The best civil service minds are working to identify the most efficient use of scarce revenues to ensure that the government does deliver. Meanwhile, the rest of us stand by in horror and shock, like bystanders after an accident, wondering how the government managed to destroy its capacity to deliver improvement and regeneration on the ground.
Four years ago we had a reasonably effective government agency, English Partnerships, which used its regeneration skills to enable the private sector to undertake physical regeneration.
That role has now been passed to the regional development agencies, which have been tasked with achieving urban renaissance. But this increased economic development brief means that the physical regeneration focus of the RDAs is being diluted. The recent transfer of the RDAs to the DTI continues their slide from the coalface of physical regeneration. And they continue to waste energy in their war against EP, which is a pale shadow of its former regeneration self and is searching for a chairman to make sense of its new role.
Meanwhile, the regeneration tool box still looks remarkably bare. The tools promised in the budget and the urban white paper have, for the most part, failed to materialise. Even a simple reduction in stamp duty has taken nearly a year, from its initial announcement, to achieve precisely nothing. Simple tasks, like refining the compulsory land acquisition process to make it fairer and faster, or even just publishing a manual to explain how best to use the existing system, have taken years and are not yet complete.
Nearly two years after the European Commission ruled that the government's regeneration grant system was illegal, it has finally produced a replacement, the Brownfield Investment Grant, or BIG. The considered view of practitioners is that it is not the best tool in the box but it can be used for banging hard on projects jammed in the system.
Government knows, at a strategic level, what needs to be done but has been struck on its traditional Achilles heel – the inability to deliver quickly and effectively. The devil is now in the detail for the policymakers
If government can't even deliver the proper tools, what are the chances it will be able to deliver regeneration itself? The proposal for 25 urban regeneration companies, in the face of government "guidance" that only 12 will be allowed, reveals the urgent need for physical regeneration as part of sustainable holistic renewal that addresses the social, economic and physical needs of communities and their neighbourhoods.
The regeneration policy framework is in place and has widespread support, but now needs joining up. The government must create the necessary tools quickly, and then deliver on the ground. It knows, at a strategic level, what needs to be done, but has been struck on its traditional Achilles' heel – the inability to deliver quickly and effectively.
The devil is now in the detail for government policymakers. They need to address the boring, time-consuming part of delivering the tools and clearing away the bureaucratic obstacles. I would suggest that the government needs to take the following actions:
- Dust off the compulsory purchase guidance used for the Urban Development Corporations and reissue it for RDAs and local authority regeneration areas.
- Get the compulsory purchase order manual published, and make sure it encourages regeneration CPOs.
- Revise the BIG scheme to cover residential development – a ludicrous omission in the negotiations with Europe.
- Revise accounting conventions to allow the use of RDA guarantees as an effective low-cost tool to pump prime physical regeneration.
- Amend section 123 of the Local Government Act 1972 to allow land to be sold not just for the highest price but for the best combination of benefits – including regeneration.
- Implement Urban Priority Areas, designated locally, which all public agencies will use to prioritise their spending.
- Pass the legislation necessary to permit business improvement districts and local tax reinvestment programmes.
- Allow EP to become an effective stimulator of physical regeneration, by letting it reinvest the proceeds from the disposal of its new towns portfolio into Urban Regeneration Companies.
- Get the new regional centres of regeneration excellence off the ground.
- Accelerate public transport investment ahead of workplace and congestion charging.
And that is just my top 10. The list goes on and on. And after all these measures have been implemented, a public sector body still has to go out and buy up land in need of regeneration, find private sector partners, and get down to building.
In reality, the private sector will do most of the work but skilled, dynamic, properly resourced public agencies need to enable change and be active partners. A huge gap now exists between the economically focused RDAs and the under-resourced regeneration activities of EP.
Chris Brown is chief executive of the Igloo Regeneration Fund.