Sunday, August 14, 2011

Riots and regeneration

In July 1981, the streets of Toxteth erupted into violence and rioting.  The immediate political reaction, as this week, was one of condemnation.  But out of the riot came the regeneration policies that we today associate with Margaret Thatcher’s decade in office.

Michael Heseltine, the Secretary of State for the Environment, temporarily moved to Liverpool to see for himself what had gone wrong with that great City.  He concluded that much of the problem lay with squabbling local authorities and a municipal disdain for private enterprise.  What was needed was political leadership, better infrastructure and the freedom to allow the entrepreneurial spirit to flourish. 

The record of the policy initiatives that emerged - Urban Development Corporations, City Challenge, and the International Garden Festivals (to clean up derelict brownfield areas) - is mixed, but there is no doubt that they brought some remarkable successes with the regeneration of Liverpool’s Albert Dock and London’s Docklands standing out as the most iconic.  What’s more, the 1980’s marked a turning point for many of our provincial cities from post-industrial decline to one of urban renaissance - people wanted to live in our city centres again.

In the 1990’s and 2000s, the number of regeneration Quango’s proliferated, public funding was spread too wide and thinly and micro-management replaced big picture leadership.  Public money went on masterplans and marketing, with the public sector setting out its visions and targets regardless of the commercial realities on the ground, and developers increasingly expected to pick up the tab for the costs of the infrastructure.  The introduction of the Coalition Government’s localism agenda swept away much of this nonsense, but with it the original virtues of Heseltine’s targeted regeneration policies.

Of course there are differences between what happened in Toxteth and Brixton thirty years ago and the events of the past week.  The images of hooded youths emerging from department stores with flat screen TVs and Nike trainers suggests that these disturbances were motivated by opportunism and personal gain.  Yet, something has gone terribly wrong.

The Right blame family breakdown, a proliferation of drug use and lenient sentences; the Left poverty and inequality.  Both point to educational underachievement, which has contributed to there being a million unemployed 16-25 year olds.

The events of the past week present the first big challenge for the Government’s policy of localism.  Do our municipal leaders have the ingenuity to provide a coherent response or will we see a patchwork of ‘knee jerk’ reactions?  Mr Cameron is already discovering that at times of crisis people look to their national leaders, not their local ones, and opinion polls show that the people haven’t been impressed with those leaders. 

The question now is how the Coalition responds?  What policies will emerge out of the ashes of last week’s riots?  Regeneration must be an important part of the answer.  The Coalition could do no worse than to reinvigorate Heseltine’s triple fix of Political leadership, Infrastructure and Entrepreneurial spirit – or what we might call the PIE strategy.

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