How should those of us concerned with regeneration react to unrest on the streets and turbulence in the financial markets? The prime minister and the mayor of London returned from holiday with the aim of visibly restoring order. “Action this day,” was Churchill’s mantra. Belatedly, perhaps, but that was the political objective this week, too.
UK Regeneration argues that regeneration is always a long haul and that this is not the moment for knee-jerk reaction. Let’s not have a new policy initiative: it would inevitably be superficial, top-down and underfunded. The government is resisting that temptation, although the riots have reignited the debate about public spending.
Is our view “Keep calm and carry on”? No. Just as the credit crunch highlighted underlying flaws in the model of development and investment, so the riots have shown that we need to rethink our approach. We are working with Estates Gazette on the campaign “Building a Better Britain”, but already it is clear that the blueprint that results from our work will have to be based on five new principles
1. Taking responsibility
A common theme in response to the riots has been that someone – parents, young people – has to take responsibility for creating more acceptable norms for behaviour. The property and development industry, with its financial backers, has to take its share of responsibility, too.
How often has the industry argued for another tax concession, more public spending or gap funding? Fine if you are also an advocate of a high-tax economy, but it is ducking your responsibility if you are not.
Do not just invent bigger and smarter programmes of corporate social responsibility – although they have a place. Start devising and delivering more effective models of development and investment.
2. Engaging with people
Have we been selling an unsustainable dream of home ownership knowing it is inaccessible to many people? Lifestyles are changing. We have a new catchphrase – “generation rent” – but have not yet created the distinctive and attractive offer.
Other industries tailor products to people’s wants and needs. We need to learn how to focus on consumers – not “consumerism”, which defines individuals in terms of possessions, arguably encouraging looting of trainers and mobile phones. Real understanding would help people get a life, not a lifetime debt.
3. Valuing the long term
We can get smarter and more flexible, but building places needs longer horizons than marketing social networking software or fashion. Quality buildings need investment upfront and continued good management and maintenance.
Quality places need a comprehensive approach, balancing uses and returns to maximise the overall result. Such places will sustain value in the longer term and be capable of adapting to change. Few places are managed this way: Canary Wharf and the big shopping malls are the modern commercial versions of the Great Estates. Where are the equivalent housing areas?
4. Balancing society
We live in a very unequal society. The approach of “winner takes all” may work where exceptional personal talent – entrepreneurial, sporting or musical – attracts exceptional reward. Regeneration has always been more about equalising opportunity or “narrowing the gap”. But London will always win the “X Factor” for cities.
We chase opportunities to create the next boom – inevitably followed by bust. We should ask some very difficult questions about the economic future of key places. Government has a vital role: its financial decisions should not lead to self-reinforcing spirals of growth in some places and decline in others. Developers should be leaders rather than followers.
5. Getting local
It seems “localism” is second only to “cutting the deficit” in the government’s litany. Let’s accept that it is for real and learn to understand the difference between places. We should tailor our offer to local people, geography and economics, while maintaining the quality of our product and high standards in the way we operate.
There will be big debates about society, inequality, parenting, education, and law and order. We will contribute to those, but we should focus quickly on doing better ourselves.
Riots have punctuated regeneration policy and practice over the past 40 years, most famously with Michael Heseltine’s Cabinet Paper 30 years ago, entitled “It took a riot”.
Rather than simply dwelling on the trigger for the riots, it was Heseltine’s driving of new thinking over the following years that delivered change. The context then was a centralised, interventionist government. The context now is a decentralising, non-interventionist government and the challenge rests with us.
UK Regeneration is moving beyond debate into delivery, and with our partners – including, critically, investment being secured by Barclays Capital – we will be applying our principles in practice.
With Estates Gazette, UK Regeneration wants to start Building a Better Britain. We don’t like the alternative we saw. Will you stand up for progress?