Regeneration English Partnerships is undergoing review. Surely, says Chris Brown, this is the perfect opportunity to create a much-needed body for urban neighbourhood renewal?
The future of English Partnerships is hanging in the balance. The review of EP has been under way for a couple of months and its results will be revealed soon. At stake are assets worth about £2bn that generate £160m each year for the Treasury, as well as huge spending programmes in the former coalfield areas.

Not surprisingly a number of bodies, including the regional development agencies and the Housing Corporation, have got their eye on it. EP in turn, hopes to remain in existence, possibly with new responsibility for government departments' surplus land. But there is another potential role for EP, including the resources of Housing Corporation, that the government would do well to consider – that of a body to oversee the regeneration of deprived neighbourhoods.

Neighbourhood renewal is an area in which those concerned are keenly awaiting the results of the EP review. It is almost a year now since the government released A New Commitment to Neighbourhood Renewal: National Strategy Action Plan, with its rather pathetic afterthoughts about physical regeneration.

The physical environment section, despite its grand title, merely comprises a small ragbag of existing policies. These range from exemption from stamp duty – pretty much irrelevant in the 10% most deprived wards, as virtually no property makes it into the £60,000-plus 1% stamp duty bracket – to the government's waste strategy, and a number of other irrelevant recycled policies in between.

The neighbourhood renewal strategy was invented with a complete disregard for the physical aspect of regeneration. This is a problem that could have seen billions of pounds wasted were it not for the leadership of Joe Montgomery, the new head of the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit (supported, I suspect, by Lord Falconer). Montgomery, at least, appears to have recognised the flaws in the policy and to be setting about trying to remedy the problem.

It seems amazing to me that large numbers of clever people, tasked with regenerating the worst neighbourhoods in the country, could be blind to the fact that unless people like the area in which they live, they will not stay there. Consequently, those that are unable to leave, usually the most deprived, are left behind. The resultant downward spiral is hardly inexplicable and, in areas where this problem has been solved, like Hulme in Manchester, the physical environment has proved to be critical.

The neighbourhood renewal strategy was invented with a complete disregard for the physical aspect of regeneration

The neighbourhood renewal action plan clearly highlights that the role of the RDAs is to get the regional economy right – and nothing more. It also places huge responsibility on the regional government offices – organisations not generally renowned for their ability to deliver on the ground – to deliver physical regeneration through some fairly limited powers of persuasion and influence over housing policy.

This is where our new EP comes in. The need for an organisation with substantial skills, money and powers to support local communities in seeking the renewal of their neighbourhoods is clear. It is undoubtedly a tough job. These places usually need a combination of public realm upgrading and maintenance, housing renewal, commercial redevelopment and, critically, the ability both to retain their most economically active inhabitants and to attract others to the area.

Housing associations would like to do much of this and some may, eventually, be able to do so – although most seem ill-equipped for the task. In theory, the idea of such not-for-profit organisations working to achieve neighbourhood renewal in our 3000 most deprived areas, perhaps alongside Community Development Trusts, is attractive. In practice, however, the skills required are quite different from those honed providing social housing with grants in excess of 50% and a relatively captive market.

Even the associations that are already doing good work in this area, like Home, People for Places, the Guinness Trust and the Peabody Trust, could use the help of a government body. They need a guide that understands the issues, could provide the raw materials of land assembly and gap funding, and that could forge partnerships with private developers and investors.

So the spotlight turns back to that review of EP, and to the Housing Corporation. The combination of resources and talent from these organisations would provide a powerful enabler of urban renewal in support of local communities.