The news that central government is putting more money into regeneration can only make a good thing even better, right?
The word “regeneration” gets bandied about a lot, probably because it’s regarded as “a good thing” – good for the communities that stand to benefit from investment in their built environment and good for the construction professionals associated with such projects.
Ask architects, planners, consultants and builders why that’s the case and they will most likely say it’s because what really motivates them – aside from creating great places – is seeing the positive effect that well-conceived building projects can have on the lives of real people.
In the initiative’s first financial year only £241m will be released, a paltry £2m for each local authority. A fat lot of good that will do, many councillors might think
So the news, last month, that central government is putting more money into regeneration in the form of the £3.6bn Towns Fund can only make a good thing even better, right? Many in the industry have welcomed the government’s renewed commitment to area-based regeneration after Gordon Brown lost interest back in 2008 and then the coalition shut down the main funding streams.
The Towns Fund invites 100 “left-behind places” – an unfortunate description from Theresa May’s era as it suggests simply following the lead of other communities even if they have little in common – to bid for a portion of the cash. Each local area will have to negotiate a “town deal” to “improve connectivity” with better broadband infrastructure, transport links and a boost for local skills and culture.
The money is also meant to help ailing high streets hollowed out by our changing shopping habits.
Sounds promising – what’s the catch? First, not all of this fund is new money. So often, government largesse turns out to be an amalgamation of pledges already made. In this case, it’s a combination of the £1.6bn Stronger Towns Fund and the £675m Future High Streets Fund, albeit topped up with an extra £1.3bn.
Second, once the fund is split among 100 towns it does not amount to very much. In the initiative’s first financial year only £241m will be released, which averages out at a paltry £2m for each local authority. A fat lot of good that will do, many councillors might think.
The most serious criticism levelled at this policy, however, is that it’s a bribe to win over Brexit-voting communities in the next general election – 94 of the 100 towns on the list are in areas that voted leave in the 2016 referendum.
Of course, a town can back Brexit and still be in need of investment, but what has raised questions is the inclusion of towns such as Cheadle, Greater Manchester, which are less deprived than some places that will not be receiving funding but are marginal constituencies.
While the government asserts that the 100 towns were selected according to a robust methodology, analysis by the Manchester Evening News has revealed that nearly one-quarter are in highly marginal seats for the Conservative Party.
What really matters from a business perspective is whether policy announcements are election stunts or have real substance. The Towns Fund does not seem that promising for firms looking for opportunities right now, but after the expected election the next government – whatever its political hue – will need to commit real money to areas that are in need of a productivity boost. If and when we get some political stability, the private sector can step in and try to make a difference in places of real need.
Last week Building gathered experts in offsite construction to talk shop – and there were some fascinating insights. Our Building Live Club audience heard from Urban Splash about how its deal with Sekisui House is working out.
Since May, when the Japanese housebuilder took a one-third stake in the Manchester-based developer, the two have been engaged in a deep two-way learning process that they both believe will increase capacity rapidly.
Sekisui House is not the only foreign investor to enter the market, but we were warned that new money alone is not going to force the industry to embrace modern methods of construction. While the government backed away last month from linking public subsidies for developers to the use of MMC, our speakers were not hung up on mandating change. If anything, some felt that could hinder innovation.
The real change has to be in people’s mindsets. It seems from our debate that many consultants are increasingly interested in solving issues of quality, cost and time by shifting their focus from sites to the factory. But it’s not enough for just a few people to get it. There was a stark warning that if this generation does not change its ways, those teenagers who spend their free time creating entire cities in Minecraft will be taking construction into a future without them.
Chloë McCulloch is editor at Building