Regeneration: The government won't be able to deliver its public service promises, says Chris Brown, unless it puts urban regeneration at the heart of its agenda
The government has made it pretty clear that its key priorities for this parliament are crime reduction, public transport, health and education. But what it doesn't seem to realise is the importance of urban regeneration to achieving its goals in these areas. Looking at individual public services in isolation, progress in these prioritised areas has proved slow to non-existent.

By far the biggest problems in public services are found in the inner cities. The progression from poor education to unemployment and finally to crime is well known to all. And if you can't attract nurses and doctors to work in troubled inner-city areas, healthcare is bound to suffer too. Similarly, public transport will continue to fail large sections of the population that work in inner cities but are encouraged to live in low-density suburbs where a car is a necessity.

The only way to really improve education, health and public transport as well as reduce crime levels is to deal with the problems plaguing our inner cities. But the fact is, our fragmented government system simply can't hack it. And even if the fragments could be stitched together to make one machine, 10 Downing Street, the Cabinet Office and the Treasury just don't seem to understand that this is exactly what needs doing.

To make life even more difficult, central government is only a minor part of the solution. Regional and local government, multitudinous self-governing trusts, agencies and authorities are the key public-sector deliverers. And on top of this, it is essential to remember that although public-sector investment is critical, it can only help to create the circumstances for private investment – the real key to creating economically sustainable neighbourhoods where public services have a chance of operating efficiently.

In the late 1980s, after a decade of experiment, the UK led the world in its approach to regeneration. We focused resources on areas with the greatest problems and the greatest potential. We addressed the social, economic and physical needs of the community and the area. We did this for long periods of time and we used public investment – directly and indirectly – to attract private investment. We called this holistic approach "city challenge" and its slightly anaemic sibling, the single regeneration budget. And we saw that it worked and that it was good.

Then the government scrapped it.

Instead, we got Labour's New Deal for Communities, in many ways a better approach to the social issues of deprived communities but, as is now becoming obvious, almost completely useless without the closely integrated economic programmes that create long-term sustainability.

If you are an investor or a developer trying to promote regeneration, it is almost impossible to find the right people to talk to. There is no simple route in – no single organisation, phone number or grant mechanism

We also got urban regeneration companies, invented by Sir Alan Cockshaw, in spite of – rather than with the aid of – the government. Here we have the opposite problem. The companies provide a pretty good approach to physical and economic issues in deprived communities, but almost completely lack the close connections with the communities they were established to benefit. It seems that the lessons learned in the 1980s have been all but forgotten.

What is needed now is a large measure of integration, or "joining up". When the Labour government first came to power, it talked a great deal about joined-up government, but found it much more difficult to implement than it expected. The attempt produced protective reactions within departments and turf wars that seemed to promote, rather than reduce, fragmentation.

At a local level, strategic partnerships and sub-regional partnerships are now the main game in town. But this is creating huge delivery problems. Regional development agencies are pushing most of their resources into the often nameless and faceless sub-regional partnerships, and although these partnerships can allocate, they do not have a dedicated delivery capacity. Instead they must rely on their partners to implement policies on their behalf. At local authority level, strategic partnerships face similar problems with delivery.

If you are an investor or a developer trying to promote a regeneration project, it has become almost impossible to find the right people to talk to. There is no simple route in – no single organisation, phone number or grant mechanism. Ironically, at a time when regeneration really seems to be going mainstream, there is an even greater shortage of the necessary regeneration skills to guide investors through the regeneration maze.

But there is hope. The new team at the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is making the right noises about joining up at a regional level and creating a clear role for development quango English Partnerships – two moves that will undoubtedly make life a great deal easier for the private sector. It is also starting to push forward the regional centres for regeneration excellence that are needed to rapidly increase the numbers and skills levels of people on the ground.