This is Why We Need Select Committees

05/11/2011 22:22 | Updated 05 January 2012

Pour a double espresso. I'm about to praise a group of MPs for saying something sensible.

Earlier this year I commented on what the government, apparently without irony, called its plan for community-led regeneration. This toolkit, to use local government minister Grant Shapps's term, entitled Regeneration to Enable Growth, could be described as concise if it had any coherence; without it, it's simply flimsy.

At the time I said it was 'neither a guide to regeneration nor a strategy for the future. Without analysis, without methodology, without goals and without evaluation, it's not so much a vision as an abdication of responsibility.'

Eight months on, the House of Commons communities and local government committee has taken a similar view:

'...the document gives us little confidence that the Government has a clear strategy for addressing the country's regeneration needs. It lacks strategic direction and is unclear about the nature of the problem it is trying to solve. It focuses overwhelmingly upon the achievement of economic growth, giving little emphasis to the specific issues faced by deprived communities and areas of market failure.'

As someone who submitted evidence to the committee's inquiry, I'm glad they see both the need for a real strategy to tackle deprivation and the inadequacy of the government's response (in England, anyway: the Scots and Welsh are more enlightened).

The language of the committee is restrained, but unmistakeable in its conclusions. In short, it concludes that the government has failed to learn (or even consider) the lessons from previous attempts at regeneration, positive or negative. It lacks any intelligible plan to bring investment into deprived areas. Its aspirations for 'community-led' regeneration are at odds with its withdrawal of funding from organisations working in our poorest communities.

As the MPs say:

'Having concluded that previous approaches to regeneration were "unsustainable" and "unaffordable", it appears to have dismissed them all and chosen to start again with a blank canvas.'

Local government minister Grant Shapps was adamant that this didn't just mean abandoning people to their fate. Confronted with evidence that the arbitrary withdrawal of funding from housing market renewal schemes had left people stranded in half-demolished and boarded-up neighbourhoods, he said his explanation to local residents would be:

'To say that this is an inevitable consequence of an unsustainable approach, which I appreciate is not much help to somebody who is stuck in the middle of all of this, and that we will not just turn our backs and walk away.'

Yet walking away is exactly what the government has done: follow the money and you'll find it's flowing out, not in. If this was a football match, the select committee report is the equivalent of the crowd chanting at the manager: 'You're going to be sacked in the morning.'

But because they use more gentlemanly language, you have to stop and ask yourselves why it should take months of scrutiny by our members of parliament to remind the government that it needs a strategy to tackle a problem.

You have to ask why ministers should need to be told to explain what they think the problem is and what action should be taken. And you have to wonder what level of intelligence and application by ministers should prompt a suggestion that they should go away and look at what has been done before and what lessons have been learned.

If Shakespeare had been writing the story of regeneration policy in England, he might well use the words of Jacques in As You Like It to describe the stage we've now reached:

Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

• For more analysis and commentary on the report, including what it missed, see this post.