John Prescott's recent changes to regeneration policy have persuaded some that things might really get better for deprived communities. And they might, too …
The urban summit in Birmingham between 31 October and 1 November is the biggest event of its kind anywhere in the world, ever. Despite its low-profile marketing and entry price of £500, it's even more popular than the town's Halloween parties. Almost all its 1500 tickets were sold by the beginning of the month (you might get one if you apply through and in the regeneration industry, it is easily the single most talked about topic.

Why are people so interested? This event was first suggested by Richard Rogers' urban taskforce to monitor progress on the 105 recommendations in its report, Towards an Urban Renaissance. This is a halfway stage in a process that is to culminate in the State of the City report in 2005.

So people are keen to know what has happened so far and what happens next, particularly when John Prescott announces his detailed plans around the turn of the year. They are also interested to learn what difference the new team at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (or OffJohn as it is called in some circles) has made in the past three months.

The team certainly seems to have hit the ground running, despite the distraction of organising this huge regeneration event. We have recently seen announcements for a new role for English Partnerships; a gap funding scheme for residential developments, which, amazingly, allows grants anywhere in England of up to 60% of cost (the European Commission's Competition Directorate has decided that this does not amount to state aid to the construction industry); a draft circular on compulsory purchase (although the draft needs substantial revision by regeneration practitioners to make it the effective document needed to deliver the government's objectives in this area); and, most important, a completely new approach has been adopted to section 123 of the Local Government Act 1972.

This change allows councils to sell land for less than the best cash price if there are social, environmental or economic benefits from a proposed scheme. At a stroke this has removed the nonsense of local authorities having to sell land for parking lots or scrap yards when someone wanted to develop a well designed, mixed-use, sustainable, regeneration project.

Taken together, these changes are huge and appear to be convincing some senior regeneration professionals that we are witnessing a new dawn and renewed hope for our most deprived communities.

Of course, there is still much to be done. Other government departments must now move into line with local authority guidelines, either by themselves taking account of the same social, environmental and economic necessities of the area or by offering the land to English Partnerships or Regional Development Agencies. It is still frightening how much underused land in and around regeneration areas is owned by the NHS, the Ministry of Defence and formerly nationalised utility or transport companies.

At a stroke the change to the Local Government Act has removed the nonsense of local authorities having to sell land for parking lots when someone wanted to develop a well designed, environmentally sustainable, regeneration project

At the same time, the flow of public funds must be directed towards those areas outside the South-east where there is capacity to expand economic activity and housing without congesting roads and railways. I continue to marvel at the arguments around regional policy in the UK: "We must invest in London because London is the only successful region," or: "We must invest in northern England because it's poor." The reality is that although London is successful, even overheated, it remains incapable of transferring the wealth it creates to the poorest members of its communities.

The rest of the country does remarkably well despite this underinvestment but remains below the European Union average for GDP and has the same problem of pockets of extreme wealth close to pockets of extreme poverty.

In the regeneration world, we now have a possible mechanism for dealing with some of this. English Partnerships can use the revenue from its southern land holdings to invest in regeneration in northern England, or, more accurately, revenue from facilitating household growth in areas of prosperity to assist regeneration in the poorest neighbourhoods.

We will still need major shifts in public spending by local government, the housing corporation, regional development agencies and mainstream government departments if we are to make use of the capacity that exists in the regions to promote economic growth and social equality. That seems, as a minimum, a sensible goal.

These are all issues that will be discussed at the urban summit. The event is trying hard to make a contribution to progress and the delivery of urban regeneration. The sessions will bring together practitioners and policy-makers from the many silos in regeneration. They will be making suggestions to make regeneration more effective. There is little need for new policy in this area but a huge need for better integration of existing policies, for the removal of obstructive rules and for the creation of better tools.