Less Net



The Regeneration Merry-Go-Round

RDA is dead, long live LEP! Anyone familiar with the opportunistic way in which regeneration consultants (REGCONs) respond to flavours-of-the-month will not be surprised. Like vultures patrolling their territory, when the bones of one corpse have been stripped bare of flesh, it's time to move onto the next offering, with a desultory flapping of wings to show their unbridled enthusiasm.

Whether city challenge, urban development corporations, social enterprises or industrial and technological clusters, you can be sure of REGCONs presence; emphasising their support for these new initiatives and providing clear evidence that, as long as their unique competencies are employed, then local economic performance will be improved.

In the transition from Regional Development Agencies to Local Enterprise Partnerships, all these predatory skills are deployed; firstly to distance themselves from the failures of what, in the RDAs, was previously considered a vital strategy - now dismissed for its bloated bureaucracies and dissipation of regeneration monies – and secondly to demonstrate their unambiguous support for a 'dynamic, business-led approach' to local entrepreneurship. But, rest assured, REGCON will be a leaner, meaner, regeneration machine, ready for the brave new world and able to deliver on an exciting new agenda.

Closer inspection of LEP, with its emphasis on skills and business start ups in areas of deprivation, reveals an all too familiar look. Remember the Manpower Services Commission and its transition into the Training and Enterprise Councils during the 1980s, tasked with improving skills and encouraging small enterprises at a time of mass unemployment and recession? The great regeneration merry-go-round turns full circle, begging the question of what has been achieved and what can be expected this time.

Looking around Northern cities, with their cloned shopping malls, night clubs and casinos – all products of previous regeneration wheezes – the conclusion is, well, not a lot. Despite much needed capital investment over the last ten years, the underlying issues of poverty and exclusion remain unresolved. If deep recession does take hold, there are obvious vulnerabilities, including the cuts to public sector employment and real concerns that private sector investment will be unable to provide compensatory work. The already large gap between rich and poor will likely increase.



In other words, this should be a time for serious reflection on the meaning of regeneration and the scope for local agencies and consultancies to make any appreciable difference. Economics, at the risk of stating the obvious, is deeply contested terrain, with serious ideological differences on the functioning of the market, especially in the context of climate change and resource depletion. When we need a full and open debate with radical thinking on future options, REGCON's primary objective will be to placate its paymasters by rolling out the usual programmes for young people and the long-term unemployed, and to encourage new, small businesses. Targets will be set and probably achieved and everyone will live happily ever after until LEP is gone and the next flavour-of-the-month takes its place.

Is it so difficult to argue the case that regeneration policy can only be successful if it provides radical alternatives to the fundamental failures of the market? Around the world there is a growing movement of ordinary working people who, through their own efforts to develop local, not-for-profit alternatives, is striving to do just that. For example many American cities like Detroit are facing a brutal form of de-industrialisation and mass unemployment. In response, local community groups are taking over derelict sites to grow food and to build social housing.

This 'solidarity economy' is demonstrating how people can create a different, localised, vision of the future – one that has little or nothing to do with international capitalism on which our future prosperity is supposed to be based, while providing greater resilience and real environmental improvements in the brave new world of high energy prices and rapid climate change,

Regeneration professionals may be able to play a positive role in supporting these emerging networks. But, on reflection, perhaps it would be best to keep REGCON on the merry-go-round rather than sink its claws into any new victims.