The six promises with which Tony Blair launched the Labour party’s unofficial general election campaign may have sounded strangely familiar to anyone who has ever signed up to the “high level objectives” of a regeneration scheme.

Tower of London
Tower of London

Under the current government, regeneration has become the crossroads where housing, the economy, health, education and local democracy meet.

The government has launched a welter of initiatives for regeneration, from the Sustainable Communities Plan through to the five-year plan for housing. But are these the right policies to get the outputs that the government wants?

To find out, Regenerate asked 50 senior figures in the regeneration sector how well policy matched reality. The sample was drawn from a cross-section of private and public sector organisations, covering shiny new delivery vehicles such as the urban regeneration companies, and road-tested models such as housing associations. From the sharp end of the industry, there were eight housebuilders and developers and eight consultants.

The individuals who participated were all at the level of chief executive, development director or head of strategy. Their positions mean that they are aware of the big picture, and their views are unlikely to be coloured by the success or failure of individual projects. Each respondent participated on an anonymous basis, so that they could praise, comment or criticise openly.

The results show an industry that has undergone a period of cultural development, with private and public sectors overcoming their traditional mistrust of each other’s motives and competence. And despite their working in a complex and often frustrating policy environment, there was little sense that respondents were indulging their taste for cynicism. But if they were happy to toe the government line, they certainly weren’t swallowing it.

Overall, the sample felt that the government did deserve credit for the way it has tackled regeneration. In a result likely to raise a smile at the ODPM, 82% rated the government’s overall performance on regeneration as good (question 1). Only six respondents – including three housebuilders – thought its report card should be marked “poor” . One protester made the point that government initiatives were flattered by the buoyancy of the economy.

The overall vote of confidence also seems to have attached itself to the government’s latest five-year plan for housing, Homes For All. Two-thirds of respondents shared the government’s confidence that the plan would oversee an increase in the output of affordable and private sector housing (question 2). The 14 respondents who took a gloomier view were drawn disproportionately from the public sector.

Two-thirds of respondents shared the government’s confidence that the five-year plan would oversee an increase in the output of affordable and private sector housing

Despite this overall faith in the strategic picture, there were negative responses to the government’s tactical innovations – in particular, the £60,000 house. Twenty-eight out of the 50 respondents greeted the government’s challenge, now being promoted through English Partnerships’ Design for Manufacture competition, with a shrug (question 3).

Many have already seen initiatives such as the Housing Corporation’s prefabrication Challenge Fund and the Millennium Villages programme begin with a bang and end with a whimper. Consultants were particularly cynical: six out of 10 believed the house would have little impact, followed by five out of 10 of the registered social landlords. As one of the latter commented: “It’s a nonsense – it’s not possible to do – and what about the quality?” Another said: “It’s a complete waste of time.”

On the question of barriers to project delivery, planning emerged as the highest barricade (question 4). Given the endless war of attrition between housebuilders and planners, it’s no surprise that half the housebuilders nominated it as the villain of the piece. But when four out of 10 RSLs and two out of four industry associations feel the same frustration – and one local authority even outed itself as part of the problem – then it looks as if planning remains a reliable drag on the rest of the regeneration industry.

Bijou style
Bijou style

One consultant said the development control staff assessing applications had not yet taken on the same collaborative mindset as the people who had entered them. “You can produce masterplans in line with every government policy going, and it’ll still take 18 months to get through planning,” he says. “Applications are either treated as hostile, or it’s a case of the more you comply, the more people think they can ask for.”

Failed reform

Respondents had little faith that recent reforms would improve matters. Forty-four per cent thought that last year’s Planning Act had had a negative effect. This required all local authorities to produce a local development framework and ended the practice of twin-tracking – that is, the submission of more than one application for the same site. One housebuilder said: “It is becoming almost impossible to run a business. We’re introducing a process to monitor the speed of development through the planning process, purely as a result of the uncertainties of the system.” Equally damning, 40% said they had seen no discernible difference.

Twenty-eight out of the 50 respondents greeted the government’s challenge to build a £60,000 house with a shrug

One consultant complained of the lack of integration between local development frameworks and regeneration objectives. “You might do an options appraisal on an area, consult widely and come up with a preferred option for a site. Then out of the blue the Planning Act requires a new consultation when people have already been consulted to death.”

Apart from planning, the spread of answers to question 5 suggest that respondents still find regeneration an obstacle course. “Local politics” took second place as a barrier to project delivery, an indication that the progress on partnership working isn’t filtering down to the grassroots. Bureaucracy drew criticism from nearly every sector, including a housebuilder who defined it as “everything from local government intransigence to the complexity of deals with landowners”.

Lack of water, power and transport infrastructure is a problem normally associated with the Thames Gateway, but it seems that it is national – one pathfinder from the low-demand North and two URCs in established conurbations identify it as a barrier. In the “other” category, one local authority identified the gaps in joined-up government, citing “a failure to integrate key public bodies and investment”.

Attitudes to the arrival of new delivery agencies split the sample fairly evenly. A significant 20% slice – including five out of 10 consultants – said they had made life easier, and two URCs and one HMR pathfinder patted themselves on the back by opting for “much easier” (question 6). Four respondents – one housebuilder, one RSL and two consultants – thought that the new vehicles had created jams, and 12 respondents said they made life harder.

The housebuilder said: “It comes back to bureaucracy. The new organisations form an additional tier of control that is difficult to understand, difficult to break into and works against the development industry.” The RSL commented: “A graphic of the network in the Thames Gateway looks as complicated as an electronic circuit board.”

I vote for me

Describing the number of organisations that have to be consulted before a project can materialise, one RSL chose the metaphor of Hampton Court maze. “That’s what it feels like,” he says. “There’s a wide variety of agencies out there who feel they have a legitimate say in what we’re doing. Like the rest of the public sector, we’re under pressure to reduce our costs and improve our efficiency. But all the delays, and the time spent talking projects through, and all the meetings, all add to the costs.”

Public and private have learned to act with more tolerance of their differences

When asked which organisations were most effective, many respondents became partisan (question 7). All four pathfinders thought that they were the most effective, five out of six URCs plumped for URCs, seven out of 10 RSLs endorsed the affordable housing sector and six out of eight housebuilders the private sector. The chief executive of the RDA was the sole cheerleader for the RDA sector.

What is more interesting is the distribution of the 20 votes in the non-aligned sector. The ALMO, two consultants, one housing association and one housebuilder backed the URCs, many of which have now completed their development frameworks and are moving into the project implementation phase. “They can move quickly and act entrepreneurially, and most of them have attracted fairly good calibre people,” said one consultant.

In a clear-cut finding, 42% identified the nine RDAs established in the first months of the Labour administration as the weakest link in the regeneration chain (question 8). Despite generous budgets (ranging from £83m to £314m in 2002/03) and the ability to lean on local authorities to bring sites forward for development, one consultant described them as “a complete waste of space with no role”. A housebuilder felt that RDAs can “talk the talk, but there’s little action.” Three pathfinders, five RSLs, and four URCs all joined in this wake-up call to the RDAs, which many feel are ignoring “hard” regeneration in favour of “soft” skills projects.

English Partnerships took second place in the stocks. One RSL said: “They are just not delivering faster – in fact they are holding things up,” whereas a housebuilder felt the problem was lack of quality staff. One consultant drew a distinction between EP as an effective partner round a table, and as a leader. “When they’re the people responsible for doing things, as in the Millennium Villages, they’re less good. They want to innovate, but they’re risk-averse.”

Overall, the survey questions didn’t split the sample into their respective public and private sector camps, with most positions shared by representatives of both. When asked directly about working relationships with their “other half”, a sense of pragmatism emerged. When 50% said they “worked well with some, less well with others,” it sounded as if organisations had learned to act with more tolerance of difference that most adults bring to their individual working lives (question 9).

Private sector, public sector
Private sector, public sector

Seventeen respondents – 10 from the public sector, seven from the private – felt like “equal partners”, which suggests that eight years of rhetoric on public–private partnerships is dismantling the “them and us” barrier. However, eight respondents took a negative view, with four feeling patronised, and four “watching their backs”.

Generally, regeneration’s arranged marriage between private and public sector organisations has matured into an effective working relationship. A conclusive 86% felt that their relationship with the other sector was improving, with 40% reporting a “significant” improvement (question 10). Only seven respondents were pessimistic. One RSL expressed concern that awarding social housing grant to private sector developers would impair its relationship with them, as they would become de facto competitors.

On many key questions, the respondents gave the government their backing. To improve the quality of life in blighted parts of the country, this goodwill from delivery agents and suppliers is an asset that mustn’t be squandered. But the survey also provides evidence that this is in danger of happening – in attitudes to the Planning Act, the £60,000 house initiatives and the plethora of regeneration agencies. The sample showed that its goodwill is only on loan.

1 How would you score the government’s performance on regeneration since the last election?
Very poor 0%
Poor 12%
Good 82%
Very good 4%

2 On housing, do you think government policy, including its latest five-year plan, will deliver?
2% Dont know
4% The same number of homes
14% Fewer homes
14% Greater number of affordable homes only
66% Greater numbers of both private and affordable homes

3Do you consider the government’s competition to build the £60,000 house to be...
a) A useful test for new building technology, that could have an impact on the industry 40%
b) Little different to current experimental building projects 14%
c) An exercise that is likely to have little impact on the industry 42%
d) Not sure 4%

4 Has the government’s reform of the planning system made it …
a) Much more difficult and time-consuming to deliver projects 10%
b) Slightly more difficult and time-consuming 16%
c) Made things worse temporarily 18%
d) Made no difference 40%
e) Improved things slightly 10%
f) Improved things dramatically 2%
g) Not sure 4%

5 What is the biggest obstacle to delivery of regeneration projects?
Planning 26%
Local politics 22%
Lack of infrastructure 18%
Culture clash 4%
Bureaucracy 12%
Other 18%

6 Have new agencies, such as Pathfinders and urban regeneration companies, made delivery …
A lot harder 8%
Harder 28%
No different 32%
Easier 22%
Don't know 2%

7 Who does the best job at getting regeneration delivered?
a) English Partnerships 6%
b) Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders 12%
c) Regional development agencies 2%
d) Urban regeneration companies 22%
e) The affordable housing sector 16%
f) Private developer sector 26%
g) Other 10%
h) Not sure 6%

8 Which of them works least well at helping to deliver regeneration?
a) English Partnerships 14%
b) Housing Market Renewal Pathfinders 2%
c) Regional development agencies 42%
d) Urban regeneration companies 4%
e) The affordable housing sector 10%
f) Private developer sector 6%
g) Other 12%
h) Not sure 10%

9 How would you describe your working relationships with the public/private sector?
We generally feel like inferior partners 8%
Our relationships are characterised by mistrust 8%
We generally work as equal partners 34%
We work well with some, but less well with others 50%

10 Do you think your working relationship with the public/private sector is generally …
Improving significantly 40%
Improving marginally 46%
Likely to remain the same 12%
Deteriorating slightly 2%

Methodology: This survey was carried out for Regenerate by telephone interview with 50 senior industry executives. Survey interviews were conducted in the first week of February, directly after the Sustainable Communities Summit.