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Brian Jenner: Lamenting the rise of the ‘urban regeneration practitioner’

Jenner_brian_1_1 Brian Jenner edits the community website for Paddington & Bayswater, www.newspad.co.uk

If you can’t beat them, why not make a fortune at their expense? Maybe this was Michael Heseltine’s thinking five years ago, when Haymarket, his publishing company, launched a magazine called, ‘Regeneration & Renewal’. It’s the in-house magazine of the urban regeneration industry, 50% glossy advertising for community project officers and social enterprise managers.

Under the Labour Government improving communities has become a massive industry. The Neighbourhood Renewal Unit spends millions of pounds in pursuit of vague objectives. I had the privilege of living in a neighbourhood which was being regenerated - at least until I had to move out because my rent became too expensive.

The renewal of Paddington started with the construction of the Heathrow Express train link, which led to a building spree. Any hotel worth its salt realised that they would get a better class of individual passing through. They went to the bank manager and moved up a star.

Two agencies emerged soon after. A consortium called the Paddington Regeneration Partnership and the Paddington Development Trust, a body that hands out money to local projects. Both were funded by a mix of European funds, Westminster Council and the property developers. They were created to facilitate the renewal of the wasteland by the Grand Union Canal which was to be filled with shops, offices and new flats.

Five years ago, BAA, together with the other members of the partnership organised a junket to inform local people they were going to transform Praed Street into Marylebone High Street.  Wealthy people would check-in in Paddington and spend quality time there before boarding the Heathrow Express. September 11 and BAA’s poor marketing meant they closed all the check-in and turned Paddington Station into shopping mall.

That’s fine, but it scuppered any chance of commuters venturing out into Praed Street. Most of the Praed Street family businesses that watched those slick presentations have disappeared. Thus making the place even more soulless. Now coffee shops, fast food outlets and newsagents are the only things that work. When the going gets tough, the family businesses have to fend for themselves.

What do urban regeneration agencies do? They were involved in the fantastic new plans for St Mary’s Hospital. It was going to be a super-campus including the Brompton and Harefield. The whole thing wasted eight years of effort and almost £14m in project costs before being cancelled without a brick being laid.

Most of the work of regeneration agencies is creating an ‘image’. They create a catchy slogan like: ‘New Life for Paddington’, they get a branding agency to design a corporate identity, a photographer to take pictures of happy ethnically-integrated schoolchildren for a slick brochure, they pay an expensive PR agency to puff up some articles in the property supplements, make some models, organise a big buffet and invite a Government minister in to talk about the benefits for the ‘community’. Job done.

What does it actually change? Are you trying to keep small businesses in business? Or do you want branded chains to come in instead? Do you applaud the construction of large numbers of one-bedroom luxury flats? Or should regeneration agencies be saying, these will be the slums of the future? Under ‘New’ Labour property developers are good, the community is good and regeneration is good. There should be no need for anyone to fight.

The people who work for these agencies do not appreciate criticism but ‘new life’ requires conflict and debate. Pretending that massive ill-thought out investment means benefits for everyone is just wrong. The quality of postal deliveries in W2 is awful, but it’s no surprise considering no postman could afford to live there.

Regeneration agencies want to improve the fabric of the public realm. They give grants to businesses to improve their shop fronts. This is very well-meaning but there are ethical problems. The way government regeneration money was distributed was a factor in the riots which hit Oldham, Bradford and Burnley in 2001. How can you give money to one section of the community, and not give it to others? Who decides who is worthy of support?

The Mayor’s London Development Agency has financed a Paddington ‘Pride of Place’ initiative, an ‘exciting programme of work at Paddington Waterside, which aims to create a sense of place in a new location.’ How do you create a sense of place? Like dropping bombs on enemy airfields, many regeneration initiatives are very expensive and have no impact at all.

How exactly do you become an urban regeneration practitioner? Start off working for the council. Move into regeneration. Double your salary. Nobody has a clue what you should be doing and as long as house prices sail upwards and there is a queue of property developers, nobody is going to ask. The regeneration press is full of self-flagellating articles which could be paraphrased, ‘Why are regeneration professionals such an uninspiring bunch?’ Hence the need to recruit ‘high calibre individuals’ into the sector. That means spending a fortune advertising in the local press, the regeneration press and the Guardian.

If there is one thing regeneration practitioners can’t stand it’s local residents. They are well-informed, articulate, difficult, appreciative of complexity and sceptical about what can be achieved. Many are mad enough to work for their community for nothing, while the regeneration industry pumps vast amount of money into the pockets of expert consultants – an expert being a man from out of town carrying a briefcase.

Neighbourhoods in towns and cities function because residents report things: dumped rubbish, anti-social behaviour, graffiti and planning infringements. If a neighbourhood doesn’t have enough concerned individuals it will go into decline. The trouble with regeneration is that if people are being paid £20,000 - £100,000 to sit in comfortable offices, it makes volunteers extremely sore when they have to deal with splenetic residents, object to planning applications, put together newsletters, go to meetings and write minutes, for nothing. The regeneration industry actually corrupts the incentives for people to do things in their local community.

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