The Talking Point: Does our approach to regeneration need regenerating?

(Title Image: ITV Wales)

Last week, Communities Secretary, Carl Sargeant (Lab, Alyn & Deeside), launched a new regeneration programme to succeed Vibrant and Viable Places.

The new scheme is aimed at businesses and other partner organisations like local authorities, inviting them to apply for funding to spend on projects that promote economic regeneration. It’s expected the first investments – from a total pot of £100million – will start from April 2018.

One of the key differences to previous programmes is that applications will be accepted on a rolling basis, meaning there’ll be no deadline to apply. This may help councils and other come up with detailed proposals in their own time without a rush to put together bidding documents by a certain date and will also factor in Brexit.

Other than that, many of the features sound all too familiar: pot of money, council-led (probably small) bids, “support economic development and sustainability”.

A new National Regeneration Investment Panel – which sounds an awful lot like the discredited RIFW board – will be established to ensure the money is “spent effectively” (just make sure Mark James isn’t on it).

Any investment in regeneration has to be a good thing as long as the projects leave a lasting legacy. The problem is that – with a few exceptions (like The Works in Ebbw Vale, Newport Unlimited, Swansea University Bay Campus or some of the works in and around Merthyr Tydfil) – they usually don’t.

The stereotypical regeneration scheme in Wales involves a mix of laying of new flagstones, new street furniture, renovation of dilapidated buildings and/or the construction of social housing alongside a small numbers of retail units.

On the surface of it, this policy is an attempt to, at least on paper, ensure continuity of those current – predominantly EU-backed – regeneration schemes after Brexit and send a message to local authorities and businesses that at least some of that money will still be there.

However, that money is often spread thinly between too many schemes – a form of pork barrelling – to ensure no part of Wales loses out and is often too focused on physical regeneration, usually at the expense of wider economic regeneration which may require investment in things like skills or extra business support.

For example, a £6.2million Vibrant & Viable Places project in Bridgend involved the construction of a replacement multi-storey car park, retail unit and flats which – while better than what was there before and provides much-needed affordable housing – is hardly going to be a game-changer by itself.

The more successful physical regeneration projects – like the ones mentioned earlier – often have an exciting overarching vision for the entire area (not just a focus on one or two specific projects), have buy-in from the private sector as much as the public sector and are often backed to the tune of £100million+.

While there’ll always be a need for investment to get smaller projects off the ground, we also need regeneration policies that aren’t over-dependent on grant funding, apply to the entire country and address the root causes as to why town centres, in particular, are struggling.

Those root causes include competition from out-of-town retail sites, changes in shopping habits (in particular internet shopping), Georgian and Victorian-era buildings that are not well-suited to modern retail requirements, unrealistic rent demands from landlords and business rates that are overly-dependent on property values, not a business’s profitability.

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