The poverty of new ideas, not just on housing, but urban policy in general, is grimly demonstrated by the wheeling out of Michael Heseltine to address the country’s need for ‘growth’. In the immortal words of Yogi Berra, it’s like deja vu all over again! To hear the hirsute one going on about ‘levering in private finance’, ‘freeing up the planning system’ and ‘public private partnerships’ is like waking up in the early 1980s, when he was the motivation for my first independent act of political protest. We had heard that new housing on public land in Beckton was going to be entirely for private sale. About 100 people turned up to jeer three-homes Heseltine as he came to visit one of the first new developments of what became the behemoth of ‘Docklands’. Thirty years on, the landscape of east London has changed, but the rhetoric of neo-liberalism hasn’t – and the thought that people would demonstrate against private housing seems almost quaint.
The essence of what Heseltine’s arguing for is no different from every other ‘regeneration’ programme of the type that have become second nature to politicians, planners and local governments everywhere. The unchallenged belief that ‘growth is good’ and that this can be achieved by unleashing private property developers on the land, with ideological cover from compliant public authorities working in ‘partnership’ has achieved hegemonic orthodoxy, allied to what can only be described as a superstition that such economic activity will bring multiple benefits to poor neighbourhoods.
I often wish that local regeneration projects were exposed to a similar type of audit as is sometimes applied to overseas aid and charities, so we can know for every pound invested, how much of it actually reaches the local communities it’s intended for. My experience is that at least a third gets sucked up by a panoply of over-paid bureaucrats, consultants and pointless work. Another third will be spent on ‘projects’, some of which will be useful, but very few of which will survive beyond the life of their funding. At best, a final third might make it down to the ground where it makes a difference to people’s lives, but even this is often fraught with frustration and disappointment as promises go unkept while the regeneration caravan moves on.
Somebody I worked with on a £50 million estate improvement programme said at the outset that if we couldn’t avoid the mistakes of the past, we might just as well divy up the money and stand on the corner of the street giving every resident from the area £2000 in cash because this would be just as likely to make a meaningful impact. He had a point.
Until or unless we can escape the private-property led fixation, leavened with Victorian paternalism, grandiose schemes will fail. Despite all the blandishments to the contrary, local communities have regeneration done to them, not with them or for them. Another round of Hesel Time will only deepen the underlying faults.