More 'consulting' with communities won't address the decline we see in some parts of the country. We need to rethink our approach to local places.
In light of Brexit, government and other funders are showing renewed interest in local places and their significance in creating a more inclusive society. Last summer's vote drew attention to the decline facing many communities, not just in the aftermath of this recession but in some cases over decades.
In response, we have seen a new, welcome focus from the government: a more regional take on industrial strategy; a renewed commitment to devolution. It is about time. The last major neighbourhood-based initiative, New Deal for Communities, concluded almost 10 years ago.
But any major new investment must take on board past lessons. Above all, regeneration can't be imposed. We - including Power to Change, the independent trust I run - need to prioritise working with communities so that they can improve their own neighborhoods.
There are three basic rules to getting it right.
The first, and most important, is to ensure that any new place-based initiative genuinely puts communities in control. The Marmot Review has highlighted the importance of people being able to take control of their lives in addressing the sharp inequalities we face in health and wellbeing. In practice, doing this means recognising that communities have real expertise in how to improve their lives and their place, however disadvantaged they may seem. It means identifying and building on the assets and abilities they have, rather than defining places always through what they lack and the problems they have. And it means giving away some power, so that local people command a real say in how money is spent.
Consultation is not enough. Genuine co-production is essential.
The second is to ensure that the focus is as much on social regeneration as on physical regeneration. There is no doubt that physical decline exacerbates social decline, as the blight of empty homes in cities like Liverpool demonstrates. But a vibrant place also depends on networks of social ties, which need to be built and maintained as much as the physical environment. Initiatives such as local 'soups' and community celebrations are important tools for getting started.
Physical regeneration must also nurture the community, by providing dedicated spaces in which people can meet and interact. What has happened in Billinge on the edge of Wigan is typical. The heart of the town - its shops and pubs where people used to meet - had disappeared, turning it into a dormitory for commuters to Manchester or Liverpool. A community-run farm in the middle of residential streets has stepped in where those civic spaces used to be. It is now recreating the community space and spirit that had been lost.
The third rule is to ensure that a desire for scale does not trump local activity. Major place-based initiatives bring with them large sums of money. This is hardly a bad thing, but the need to spend big can swamp the very local activity that is also essential for communities to regain control.
In the 1980s, for example, the council designated large swathes of Toxteth in Liverpool for demolition. Houses were boarded up and left to crumble. Most of these streets have now been transformed by housing associations. But it is the smaller scale refurbishment by Granby Four Streets, a community-led housing organisation, that has been more significant in rebuilding the social fabric of the area.
The big working alongside the small has been critical.
Community businesses - those led by and for the benefit of the local community - can play an important role in ensuring place-based investment sticks by these rules.
They can give voice to the needs and views of local people in major regeneration schemes, as Bootstrap, a community business that provides work space and other facilities, has done in Dalston in London. They can provide and protect the community spaces that are essential for social as well as physical regeneration and are cherished by the community, such as the Red Brick Building in Glastonbury. And they can also deepen the economic resilience of a community by owning and running assets such as housing, renewable energy and sports facilities, that generate surpluses which can be reinvested for the benefit of the local community. BInspired in Braunstone in Leicester, for example owns a significant property portfolio of housing and office space which provides the asset base from which it can provide a vast number of other services to local residents to address issues such unemployment, health and wellbeing, and poverty.
It is positive to see growing interest in investment in local places as a route to a more inclusive society. But places are more than their physical environment; they are also the communities who live there. Consultation with local people isn't good enough anymore. Giving local people control must be central to making any place-based investment deliver.