In the recent financial settlement for local government, many urban authorities have been hard hit by the removal of specific grants for regeneration. The tail end of the New Labour administration saw an erosion of faith in holistic regeneration initiatives at the neighbourhood level, as evidence emerged of the limited impact of policies such as New Deal for Communities. Has the time of holistic regeneration strategies now passed? Does this matter? What will we see in the future?
The early period of the New Labour government saw a proliferation of targeted policy initiatives aimed at ‘narrowing the gap’ between the most deprived places and the national average, with interventions across sectors including health, education and economic development. As evaluation evidence on these initiatives began to emerge, central government seemed to have a crisis of confidence in their ability to deliver. In a context of widening social inequality and slowing social mobility, evaluation evidence seemed to suggest limited lasting value of these resource-intensive interventions with positive change in the physical environment being coupled with limited change on social indicators such as worklessness.
Many commentators have framed New Labour’s neighbourhood regeneration policies as part of a ‘roll out’ of a wider neo-liberal project aiming to open up new market possibilities, for example the Housing Market Renewal initiative. Our take is that New Labour’s neighbourhood policies implied, certainly towards the end of its reign the opposite: a government in disarray without a clear strategic agenda. Neighbourhood policies seem to have addressed some of the symptoms of poverty in disadvantaged areas but have been reluctant to address some of the underlying structural problems. For all the criticism, from the standpoint of crushing cuts to local authority budgets and by extension to voluntary and community organisations it seems now that this period may seem a ‘golden age’ . The current Tory-led Coalition government seem ‘intensely relaxed’ about the potential for widening inequalities in all areas of social policy representing a radical break from New Labour’s paranoia about the so-called ‘postcode lottery’ but also a move away from targeted interventions in disadvantaged communities. Whilst ‘neighbourhood’ is a theme in the ‘Big Society’, it is not clear what will happen to existing structures or what new structure may be needed to deliver on this agenda.
Does the shift in economic context and a change of government herald a death knell for regeneration? Or does the current policy agenda create space for ‘localist’ neighbourhood regeneration? Can localist approaches develop and flourish in the context of a financial settlement for local government, particularly where urban deprived authorities have received the worst deal?
Catherine Durose is Senior Research Fellow in the Local Governance Research Unit at De Montfort University
James Rees is Research Fellow at the Third Sector Research Centre, University of Birmingham