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Govan Community Council Conference

Poverty, deprivation and development in working class communities

The Pearce Institute, Govan, Glasgow
Monday, 22 November 2004

The Pearce Institute

Community participation and urban regeneration

Dr Charles Collins, School of Social Sciences, Paisley University

John McAllion's discussion of the experience of Whitfield under the New Life for Urban Scotland programme will have reminded many of us of the dark days of the late 1980s - when a right wing government with an ideologically driven hostility to municipal housing was promoting stock transfer on the false basis that it would empower tenants; was forcing local authorities to 'buy into' so-called 'regeneration initiatives' about which they had serious reservations; was talking about tackling poverty at the same time as increasing inequality; and was trying to sell the idea that a 'spirit of enterprise' was what was needed to transform the experience of areas of poverty and deprivation. 

Unfortunately, as anyone who is even modestly abreast of the current situation will know, this is by and large what still confronts us today.  For the fact is that while the New Life for Urban Scotland programme failed to get even remotely close to achieving the kinds of objectives trumpeted for it in 1988, it has been worryingly successful in another respect.  It has been crucial in helping to establish what is seen by politicians, civil servants and people working in the various agencies, local government and the voluntary sector as 'the right basis' - indeed the only basis - on which to develop work towards 'urban regeneration'. 

A new consensus has emerged about 'working in partnership', and in reality this means a lot more than it seems to on the surface.  It does not just mean that departments, organizations, agencies and communities should all work together to try to bring about the best possible impact on problems.  No-one is, or could be, opposed to that - at least in principle (though when one studies relationships at the highest level of government one wonders about what right the current incumbents have to lecture anyone about 'joined-up government' or 'partnership working'). 

What it means in practical terms is stock transfer, reducing the role of the public sector, promoting 'flexible labour markets' (meaning temporary, non-union labour on poverty wages), and a wholly unrealistic expectation about what the private sector and the 'spirit of enterprise' is ever likely to contribute.  In short, it means continuing with all the same themes and ideas which, since 1988, have failed to deliver on stated regeneration objectives.  Indeed, at this moment we are in the process of constructing yet another generation of partnerships to work to this agenda - the Community Planning Partnerships which have been made statutory by recent legislation from the Scottish Parliament.

Just how significant the history of failure behind all this has been has become more apparent over the past 5 years or so.  The New Life programme established 'partnerships' in 4 areas - Whitfield, Wester Hailes, Castlemilk and Ferguslie Park.  They were to have a 10 year life-span and were to transform the areas as a demonstration of the virtues of the 'partnership approach'.  The final evaluation of their implementation was published in 1999.  Unfortunately, New Labour gave a ringing endorsement to the New Life model a year in advance of the evaluation - and so made the 'partnership approach' the basis of their social inclusion programme and the SIPs.  What the evaluation subsequently showed, when one read beyond the very carefully worded, and somewhat misleading, executive summary, was the extent of the failure of the New Life partnerships. 

There was £485 million worth of expenditure in just these 4 areas.  This, of course, brought housing and environmental improvements - though at the expense of other areas that were starved of investment to pay for it - but by no means on the comprehensive scale that had been envisaged.  Labour market participation fell in two of the four areas, and did not seem to impact on the original populations.  Beyond housing, the research could turn up no significant improvements in the quality of life on the estates, and in several respects things seemed to get worse.  'Partnership working' amounted to much too little in practice, and local participation on the whole seemed to prove to be a disempowering experience for community groups, and was in some areas disastrous.  Yet this 'partnership approach' was what the SIPs were meant to take forward - and with far less in the way of resources to fund them. 

Little wonder then that they seem also to have failed.  This is made clear in research that was carried out for Communities Scotland to inform the current move to community planning - and the integration of the SIPs into that framework.  The difference is that in this report there is no attempt made to mask the reality of the failure.  The twist comes in terms of the blame.  There is nothing wrong with the basic 'partnership' model, it is claimed.  The problem is with the implementers.  In future, implementers will have to do better, and will have to be held accountable where they do not.  It is time, the report concludes for a "ruthless recognition" of weaknesses in implementation.  Of course, where in the New Life programme it was the government themselves who were the lead implementers, now it is local authorities who are to be charged with that responsibility.  The irony that we recognise implementation weaknesses at this stage will not be lost on people here today.

Thus the scenario for the coming phase of regeneration policy in Scotland is one that should cause real concern.  Local authorities will have a statutory responsibility to lead Community Planning Partnerships which, among other things, will have to 'close the gap' between the poorest communities and the rest of the country.  They will be obliged to work on the basis of the 'partnership' approach that has not worked in the past and is not likely to start working now.  They will then be held accountable, and blamed, for it not working.  They will become even more the target for the frustrations and resentments of local community groups.  Indeed they will be expected to facilitate their meaningful participation, despite the fact that they are saddled with an approach which has been shown to have led to the exact opposite of that when central government were themselves in the driving seat.  It is a situation in which localities can only lose, and in which we are likely to see further centralisation of power in Edinburgh.

It is, in other words, a situation that cries out for change.  We have heard this morning a number of suggestions for change in key areas, and in the coming workshops we will have the opportunity to discuss these and make suggestions. 

Mike Dailly highlighted the need for change in housing policy.  What we have had for the past 25 years has been more of a tenure than a housing policy - and the earlier priority given to concerns about the quantity and quality of affordable housing has been at best secondary to that.  We need to think about how housing policy must change if we are to have stable and balanced communities within rented housing.  What are the implications in terms of rents and housing finance?  Who is going to provide this housing?  Mike Dailly also pointed to problems in the planning system, and to the need to give much greater priority for planning for such stable and balanced communities.  What are the changes that are required here?

But in thinking about housing and planning we also come up against some of the broader assumptions of current government thinking that were mentioned by Mike Danson.  For the government's broader economic strategies, as expressed in Smart Successful Scotland and the Framework for Economic Development that underpins it, seem to presume not just the continuation of housing and planning policy along current lines, but their intensificiation - more stock transfers to access private capital, a loosening of democratic controls on planning, to say nothing of the continuing emphases on the supply side, flexible labour markets and entrepreneurship that have in the past failed to deliver for areas in need of regeneration.  Just how is it that we might conceive a framework for economic development in Scotland that works for local communities seeking regeneration, rather than against them?

And of course John McAllion and myself have talked about some of the specifics and some of the generalities in what is called 'community regeneration' at the moment.  Here too there seems to be a clear need for change.  This is likely to require that at least some in the local authorities are willing to break away from the 'group think' identified by Baillie Flanagan - according to which anyone who dissents from the prevailing consensus about 'the right' approach is deemed to be a bit mad.  What needs to be made clear is that the irrationality in this discussion lies among those who continue to adhere to a model which has been shown to fail over such a protracted period.  So, how might community groups develop their own assessment of the failures of the 'partnership' model, and how might they seek to develop an alternative? What would that alternative model look like?  How might communities build a coalition which could project that alternative as a serious contender in public debate?   In the current context we should be aware that at least some local authorities could be brought into this.  The move to community planning seems to hold real dangers for them, and if they can be made aware of this then perhaps community groups and local authorities might begin to rebuild relations and raise critical questions about the 'partnership' approach to regeneration. 

These are just a few of the areas and issues that have arisen today.  The proposal is that now we should break into two groups and try to identify the 3 key policy changes that we think are required if we are to bring about meaningful and sustainable improvements in the lives of working class communities in Scotland today.  Groups should then feed back their suggestions when we reconvene.