far too much talk over the years and scant action on the part of local politicians and the inhabitants of the Westminster village.
There are two key elements (amongst others) when it comes to creating economic circumstances which will favour the growth and development of small to medium sized local businesses and enterprises. Firstly there is a need to give local high street based businesses a fair and level playing field upon which to operate and secondly there is a need to give the public relatively easy and cheap (If not free) access to the high street.
More locally when it comes to development (or redevelopment for that matter) our Local Authorities need to develop a realistic and sensible long term economic view when it comes to planning policies and regeneration. Planning polices need to favour local businesses and small to medium sized enterprises – there needs to be a more thought out and more consistent approach to dealing with planning applications for in, out and edge of town retail developments.
Our Local Authorities are still far too often tempted by planning gain as developers offer includes, sweeteners and inducements to ease the passage of proposed developments. Council's fear the costs of planning applications (particularly those from larger retailers) being taken to appeal if original outline planning permission is refused. They may even be advised by Council officers of these potential costs if a development proposal involving a larger (potentially more aggressive) retail company goes to appeal - so much for local democracy!
Local Authorities also often fail to have properly researched retailing policies within their development plans. If retailing needs have not been assessed properly then it is very difficult for Local Authority planners to refuse any potentially damaging planning applications from developers, which results in local small businesses, consumers and our communities paying the price.
Since the 1980’s every Westminster Government has talked about promoting the vitality and viability of our larger and smaller towns, or at least paid a form of lip service to it. Over the last thirty years or so many retail developments have consistently undermined this aim, as local authorities have effectively turned a blind eye to the consequences of out of town or edge of town retail developments on the edge of market towns in England and Wales. The economic reality has fallen well short of the verbal aspiration, a quick look at the damage that has been done to Newport, Pontypool, Abergavenny, Chepstow and elsewhere in Wales.
Let’s at least be honest, how can we expect local regeneration schemes to work, when the once thriving commercial heart of our high streets has already been seriously damaged by an inability to compete with the aggressive tactics of supermarkets and larger retail chains chasing an ever larger market share. More than ever, our planners need to think about the long term economic consequences of planning decisions, to take the longer term view, rather than get fixated on short term financial gains and questionable inducements from developers.
If you live in various parts of Gwent or are intimately familiar with your home community, then over the years you will have noticed that redevelopment / regeneration comes and goes in phases, in any particular community or town regeneration schemes will have cleaned areas up, built in cycle routes, created transport plans, pedestrianised streets, reopened them to traffic, re-pedestrianised them and (as is the case in Newport and no doubt elsewhere) made certain streets shared space with both cars and pedestrians (this is not as crazy an idea as it sounds, and actually works) and so on.
Parking has been restricted, created and removed, made it free and charged for it, bus lanes have been created, removed and the hours when bus lanes operate varied. Now this is all well and good and may reflect the latest trend in regeneration and development, but at the end of the day has it made the places where we live, work and shop any better? Has the regeneration process or scheme increased or generated wealth in our communities or provided people with the opportunities to get jobs, to go into business for themselves or generate wealth?
One of the unintended features of redevelopment is that quite often it is (or is perceived as being) driven from the top down i.e. by elected bodies whether they be Town or County Councils or the National Assembly. Regeneration is a process that merely consults after the plans have been drawn up rather than before, during and after - any process run this way runs the risk of becoming deeply flawed. Local communities and towns and cities of South Wales have over the years has been the recipient of much grant aid, development and redevelopment schemes and initiatives - how can we measure success?
Measuring a regeneration schemes success should be a key factor in any regeneration scheme. This is the key question that needs to be asked - after the cement and the paint has dried, after the development / redevelopment / regeneration professionals have banked the cheque and moved on - have the various schemes made a difference. I mean beyond any immediate physical improvements to the environment, have they made a real difference when it comes to wealth generation in the area affected by the regeneration scheme and can the people who love here actually see and benefit from the change?
If the end result is in reality a makeover, and the targeted community is no better off, save for being bereft of the 'regeneration funds' that have been effectively hoovered up by professional regeneration companies - is this success? How do you make regeneration projects work beyond the tick box list of the regeneration schemes managers? One key component that is often ignored or marginalised during the regeneration process is the communities greatest resource - its people.
If we truly want to build and develop strong sustainable communities then any regeneration scheme should from the start and at every stage of the process. We don’t need regeneration professionals coming into an area and engaging in a largely token consultation process. They should directly talk to local people (who are an asset to the process) and actually find out what they would like to be done, what they actually want for their community and their town.
If you are reusing or renovating old buildings then any regeneration scheme needs to ensure that old buildings can make a living after the regeneration scheme is finished. If we do this rather than merely making a token gesture towards public consultation then any regeneration schemes will, with hard work really begin to deliver tangible benefits to our communities.
Regeneration schemes and projects should be bottom up rather than the top down. The bottom line should be when spending public money, work it extra hard and squeeze out every single possible benefit and maximise the impact locally of the regeneration process and build local benefits into the tendering process - whether by employing local people, using local resources, local skills and local input. As had been said elsewhere, regeneration should be a process rather than a cash extracting event.