Sustainable by 2020? A strategic approach to urban regeneration for Britain's cities

Michael Carley and Karryn Kirk

Thirty years of short-term initiatives have not reduced a pressing need for urban regeneration.

If deprived households, polarised sink estates and derelict city landscapes are not to be with us 20 years hence, a broader, long-term approach is required. 'Sustainable by 2020?' describes this strategic approach to city-wide regeneration, developed in a major research programme with case studies in Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow.

The report sets out an agenda of innovation as a first step to sustainable cities. It provides a better understanding of how cities can shift away from the piecemeal approach to build on steady, year-on-year achievement by improving our capabilities in urban management and participation.

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Despite thirty years of short-term urban regeneration programmes, many areas are still characterised by deprivation. A research programme on city-wide regeneration led by Michael Carley, with case studies in Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh, aimed to identify which elements can make regeneration strategies more sustainable in the long term.

  • At the city level, the research identifies good practice in integration and participation. This includes: fast-track council decision-making; sophisticated partnership linking local government, business and the voluntary sector and extending formally to young people; city-wide strategies, to avoid merely displacing problems from one area to another; and council decentralisation to foster local participation.
  • Community participation is found to be fundamental to regeneration, but often chaotic under current arrangements. A one-stop participation process would give local people the opportunity to establish priorities for local development and monitoring of service provision and to be involved, on a life-long basis, in the management of their neighbourhoods.
  • The researchers conclude more systematic innovation is yet required. To realise strategic regeneration, local authorities need a corporate approach which bridges inter-departmental rivalries, and provides the framework for the contribution of line departments.

The continuing need for urban regeneration

Despite some achievements, a compelling need for urban regeneration has not been reduced by thirty years of policy initiatives, some of which have had to be applied again and again to the same neighbourhoods. Council estates 'regenerated' ten years ago are ripe for demolition. New challenges are surfacing. Housing association estates and low-cost neighbourhoods of owner-occupation are slipping into patterns of decline once confined to the council sector.

The incremental approach of the past may never suffice, suggesting a new, strategic approach may be required. Looking at Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow, this research project set out to understand:

  • the continuing need for regeneration,
  • the reasons why it has not been achieved, and
  • the organisational and strategic requirements for sustainable regeneration, with examples of innovation.

The need for organisational innovation

A long-term perspective: The research identified a failure to take a long-term perspective on the future of cities and hinterlands. This means lack of common vision on which to build consensus and guide policy, and a short-term approach to regeneration policy and funding.

Estate and city in a regional framework: The research found a need to link regional, city and local initiatives, given that regional decisions have a major impact on the viability of local regeneration. Without it, city competes with city for inward investment, which serves only to shift economic activity from one locale to another.

Linking physical to social and economic regeneration: When regeneration is property-led, contracting regimes impose their own logic on investment and hiring, and commitment to local benefit is lost. Key informants noted a common requirement to spend public funds quickly (called 'front-ending') to achieve early visual results to boost investor confidence and lever in private funds. This can push the development process too fast to link it to the requisite employment strategy, and the community participation, skills assessment, training and adult basic education which needs to go with it.

Community involvement in regeneration partnerships: Top-down funding empowers institutional stakeholders represented in partnership by paid professionals, skilled at meetings, who can forge ahead with regeneration strategy. More challenging is genuine partnership with the community, which implies enhancing the ability of communities to participate in strategy development and long-term community governance.

Linking the top-down with the bottom-up: Good, community-based examples were found in local regeneration and Agenda 21 initiatives. But these can be undermined by inconsistency in national policy. Sometimes the departmentalism of officers, and ruling group politics amongst councillors, runs counter to community requirements for an holistic approach.

Leadership in the city: To realise strategic regeneration, local authorities need a corporate approach which bridges inter-departmental rivalries, and provides the framework for the contribution of line departments. Commitment at senior levels legitimates working relationships at officer level. The research found that leadership and vision leads to consensus on strategy and an organisational culture in the local authority that values partnership and community participation. Strategies must be co-ordinated to common purpose by the Leader and Chief Executive - important as councils move away from service delivery toward a strategic and co-ordinating role.

Social housing: If local allocation continues to concentrate disadvantaged families and unemployed single people on 'sink' estates, and encourage the economically active to leave, regeneration is unsustainable. The research found a need for transparent housing allocation policies derived from clear objectives and a full inventory of social housing in the city-region

Areas of innovation in the four cities

Case studies revealed both institutional impediments and innovation at regional and city levels. Comparing England and Scotland, a striking finding related to local government reorganisation in Scotland which swept away all regional government and administration in favour of a single tier. The result is a disjuncture between where jobs are created and where they are needed, and difficulty co-ordinating transport between the two. This is hindering Glasgow's regeneration, as there is no agency with a regional perspective to pose the right strategic questions. England, on the other hand, is stealing a march on Scotland with growing regional co-ordination by the Government Offices for the Regions (GORs) and Regional Development Agencies (RDAs) working with regional forums or assemblies which link local government, business and the voluntary sector

Birmingham City Pride continues a history of regeneration partnership between the Council and the Chamber of Commerce. Its main Board is chaired by a senior businessman; the Chamber provides offices to the City Pride Secretariat, while the Council and the TEC second staff. City Pride represents a common vision, with Leader and Deputy Leader of the Council joining business and community representatives on the Board. There is a Management Group which meets monthly as an executive. It consists of representatives of five core partner organisations: Council, Chamber, TEC, Voluntary Services Council and Birmingham 2000, which fosters economic development. There is an innovative City Pride Youth Board representing 16 - 25 year olds, with three seats on the main Board and its own funded work programme.

In Manchester the need for rapid decision-making for regeneration, on issues such as planning, land disposal or budgeting and policy co-ordination, is balanced against the need for consistent policies across the city, and accountability in the use of public funds. As the number of regeneration areas multiplied, the Council established an Urban and Social Strategy Sub-Committee for fast-track decision-making for regeneration initiatives, which ensures co-ordination between them and extends ownership of projects to service committees. These arrangements are supported within the officer structure by the Deputy and Assistant Chief Executives who chair, manage and co-ordinate all regeneration initiatives from within the Chief Executive's department.

The Glasgow Regeneration Alliance, launched in 1993, recognised that area regeneration had the unintended effect of displacing problems from one neighbourhood to the next. A city-wide strategy was necessary. By 1994, the GRA had already produced a sophisticated analysis of the linkages between housing, transport and employment for the city's regeneration areas. Glasgow's regeneration strategy is backed up by its unitary plan, and other initiatives include Glasgow Works to help the long-term unemployed into the labour market and the Regeneration Fund to loan money to small businesses in poor neighbourhoods.

Innovation in Edinburgh includes the integration of the city's planning, transport and economic development functions in one department called City Development, which is also assisting implementation of the Council's decentralisation strategy, formulated by the Strategic Policy Department. This involves the city being divided into five areas for the development of vision, city management and community involvement in neighbourhood Agenda for Action programmes, and with the assistance of Area Co-ordinating Teams, made up of councillors and representatives of key departments.


A key task identified is to make physical regeneration opportunities work to achieve social and economic development, and to devise effective non-physical policy interventions to keep the momentum of regeneration rolling forward once physical rebuilding is complete. Failure of momentum was related to a past assumption that serious urban problems could be resolved by temporary or "catalyst" initiatives. These can be useful to focus resources and energies, but they are clearly not sufficient for sustainable regeneration. The researchers suggest the following recommendations for change:

Reform of challenge funding

Although there is benefit in forcing the pace of change, challenge funding creates illogical competition between deprived areas. Failure to secure funding reinforces cynicism about participation. A new approach would establish national funding priorities on a rational, defensible basis, with responsibility for central funding delegated to the GORs working with regional partners to develop vision and strategy. Progress could be overseen by a 'good practice unit' within the Audit Commission or the Department of Environment, Transport and the Regions. This would be a national source of practical knowledge on regeneration and a means of translating good practice from one area to the next. For Scotland, the role could filled by the Accounts Commission.

Better integration at the regional level

Whatever the role of RDAs, the research suggests it would be a mistake to allow a simplistic competition for inward investment to dictate the pattern of regional development, even in areas desperate for jobs. A comprehensive approach is required, which integrates inward investment programmes with life-long education and training, competitiveness strategy, land use, sustainable transport and urban regeneration. The research suggests "regional vision statements" with a 25-year perspective. These should not be vague, but link vision, strategy and operational policies in a clear framework. This would provide the framework for an integrated hierarchy of development guidance including:

  • Regional economic development, land use and transport plans (20 year perspective)
  • Structure or Unitary Development Plans (15 years)
  • City Development Strategies, to encompass city-wide regeneration strategy (10-15 years), and key objectives from neighbourhood plans;
  • Neighbourhood vision statements (10 years), with local plans and service quality agreements.

The English regions

To achieve integration, there needs to be good co-ordination between the regional forum for local government and civil society, RDAs and GORs. In the regions studied, there has been good progress towards establishing a coherent framework for sustainability and regeneration. However, policy co-ordination has some way to go. First, there is little common purpose, strategy or timetabling between regeneration initiatives funded from SRB, European Programme and mainstream programmes. This mirrors the failure to integrate UK regional and structure planning with regional programmes supported by Structural Funds. Second, there are gaps in the administrative framework of GORs. Health, social services, education and land reclamation are outside the framework. The Treasury should have regional representatives in the GORs - to foster understanding of the effects of public expenditure regulations on urban development and regeneration

The Scottish city-regions

Although there is good overall inward investment, there is no regional perspective, outside of weak, voluntary structure planning arrangements between local authorities and sometimes illogical competition between enterprise companies in the same metropolitan area. There is no equivalent to the GOR's Regional Planning Guidance, and no forums for discussion of regional issues, such as in the North West Partnership or the Regional Assembly for Yorkshire and Humberside. A Scottish Parliament will need to re-establish a measure of regional co-ordination, but not necessarily regional government, to regain the more strategic approach now emerging for the English regions.

Integrated urban development strategies

The research recommends that a next step for cities is integrated urban development strategies, encompassing physical, economic and social development, urban regeneration and Agenda 21 to provide an overall strategic approach, co-ordinating line departments and agencies such as health, police and so on. The report distinguishes between area level service co-ordination, a function of local government, and establishing a vision at the neighbourhood level, an opportunity for direct citizen interaction with local government and other stakeholders.

Establishing a neighbourhood vision

Community participation remains one of the biggest challenges to regeneration. Temporary participation exercises are valuable, but cannot be representative or democratic, nor do they allow communities to regularly influence mainstream programmes or strategic issues. Each of the case study cities recognise this and have pilot decentralisation initiatives.

To build on this innovation, and to suggest a more systematic way forward, the research proposes a streamlined, one-stop participation process at the neighbourhood level. This recognises that local people, in and out of regeneration areas, need the opportunity for less intensive, less wearing but life-long participation which assesses neighbourhood prospects holistically rather than in the compartmentalised boxes of administration. Children too need to participate because they are full of good ideas, and because today's student is tomorrow's young adult

Drawing up a neighbourhood vision, on a voluntary basis, would give local people the opportunity to establish a sense of purpose for local development and priorities for action by stakeholders, including community groups. The focus would be on how different policy areas, and citizens and professionals, interact to move towards the sustainable neighbourhood, as well as local input to the city strategy. A major advantage is that residents would not be dependent on institutional stakeholders providing the chance for participation, but would know that they could avail themselves of the opportunity to participate, as a right of citizenship. The research report describes the why, what and how of neighbourhood 'visioning', its potential links to statutory planning and how the use of information technology could make it widely accessible.

About the study

The research tested a potential agenda of organisational innovation in over 120 interviews with regeneration practitioners in England's City Pride partnerships in Birmingham and Manchester and in the Programme for Partnership cities of Edinburgh and Glasgow.