Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Vibrant & Viable Places - A new regeneration strategy

In the last month, the Welsh Government unveiled its latest
regeneration strategy, including more carefully targeted funding.
(Pic : BBC Wales)

A few days before the cabinet reshuffle, Communities and Tackling Poverty Minister, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) laid a new Welsh Government regeneration strategy/framework/"thing" in front of the Senedd.

Entitled : Vibrant and Viable Places, it outlines the Welsh Government's new principles and approaches towards regeneration as a whole.

Recent Policy

The Welsh Government has/had seven key regeneration areas – including things like Communities First, EU programmes, Flying Start and Enterprise Zones - as well as more specific programmes like Newport Unlimited and the Valleys Regional Park initiative.

It's said that the benefits of this approach included more flexible funding, an ability to address specific local issues and use of partnerships in delivery across several different providers.

However, some of the drawbacks were said to be too rigid boundaries, a lack of clarity on the criteria for establishing regeneration areas, poor timing and co-ordination with regard funding and objectives which were far too broad, perhaps vague.

New policies that are being developed in relation to this include city regions for economic development, local growth zones (whatever the hell they are), a new round of European funding and Welsh Government legislation – including new planning, housing and sustainable development Bills.

How do the Welsh Government define "regeneration"?

“ integrated set of activities that seek to reverse economic, social, environmental and physical decline to achieve lasting improvement, in areas where market forces will not do this alone without some support from government.”

Believe it or not, I think that's pretty much as clear a definition as you can get.

I just think the Welsh Government have failed to deliver on the "lasting improvement" aspect. While "integrated activities" gets bogged down in too many agencies and too many little schemes tied to overly ambitious targets.

For example, trying to contribute to the perfectly laudable goal of ending child poverty by 2020 by using European funds on projects like the well-meaning, but colossal failure, Genesis 2. That scheme provided plenty of "mentoring", "raising self-esteem" and "advisers" but very few jobs.

Under the new approach, the Welsh Government want to achieve three key outcomes :
  1. Prosperous Communities – More jobs, better transport, better internet access, private sector investment, successful town centres and coastal towns, sustainable development.
  2. Learning Communities – Improved skills, "higher aspirations" and "a belief in a better future."
  3. Healthier Communities – Safer, healthier, more environmentally pleasing. Better houses.

They're going to closely monitor outcomes here, including reductions in long-term unemployment, reductions in people experiencing poor health etc.

Who's going to do it?

The report acknowledges that private sector involvement is shaky at the moment, and "hard to achieve", but this was the first area they want to look at. They want to attract the private sector by bringing in "good quality development(s)" and providing things like business mentoring and joint working between public and private sector.

In a somewhat surprising move, it looks as though the third sector is being (quite rightly) brushed aside somewhat. Third sector bodies will only be involved at "the right level and at the right time". There's a special focus here on registered social landlords – which ties in with their focus on "coastal communities" – who can deliver capital projects and already have a relationship with their communities. I don't know why faith groups are outlined as "disadvantaged or excluded" though.

Most of the detailed focus though, is on the public sector. Local authorities are said to be the leading organisation here, as they generally lead regeneration efforts anyway. However, the report says that regeneration will have to be "seen in the context of wider regional economies" and "regional working." Collaboration, then. They do also say, somewhat paradoxically, that they want town and community councils more actively involved in regeneration decision-making though.

Using my recent posts on local government as a guide, this sort of thing would probably be done by single provincial assemblies and governments, not 6-7 unitary authorities working together putting councillors and appointees on various regional boards. Just saying/plugging.

The Welsh Government itself will be actively involved in areas such as housing - especially good quality, environmentally friendly housing. Huw Lewis outlined his white paper on this last year.

Heritage also gets a nod, by giving places a "sense of character" to generate a sense pride in their communities. I'm pleasantly surprised they put that in as it's often overlooked. But will there be a conflict between housing and heritage – especially if we end up carpeting over areas with new housing estates?

There's a full run down of other areas, like the economy, health, transport, and various plans and strategies in the report itself. It's too many to go into here. The report just lists anything remotely related to the three outcomes I listed earlier.

Funding & Targeted Funding

Regeneration funds will be targeted at coastal towns in particular,
however with an acknowledgement that there can be no
promise of a return to "former glories."
(Pic : BBC Wales)
This is probably the most significant part, and a somewhat radical, welcome departure from standard Welsh Government policy - targeting funds at specific areas of focus rather than broad brush strokes that can be atomised into piddling little schemes.

As for funding, there are several streams – EU convergence, Welsh Government themselves, Big Lottery Fund, local authority contributions and private sector investment. There are few specific numbers given, and the budgets vary anyway.

As for the targets:
  • Town centres – The losing battle to "save the high street". They acknowledge something different is needed, including better use of heritage assets and more residential development in town centres. They also want to make better use of town centres for business start ups, rather than established chains. That means improving things like broadband.
  • Coastal towns – I think they clearly mean Rhyl and Colwyn Bay in this, but as I've seen through Bridgend Council's attempts to regenerate Porthcawl, it's easier said than done. They want to "maximise unique selling points without holding out false hope of....recapturing....faded glories of the past."
  • Communities First clusters – Self-explanatory.

Existing regeneration commitments will be "top sliced", and local partnerships will now bid for regeneration funds - based on the three priority areas. They'll have to come up with better plans, and prove that the projects they're bidding for will have a tangible impact. That could be more jobs, retaining spending within Welsh supply chains and commitments to sustainable development.

I guess the responsibility for delivery now lies with Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), and he'll be assisted in this via a new Ministerial Advisory Group.

The Welsh Government will closely monitor these "outcomes", and it's expected that the new framework/strategy/"thing" will fully roll out by April 2014.

Some good, some bad

Regeneration's one of those areas that could be said to have been "hit and miss" since devolution rather than an outright good or poor.

There are some regeneration schemes you can point to as successes, or potential successes. The two obvious examples would be Bargoed's Big Idea and The Works in Ebbw Vale. It's unclear whether the likes of Neath town centre, Pontypridd and Swansea will head the same way.

Big flops could include the vast bulk of Communities First areas in general and you'll probably have to include the likes of Porthcawl too. Though they're not complete write offs yet.

The heart's there. The heart's always been there. But this is nothing we haven't heard before. I do think better targeted funding is long overdue, but should've been done in the first place.

I outlined some of the problems facing town centres in particular on my recent post on Bridgend. I think the Welsh Government do realise some of those issues, but don't seem overly keen to address the bigger problems. You can't entirely blame them as there's more risk attached to tackling those big issues head on.

Of the three key outcomes, it was "belief in a better future" that got to me. Of course we all want that, and things are never as bad as they appear to be.

I firmly believe many Welsh towns and communities have great untapped potential if they have the right kind of investment targeting the right sort of projects.

That will mean more than simply propping up "the high street" or putting down nice paving stones.


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