In the first of a monthly series of articles on urban regeneration, we look at the mess that the government has made of its part of the process, and suggests how it might start to clear it up.
Is regeneration at risk of collapsing under the weight of its own enabling bodies? To anyone attempting to manoeuvre a project through the labyrinth of local, regional and national groups, partnerships, agencies and units set up to help them, it might seem that way.

"It's terribly confusing to people who don't know the subject," says Albert Golding, head of regeneration at architect Broadway Malyan. "For example, I have counted five separate region-wide regeneration programmes in Yorkshire and Humberside – that's 60 local-level programmes."

The situation became further muddled in April with the introduction of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's sustainable communities plan, which refocused attention on regeneration while spawning yet more organisations to see it through. And in July, a joint venture by English Partnerships and the Housing Corporation launched another – The Housing Partnership.

Even the government acknowledges that the sector seems overly complex. An ODPM spokesperson comments: "Very often programmes for regenerating an area seem to overlap and there's confusion about who does what. There are an awful lot of organisations all seeming to do different things, and there's a recognition in government now that this could be a problem. There are moves within government towards simplifying."

So far, the ODPM's response to the overdose of regeneration organisations is to add a new element to the mix. It has created a kind of sustainable communities tsar to get the initiatives working together and to clarify things for the private sector. The man filling this unenviable role will be Richard McCarthy, formerly chief executive of the Peabody Trust. So what should be at the top of his to do list when he takes office this month?

Chris Murray, CABE's director of learning and development, wants to see clarification over who does what: "Regeneration has become a slightly fragmented process – it's more challenging than it has ever been. It can be confusing for the private sector and who does what needs to be made clearer."

Murray is pushing for the creation of a one-stop shop to guide companies and communities through the confusion: "We need one point of contact for private companies. The urban regeneration companies work well in their areas because they provide this one point of contact. We also need a web-based tool condensing all this information and telling private companies to who they need to speak to."

Once the right point of contact has been found, there is the language problem to overcome. "The most difficult thing is trying to communicate with people in these organisations," says Broadway Malyan's Golding. "The private sector finds it hard work getting the principles of investment over to the public sector, and the public sector has a similarly hard time making their work understood. The two have got to come together over things like planning and regional development."

Funding is another source of confusion, says David Hogg, associate director of Turner & Townsend. "The way the funding is organised is even more confusing than all the different bodies. It would be easier if all the finance were in one pot." Getting the regeneration cash out of the government's bank account and into the communities is not an easy task. Increasing the efficiency of delivery is vital – last year, eight of the government offices in the regions underspent their European Union social and regional funds, and several million pounds weren't handed out by ODPM. As a result, the Treasury is having doubts about continuing to support many schemes. The Cabinet split on whether to keep the the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund going after its first three-year tranche of money runs out in the next few months. The future of a string of estate regeneration schemes, run as part of the New Deal for Communities programme, is also uncertain.

Things can’t overlap, as that makes it very hard for local communities trying to get funding

Spokesperson for the ODPM

The ODPM says McCarthy's appointment is the first step in resolving these issues. "We don't want a community to have to go to several different bodies to get funding for one project," explains its spokesperson. "Any practitioner would agree that things can't be allowed to overlap as that makes it very hard for local communities trying to get funding. That's the aim of the new chief executive – making sure things don't fall between the cracks, and making sure things don't overlap."

Greater effort towards skills and training would also help, and part of Sir John Egan's probe into this area is examining the relationship between public and private bodies and how can it be made clearer. He's due to report back by the end of this year. Lack of knowledge is holding back the government's ambitions, Murray says. "The level of skills we have at the moment isn't sufficient. People don't have the training to do the job as required, and there's a lack of communication between different areas of regeneration. The cultures and backgrounds of people in these areas are very different – developers, social workers, economists. And in areas of physical regeneration like planning, there just aren't enough people being trained at the moment. Local authorities are having real problems recruiting good people."

Those difficulties are exacerbated by the private sector, which is poaching the best public sector talent to help it push its schemes though. Broadway Malyan's regeneration unit, set up in 2001, is composed mainly of people with public sector experience – Golding's background is in local government. "We can speak the language of regeneration bodies," Golding says. "We were set up to weave our way through the maze. When we started, BM had hardly any public sector work. We now work with local authorities, RDAs, New Deal companies, pathfinder programmes, transnational regeneration programmes, and so on."

Many companies haven't caught on yet, but they will, says Golding: "Only a handful of construction companies have this kind of experience in-house. But companies have to educate themselves. I don't think there's the potential to simplify the sector, it's too complex – which is good news for consultancy. The more complex, the better."

Ironically, just as England is getting increasingly lost, urban renewal policy north of the border may be reorganised to copy English set-up. The Scottish executive seems impressed with the work of England's urban regeneration companies and is currently pondering setting up a similar system. However, they're aiming to give the URCs more flexibility than their English counterparts, says David Hogg: "They're saying there isn't necessarily one way that suits all, so the URCs might all be very different, whereas in England the structure of all URCs is the same. They'd be tailor-made, rather than one-size-fits-all."

In England, the confusion hasn't stopped new initiatives going ahead. Among these is Housing Partnerships, which aims to identify and develop opportunities for affordable homes in London and the South-east. Deputy prime minister John Prescott promised "a new era of partnership working, helping to bridge the gap between the inadequate supply and increasing demand for high-quality affordable homes" when the scheme was launched. It's too early to tell whether these housing partnerships that are supposed to blossom with the existing bodies will bring closer co-operation or add another tier of complexity.

For developers and contractors that remain baffled by the regeneration tangle, one guiding light should keep them trying: behind the overwhelming number of organisations, a great deal of money is sloshing about, waiting to be claimed. For those companies that persevere and manage to track down the cash, regeneration is still worth the effort.