Neighbourhoods and regeneration – theory, practice, issues

picture Mks

For all the talk of changing lifestyles, neighbourhood still plays a fundamental role in many people’s lives. We explore the nature of neighbourhood, some current issues associated with ‘disadvantaged’ neighbourhoods; and what can be done to regenerate them.

Coopers Road Estate, London SE1 – walls removed to deter squatters

contents: introduction · growing disquiet about neighbourhoods  · social polarization · some issues of disadvantaged neighbourhoods  · disadvantaged neighbourhoods, social capital and informal support · regenerating neighbourhoods  · defining and assessing regeneration · some issues with neighbourhood regeneration · local people and regeneration · regeneration, localism and the financial crisis in Britain · conclusion · further reading and references · how to cite this article

Neighbourhoods  – local areas within towns and cities recognized by people who live there as distinct places, with their own character and approximate boundaries (Power 2007: 17) – continue to matter to people. As Anne Power’s extensive research shows, there is a convincing argument for us to attend to them – and the possibilities that exist within neighbourhoods to further people’s happiness and well-being.

Neighbourhoods frame people’s lives, providing a bundle of services that people need, and an environment on which families depend. They also provide a vital anchor to individual lives, the ‘container’ within which different social groups develop contact with each other; the ‘bridge’ that should make possible the transition from mother and baby, through mother and child, to youth and the wider world. If a family is on a low income and the neighbourhood they live in is precarious and fast changing, then the movement from childhood to adulthood within the neighbourhood carries many additional risks…. Neighbourhoods help to shape people’s lives because they do more than house people. They form a base for wider activities, providing many of the social services that link individuals with each other, giving rise to a sense of community. Thus neighbourhoods provide a basic line of support to families. Neighbourhoods form the most immediate environment for children to socialize outside the family to build confidence and develop coping skills. (Power 2007: 22)

Furthermore, as Barton (2000: 49-65) has shown, across a range of environmental concerns, on grounds of health, safety, equity and access, and ‘even economic justification in terms of capitalizing on the local skills base’ the potential of neighbourhoods  is significant. He goes on to argue that not only neighbourhoods  desirable, they are also feasible (op. cit.: 65). However, as the example of large council estates has shown in Britain, a number of things need to be present if they are to work – and in this piece we want to look at some of the key issues.

With this this sort of focus there is a danger of over-focusing on neighbourhoods themselves. Local experiences need linking to wider social and economic forces. For most of their history in Britain, Ruth Lupton notes, area-based programmes have been undertaken without proper attention to macro policy to deal with the more fundamental causes of area problems. ‘The rhetoric of regeneration’, she argues, ‘and the local basis of programmes, has given the impression that poor areas could be transformed, or at least slightly ameliorated by local interventions’ (Lupton 2003: 12).

There is also a risk of falling into a sentimental view of neighbourhood. Here one of the most memorable commentaries came from Jane Jacobs:

Neighbourhood is a word that has come to sound like a valentine. As a sentimental concept ‘neighbourhood’ is harmful to city planning. It leads to attempts at warping city life into imitations of town or suburban life. Sentimentality plays with sweet intentions in place of good sense. (Jacobs 1965: 122)

Jacobs’ warning is worth attending to. We can easily fall into seeing local ways of life through rose-tinted glasses, but at the same time we should not underestimate the social significance of neighbourhood – and the importance of urban environments that act on a human scale.

Growing disquiet about neighbourhood

Over the last century or so there has been a fairly constant sense of disquiet about the way in which many local neighbourhoods  – especially in cities to begin with – have not been the proper focus of policy and have suffered economically, socially and environmentally. In Britain, for example, social investigators like Charles Booth and Seebohm Rowntree (1901), and in the United States writers like Jacob Riis (1891), highlighted the concentration of poverty in particular areas. With economic change, segregation on the grounds of ‘race’ and culture, and basic failures in policy and planning significant problems remained. In this process some neighbourhoods flourished, others declined. By the mid-1960’s Jane Jacobs (1965: 122) concluded in respect of the United States:

A successful city neighbourhood is a place that keeps sufficiently abreast of its problems so it is not destroyed by them. An unsuccessful neighbourhood is a place that is overwhelmed by its defects and problems and is progressively more helpless before them. Our cities contain all degrees of success and failure. But on the whole we Americans are poor at handling city neighbourhoods, as can be seen by the long accumulations of failures in our great grey belts on the one hand, and by the Turfs of rebuilt city on the other.

Problems around city neighbourhoods were exacerbated by the movement of people, retail and work into the suburbs. It created sprawl (see our piece of sustainable communities) and effectively robbed many city neighbourhoods of much of their amenity, social mix and political influence. It also helped to break down local networks and friendships – and contributed to a continuing social polarization. The latter is perhaps best expressed in the growth of gated communities. They have, according to one study, both intensified social segregation, racism and exclusionary land use; and they have they have not provided the sense of community and belonging that many of their residents seek (Low 2003: 7-26).

In Britain too, there were similar shifts. Three particular strategies, as Hall and Power (2000: 58) have noted, have changed the face of cities and towns:

  • The abandonment of terraced housing and planned garden cities in favour of unplanned suburbs.
  • The adoption of large-scale clearance instead of more incremental renewal.
  • The construction of mass housing estates as the dominant low-income form in every inner-city area.

Taken alongside major changes and dislocations in local economies, these policies have contributed significantly, just as in the United States, to growing social polarization and problems of sprawl. By the end of the 1990s the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU 1998) concluded that in England alone there were up to 4000 neighbourhoods where the problems of unemployment and crime are acute and ‘hopelessly tangled up with poor health, housing and education’. The report continues, ‘They are no-go areas for some and no-exit zones for others’ (op. cit.: 9).

Social polarization

Social and spatial polarisation can be understood as ‘the widening gap between groups of people in terms of their economic and social circumstances and opportunities. (Dorling and Woodward 1996: 71). In many countries the gap between rich and poor has opened up. In Britain, for example, the pattern of poverty and wealth has changed in important ways:

Over the past 15 years, more households have become poor, but fewer are very poor. Areas already wealthy have tended to become disproportionately wealthier, and we are seeing some evidence of increasing polarisation. In particular there are now areas in some of our cities where over half of all households are breadline poor. (Dorling et. al. 2007: xiv)

In other words, ‘Britain’s population became increasingly polarised with respect to the distribution of asset wealthy households’ (op. cit.: 28) and ‘poverty became increasingly geographically concentrated’ (op. cit.: 40).

If we turn to housing conditions we can also see that while in Britain they may have improved overall, those living in social housing enjoy less space per person than others, and – indeed – less than they did ten years before (Hills 2007; see, also, Hills 2004). John Hills continues:

Social tenants are much more concentrated within the poorer parts of the income distribution than in the past… Two-thirds of social housing is still located within areas originally built as council estates. These originally housed those with a range of incomes, but now the income polarisation between tenures also shows up as polarisation between areas. Nearly half of all social housing is now located in the most deprived fifth of neighbourhoods, and this concentration appears to have increased since 1991… Further, while new social housing developments are smaller in scale than in the past, new building of social housing is still disproportionately in the most deprived neighbourhoods (although there is now much more private building within them). These areas are far more likely to suffer from problems than others, and for tenants to report neighbourhood problems. (Hills 2007: 4)

The way in which many council estates and housing projects were built – not just in the 1960s, but long before, ‘has actively contributed to the reinforcement of class boundaries’ (Hanley 2007: 231). It has entailed, ‘wresting working-class communities away from the old lifelines of work, families and friends and forging a new class of alienated and damaged, highly pressurized people whose links with mainstream society range from incomplete to tenuous’ (op. cit.).

Many people have sought to escape such projects and estates. They look to the suburbs and beyond, or to other, more ‘desirable’ neighbourhoods  with better schools and safer public spaces. Those with money (perhaps in Britain having benefited from exercising their ‘right to buy’ earlier enough to have made considerable sums on a rising house prices) are able to move out. If this happens on any scale, local networks and the sense of belonging are weakened. People’s perceptions of the neighbourhood  change. Alongside this we have also seen a continuing process of neighbourhood  polarization (especially marked in the United Sates and Northern Ireland) in terms of ethnic and religious groupings. While this has always been a feature of migration it is clear that many local neighbourhoods  are likely to remain divided, ‘racially’ and culturally. As Wilson and Taub (2006: 161) have commented with regard to the United States, ‘this has profound implications for the future of race and ethnic relations…; national racial tensions cannot be disassociated from tensions originating in neighbourhood social dynamics’.

Some issues of disadvantaged neighbourhoods

Here we just want to briefly discuss four key issues highlighted in the literature as associated with ‘disadvantaged neighbourhoods ‘. Within Britain our appreciation of the experiences of these neighbourhoods  has been significantly enhanced in recent years by the work of CASE (The ESRC Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion) – and in particular the work of Anne Power (1997, 2007), and Ruth Lupton (2003). Lynsey Hanley has also provided a highly accessible and insightful study of estates (2007).

Ruth Lupton brings out three consistent themes in her study of twelve disadvantaged neighbourhoods:

  • economic restructuring resulting in enormous job losses;
  • widening inequality (driven in large part by economic changes); and
  • changes in the size and composition of the population (Lupton 2003: 46).

These increased the concentration of poverty in the poorest areas and neighbourhoods. Here we will briefly examine the movements and dynamics involved with each of these – and add a fourth theme that appears in a significant number of disadvantaged neighbourhoods – poor housing and poor design.

Economic restructuring and changing opportunities for work

Many of the neighbourhoods that get labelled as disadvantaged are in areas where there have been major and long-term disruptions to the local economy – often through the closure or shrinkage of major employers. Lupton (2003: 46) comments that for the neighbourhoods she studied the 1970s and 1980s were periods of ‘catastrophic employment decline’. The impact of a mine, dock or large company closing or winding down is felt well beyond the loss of work and income for those directly involved. It affects local shops and services, and can have a profound effect on neighbourhood life – especially where that employer has been the dominant one in the area. This is made worse by the long time lag between closure or loss and the appearance of any concrete benefits for local people through redevelopment and regeneration. Many of the areas affected by severe job losses in the 1970s are still feeling the impact.

Such change and loss needs to be set in the context of broader economic change. With globalization we have seen a significant decrease in the numbers of people employed in manufacturing in ‘northern’ economies such as the USA and UK – and an explosion in such work within countries such as China and India. At the same time with the continuing rise of multinational corporations decisions about jobs and commercial priorities are increasingly taken a long way away from the communities they affect (Gray 1999; Landes 1999). When all this combined with technical change and innovation the result in many neighbourhoods has been a fundamental shift in the sorts of employment on offer; a move from work in heavy industry and manufacturing to work in retail, distribution, services and administration. In 1981 one in three jobs held by men was in manufacturing. By 2001 this had fallen to about one in five. The proportion of female workers in this sector dropped from nearly one in five to under one in ten (National Statistics 2002). Financial and business services now account for about one in five jobs in the UK, compared with about one in ten in 1981 (op. cit.). A significant proportion of this work has been either part-time or shift-based. Associated with this shift has been the movement from what was in large part a male workforce to one that is at least half female (op. cit.). In a number of ‘disadvantaged’ neighbourhoods women have become the main breadwinners (although in many such neighbourhoods and their surrounding areas employment opportunities traditionally taken up by women have either contracted or not grown at the rate they have nationally).

Poverty and growing inequality

Social and economic policy in Britain has, over the last thirty years, led to a widening gap between rich and poor. Karen Dunnell (2008), the National Statistician, has reported that disadvantage has persisted among minority ethnic groups, disabled people and the residents of deprived areas. She comments, ‘on average in the UK we are richer, but there is evidence that inequality in income has increased over the last two decades’. This is against a background of a significant growth in inequality between 1979 and 1990/91. As we have already seen, given the concentration of poorer people in social housing it has meant that some neighbourhoods have suffered disproportionately. Alongside the widening gap in pay, Ruth Lupton (2003: 53) also highlights the impact of changes to the income support system. ‘The policy of successive governments to link benefit payments to prices rather than to earnings’, she comments, ‘meant that the incomes of those who were not working fell further adrift from the average’.

While fewer people are very poor, a relatively large number still live in poverty. There has been some improvement in with regard to the numbers of children living in poverty in the UK but more recently there has been little change. This is further exacerbated by the fact that parenting in the sorts of neighbourhoods we are considering here ‘requires more money than it does in less urban areas and low-income parents struggle to meet even basic costs for their children’ (Power 2007: 100).

With the world banking crisis of 2008, the associated rise in unemployment, and the large-scale cutbacks in public education and welfare from 2010 onwards, economic inequality appears to be growing. Moreover, it is children and young people who have disproportionately borne the burden of this. For example, in 2009 around 2.2 million children lived in absolute poverty. Projections produced by the Institute of Fiscal Studies indicate that by 2015 the number of children living in absolute poverty will rise to 3 million (Brewer et. al. 2011).

Changing populations, changing families

With job losses came population movement. Those that could afford to move out often did so. Inner city areas lost population from the 1960s onwards. A significant number of people moved into new estates on the periphery of cities, others out to the suburbs (classic early accounts of this process in England can be found in the work of Young and Willmott). With people moving out of these neighbourhoods, and there being problems around finding local work, they became even less attractive to those with at least some money and choice. The result was that those moving in were likely to be poor – and were often migrants from other countries. There are some strong ethnic patterns with regard to poverty – with people living in ‘Pakistani’ or ‘Bangladeshi’ households are more than twice as likely to be living in poverty than average (58 per cent compared with 22 per cent) (Dunnell 2008).

Along with these changes has come alterations in household size. It has more than halved in a century down to around two today in Britain.  Single-person households have significantly increased.

As Rogers and Power comment, this shrinkage in family size has a number of causes:

… more elderly people are surviving, but they are living separately from their children; later marriage and childbearing; fewer children per family; more broken marriages and more lone parents; more economic independence for women.

They continue:

The effects are starker in cities because childless households and lone-parent families are concentrated there. Cities attract young people and new immigrants, but tend to lose established working families. They also retain an elderly, ‘left-behind’ population. (Rogers and Power 2000: 37-8)

The proportion of dependent children in Great Britain living with a lone parent has almost doubled over the last twenty years (from 14 per cent in 1986 to 24 per cent in 2006) (Dunnell 2006).

Poor housing, poor design

A large proportion of ‘disadvantaged’ estates suffer from poorly designed and built housing plus a lack of investment over many years in proper maintenance, repair and updating. After the Second World War there had been a brief period when the UK central government invested in reasonable quality, if sometimes uniform, housing for ordinary people (Hanley 2007: 50-96; Kynaston 2007). Sometimes the location of this housing on the periphery of cities and larger towns was to cause problems; sometimes economic decline turned them into ‘hard to let’ estates (see Power and Tunstall 1994). However, it has been the system-built, large-scale schemes of the 1960s and early 1970s that have caused the most problems. The extensive use of untried building methods and materials, short cuts in the actual building, and ill-considered design created major maintenance problems, some dangerous structures (like Ronan Point a 22 storey block in Newham a corner of which collapsed like a house of cards in 1968), and some very bleak, inhospitable and unsafe public spaces and shared areas. Crime thrives in areas where there is anonymity, a lack of everyday surveillance, and plenty of different escape routes (Newman 1972). Far too many have suffered from ‘disastrous designs that create a needless sense of social failure’ (Coleman 1985: 184). Furthermore, as Lynsey Hanley (2007: 119) comments, few estates built using concrete ‘have been maintained to the standards envisaged and expected by the architects who designed them and the engineers who put them together’. There are some larger buildings and tower blocks of this period that have stood the test of time – and that people enjoy living in. But many have either had to be demolished or expensively redesigned and refurbished.

All this has taken place against a fundamental change in housing ownership. At the end of the 1970s around 35 per cent of British households lived in council housing (National Statistics 2004). By the 2003/4 the impact of policies such as ‘Right to Buy’ can be seen. Some 12 per cent of households lived in council housing, with around a further 7 per cent renting from housing associations and the like. Something like 10 to 11 per cent rent privately. This means that by the turn of the century 70 per cent of housing was owner-occupied (National Statistics 2005). Within these figures there are some marked contrasts. For example, lone parents with dependent children are much more likely to rent their property than own it (50 per cent live in social housing and 15 per cent rented privately (National Statistics 2005).

The lack of ongoing investment in council housing; the tendency to locate it on distinct estates (often away from other housing and amenities); the move into owner-occupation (in part driven in the last two decades of the twentieth century by the government giving council tenants ‘the right to buy’), and the growing concentration of lower-income people in council housing has fed into a negative public perception of council estates. Yet while there are significant problems in many ‘disadvantaged’ estates and neighbourhoods – there are significant strengths (as we will see).

Disadvantaged neighbourhoods, social capital and informal support

In recent years there has been a lot of discussion around social capital – the quality and scale of social relationships, groups and networks. Evidence from the United States appears to suggest that it decreased significantly over the last quarter of the twentieth century. This is important because we know that neighbourhoods with a good ‘stock’ of ‘social capital’ are more likely to benefit from lower crime figures, better health, higher educational achievement, and better economic growth Putnam 2000). Interaction enables people to build communities, to commit themselves to each other, and to knit the social fabric. A sense of belonging and the concrete experience of social networks (and the relationships of trust and tolerance that can be involved) can, it is argued, bring great benefits to people (Field 2003: 1-2). However, there can also be a significant downside. Groups and organizations with high social capital have the means (and sometimes the motive) to work to exclude and subordinate others. Furthermore, the experience of living in close knit communities can be stultifying – especially to those who feel they are ‘different’ in some important way (Smith 2007).

We don’t have reliable national evidence as to whether these figures have increased or decreased in the UK – however, we do know that with changing household patterns, and increased difficulties around children getting housing in the same areas as their parent(s) and extended families there have been some issues around support. We also know that there appears to have been a decline in community cohesion and the extent to which people trust each other (National Statistics 2003). This said, as Bookman has argued in terms of the USA, new forms of “social capital” – ‘just as important as money in the bank – are developing among working families in both urban and suburban environments’ (Bookman 2004: 19). She charts the ways in which working families reach out to each other and to community-based programmes to address the issues they face – especially around caring for children and relatives (ibid.: 25).

Across the UK we can say that in surveys:

  • Two-thirds (66 per cent) of adults say they have a ‘satisfactory friendship network’. ‘That is they saw or spoke to friends at least once a week and had a close friend living nearby. Just over half (52 per cent) had a ‘satisfactory relatives network’. Twenty per cent had neither’ (National Statistics 2008b).
  • More than half of adults say they have at least five people they could turn to in a serious personal crisis (58 per cent), 18 per cent have less than three people they could turn to. One in fifty (2 per cent) said they have nobody to turn to (op. cit.).

We also know through the work of Anne Power and others that social capital is an undervalued asset of low-income neighbourhoods. This asset reflects:

… the value residents attach to links with other residents, to the support offered by families and friends, to the familiarity, sense of security and mutual help that comes with frequent social contact. These areas are mines of social capital, in large measure created by the families who live here because they need it in order to survive. (Power 2007: 5)

Rather too often, as we will see, this asset is not attended to, or actually destroyed, in regeneration initiatives.

Regenerating local neighbourhoods

Over the last decade or so there has been a shift in urban policy in the UK. The buzzword has become regeneration. While the decade or so following the Second World War could be conceptualized as ‘reconstruction’, terms like ‘redevelopment’ and renewal came to the fore in the 1980s and 1990s. As Rob Imrie and Mike Raco (2003: 3) have identified, the associated approach in the 1980s and 1990s to urban policy was largely property-led. The concern was to make particular areas more attractive to corporate investors. The stated rationale for this was that such investment would create a ‘trickle-down’ of wealth into local communities (op. cit.). A classic expression of this philosophy came in the activities of urban development corporations such as the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC). With New Labour coming to power in 1997, the expressed aims of urban policy shifted – with a stronger focus on combating social exclusion, and a growing interest in more comprehensive and strategic approaches to regeneration. The government began to lose faith in the power of standalone, special initiatives to combat poverty and disadvantage (Hastings 2003: 85). ‘Joined-up’ thinking was necessary.
One of the first fruits of this was revealed in the work of the Social Exclusion Unit (SEU) and the attempt to develop a national strategy for neighourhood renewal.

Four main areas of concern were identified with regard to disadvantaged neighbourhoods:

  • Improving the skill base and overcoming barriers to employment.
  • Improving housing and neighbourhood management.
  • Improving access to public and private services.
  • Giving better opportunities and motivation to young people. (SEU 1998. Discussed in Kearns 2003)

With regard to the issues affecting disadvantaged neighbourhoods that we have already discussed this was still something of a limited agenda. For example, the focus tended to remain on individual skill development and employability, rather than the development of employment (a classic case of looking to locate the problem as a private trouble rather than a public issue). Put another way, it was evident that neighbourhood economic problems were ‘not conceived in structural terms, rather  as local micro-issues’ (Hastings 2003: 92). However, there was some appreciation of the significance of cultivating social capital and this was reflected in, for example, the Scottish Executive’s Community Regeneration Statement (2002). Unfortunately, it wasn’t often properly expressed in concrete terms in regeneration efforts.

A further important discourse has involved ‘community cohesion’ – especially following the riots in a small number of English towns (Bradford, Burnley and Oldham) in spring and summer of 2001. In the reports that followed there was some recognition of the scale of social polarization that had taken place. There was also  advocacy of cross-community work (to some extent modelled on northern Ireland) –  bringing together people from ‘ethnic minority’ and ‘majority white’ communities (Home Office 2001).

Defining and assessing regeneration

Peter Roberts provides an initial definition of urban regeneration as:

…comprehensive and integrated vision and action which leads to the resolution of urban problems and which seeks to bring about a lasting improvement in the economic, physical, social and environmental condition of an area that has been subject to change (2000: 17)

As he comments, this definition brings in many of the key elements that have been part of the discourse of regeneration professionals. He also sets out some principles of regeneration.

Some principles of regeneration

What follows is our summary of the key principles that Richards argues are the hallmark of urban regeneration.

Urban regeneration should:

Be based on a proper analysis of local conditions.

Be aimed at simultaneous change of physical fabric, social structures, economic base and environmental conditions.

Generate and implement a comprehensive, balanced, positive and integrated strategy.

Be consistent with the aims of sustainable development.

Set clear, quantified objectives.

Make the best possible use of available natural, economic, human and other resources.

Seek participation and consensus amongst stakeholders. This may be achieved through partnership working.

Properly measure the progress of strategy and monitor changing internal and external forces that act upon local areas.

Recognize that programmes will change in line with altering conditions and circumstances.

Recognize that different elements of strategy will progress at different speeds.

Adapted from Roberts 2000: 18

Regeneration programmes can claim some success in terms of the physical renewal of public space, the development of commercial properties in some areas, and the provision of new and refurbished homes (although not necessarily on the scale and in  the forms needed). As Rogers and Power (2000: 201) comment, ‘Truly crafted redesign, particularly of the public areas, open spaces and ground floors – along with bottom-up community involvement can work wonders’. There were also some knock-ons from investment in housing, for example, around creating more mixed neighbourhoods. Regeneration programmes, especially when they involve the provision of homes for ‘owner-occupiers with better qualifications and stronger connections to the wider world outside the neighbourhood, can attract aspirational residents with relatively high incomes'(Green et. al. 2004). Green et. al. go on to comment:

Initially at least, this investment in fixed assets has laid the foundations for a virtuous circle of sustainability. On the other hand, these new residents tend to be critical of the neighbourhood environment and socially distanced from the tenants of social housing nearby. There are therefore some doubts about whether successive waves of incomers into such properties will sustain the neighbourhood as envisaged by regeneration partnerships promoting mixed development. (Green et al 2004)

As a result of regeneration initiatives there are large numbers of people living in better quality homes; there has been some much needed addition to the housing stock; and the environment of some neighbourhoods and estates has improved. However, this has not been without problems.

Some issues with neighbourhood regeneration

Here I want to focus on three aspects of regeneration initiatives that have proved to be problematic within local neighbourhoods. There are, of course, other issues but the following problems appear with some regularity.

Many regeneration initiatives have been largely housing-led and have neglected other key neighbourhood dimensions. As already noted, insufficient attention has often been given to economic regeneration (creating the conditions for wealth creation and satisfying employment) and to the cultivation of social capital and community within neighbourhoods. Indeed, regeneration programmes are often seen as destroying local networks and community. As Anne Power found in her research into the problems of disadvantaged neighbourhoods:

Some families see large-scale, expensive regeneration by public bodies as destructive of community. Families whose homes are under threat of demolition experience heightened feelings about their community. Parents often express a fear of moving to where they do not know anyone, where they will have to make new contacts all over again. Demolition disrupts communities, because poorer people know they will be displaced and funding to improve conditions often displaces the activity local people most need. (Power 2007: 58)

Power continues:

It is in regeneration that the distinction between neighbourhood conditions and community becomes clear. Public interventions aim to improve poor neighbourhoods by trying to eradicate visible problems; but this cuts across families trying to create a sense of community by holding on to familiar places and people. Reconciling these countervailing needs of regeneration and community may be the biggest challenge facing low-income communities and government approaches to neighbourhood renewal. (Power 2007: 59)

In other words, community has been undermined by over-rapid physical change.

A significant proportion of the housing built has not met people’s needs. There are several factors in play here. First, not enough homes are being built. Government policy has been over-reliant on private sector home building. This sector has, for various reasons, not been able to supply housing on the scale needed. Currently within the UK the government has argued that around 250,000 new homes are required each year – and yet the private sector has never built more than 150,000 a year (with the occasional blip) since 1952. Housing associations have not been able to make up the shortfall, and local councils have not had the powers for some time to build housing on any scale. Second, commercial builders have looked for the most profitable markets – and this has resulted in a large number of homes being built for ‘buy to let’ and to an inappropriate specification. In 2005 Propertyfinder reported that 41 per cent of new units were two-bed flats or starter homes with only 20 per cent of buyers wanting such properties. Third, there has been significant under-investment in what has come to be described as ‘social housing’ – affordable homes to rent. Last, there have been too many instances of poor design (one of the current criticisms of developments in the Thames Gateway), and with the emphasis on ‘brownfield’ development and urban renewal the density of development has increased significantly in a number of areas. While the latter is desirable if we are to avoid the problems of sprawl and to sustain local public services, it is leading to some housing schemes that look like reproducing the problems associated with some of the council building of the 1960s. This includes inadequate common spaces; too many families with children placed in flats a long way from the ground; and design that does not allow for community.

Insufficient attention has been given to restoration and reintegration. As commentators such as Lynsey Hanley have shown, approaches to rebuilding local neighbourhoods that focus on a ‘clean sweep’ – demolishing housing and other buildings, decanting residents, and then building new units and facilities – has had a sad history in Britain since the Second World War. Indeed, many of the areas that are subject to regeneration are the very estates that were built on this pattern (see Power 2007: 186). As Rogers and Power (2000: 83) comment:

Adding new and adapting old buildings keeps neighbourhoods alive. Some demolition is inevitable, but most inner-city estates could be renovated for around half the price of building a new home, providing twice the homes on half the land… The politicians’ love of ‘flagship projects’ takes precedence over the daily needs of low-income communities and the demand for constant care of urban environments.

This situation has been complicated by central government housing policies that have restricted the ability of local authorities to engage directly in large-scale housing renewal. These policies favour the interests of developers (and hence new-builds) and work against human scale and piecemeal developments – even though they make more sense (Duay et. al. 2000). Regeneration and renewal are largely driven by finance.

Local people and regeneration

Most people living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods tend to feel they have very little influence over what happens to their estate or area. They believe that even when the chance to participate in meetings and consultations is offered within regeneration initiatives, for example, that what they have to say will not be listened to (Power 2007). They believe that the interests of those funding the development will come first. Encouraging and facilitating community participation is time-consuming – and this is something that those concerned with furthering regeneration often believe they don’t have. It also demands a fundamental shift in attitude by politicians, policy-makers and developers (Atkinson and Cope 1997: 212-3). As a result, we see the expressed interests of local people regularly disregarded. Thus, Dave Adamson and Richard Bromiley’s evaluation of an important attempt to promote ‘community empowerment’, the Communities First programme in Wales, found that:

…the statutory sector has largely failed to respond to the community agenda and there is little evidence of community influence over budgets and service delivery, and no evidence of bending mainstream services to reflect the partnership process.

Examples of this abound within regeneration initiatives. For example, one of the requests often made by local people within regeneration initiatives is for a much larger proportion of homes to have three bedrooms. In many regeneration initiatives this is not accommodated. Another key demand is around the way in which their housing and neighbourhood is managed. However, regeneration is often linked to a change in social landlord (away from local councils to  housing association) – and this rarely addresses the issues that tenants, leaseholders and home-owners are concerned with.

Lynsey Hanley argues we need a different approach:

The redevelopment of estates whose surface problems – remoteness, graffiti, loitering youths, ugly buildings – are caused by bad design and planning will only work, however, if physical and cosmetic improvements are carried out alongside a serious and prolonged investment in tenant’s potential to participate in managing their homes and estates so that they attain a sense of ownership and control. If tenants feel the estate is theirs, it doesn’t matter whether or not they physically own their home: they treat it with the same care they would if their home was something they would someday sell to the highest bidder. All this requires an investment of a different kind: an investment in the idea that people who rent are of equal worth to people who own, and that just because they haven’t bought a home doesn’t mean that they have done something wrong along the way. (Hanley 2007: 220)

In a similar vein Anne Power (2007: 188) makes a convincing case for the role of families in regenerating cities: ‘Families are a positive force in cities because they need each other, use social spaces frequently and go out of their way to create social contact’. They contribute in small but very significant ways – but this is rarely harnessed nor properly recognised in regeneration initiatives.

Regeneration, localism and the financial crisis in Britain

The banking crisis of 2008, continuing issues around economic growth, and reductions in spending by the Coalition Government from 2010 onwards have impacted significantly on regeneration initiatives and upon the building of new homes. In particular, the withdrawal of Housing Market Renewal Funding has created significant problems in England, ‘leaving many residents trapped in half-abandoned streets’ (House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee 2011: 3). In addition, with significant local spending reductions many community groups that are central to regeneration are under significant financial pressure and are unsure about their future.

The Coalition Government set out set out its approach to regeneration in England in Regeneration to enable growth: What Government is doing in support of community-led regeneration (2011). They argued that the need to reduce the government budget deficit, and with less money available for investment in regeneration, a new approach was needed. Alongside their ‘localism agenda’ (see below) the role of central government was to be ‘strategic and supportive’:

  • reforming and decentralising public services
  • providing powerful incentives that drive growth
  • removing barriers that hinder local ambitions, and
  • providing targeted investment and reform to strengthen the infrastructure for growth and regeneration and to support the most vulnerable (DCLG 2011

This approach has come in for serious criticism by MPs sitting on the Communities and Local Government Committee. They argue that regeneration is a ‘long term, comprehensive process which aims to tackle social, economic, physical and environmental issues in places where the market has failed’ and that the Coalition Government’s policies are problematic in this respect. According to the Committee, they have little confidence that the Government has a ‘clear strategy for addressing the country’s regeneration needs’. They continue:

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. (House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee 2011: 3)

Their criticisms of the measures include that they are:

  • Unlikely to bring in sufficient resources. Funding for regeneration has been reduced dramatically and disproportionately over the past two years, and unless alternative sources can be found, there is a risk of problems being stored up for the future.
  • Wrong to place so much emphasis on funding streams which are not focused primarily upon regeneration.
  • Lacking a strategy for attracting private sector investment: the Government should consider possible sources of gap funding and the potential for the alignment of public spending streams to encourage private investment.
  • Assigning too much prominence to changes to the planning system and do not acknowledge the benefits effective planning has brought to regeneration.
  • Failing to consider how its approach to regeneration will be evaluated; this is a new way of doing things and, without some form of evaluation, there is a risk that investment could be wasted. (op. cit.)

They also conclude that the Government ‘has apparently paid little regard to the lessons from previous approaches to regeneration’ – and that recent legislation resulting in the Localism Act (2011) falls short in not assigning a stronger strategic role to local government. They also conclude that the Government ‘has apparently paid little regard to the lessons


Neighbourhood still matters for a lot people – especially families with children. Neighbourhoods help to frame people’s lives, and provide an environment in which services, networks and relationships can develop. However, policymakers have tended to neglect, or treat as trivial, key aspects of what they offer. Furthermore, a significant number of neighbourhoods suffer from social polarization and multiple disadvantages. Attempts to regenerate such neighbourhoods in the UK have met with limited success. There has been a continuing emphasis upon housing renewal that is dominated by the interests of developers. There has been an associated lack of attention to the cultivation of social capital and community; the continuing provision of housing that does not meet the needs and wishes of families; and a tendency, for various reasons, to go for ‘clean-sweep’ schemes at the cost of restoration and reintegration. In a number of respects, the mistakes of the past – especially around the development of estates in the late 1950s and 1960s – are being repeated in new schemes. Crucially, because successive governments have chosen not to act to close the gap between rich and poor (through for example, more redistributive taxation), nor sought with others to contain the negative impacts of globalization, deep-seated problems will remain in many neighbourhoods (Lupton 2003: 149-152).

There are limits upon what local neighbourhood organizations and groups can achieve in the face of the various interests that dominate the regeneration agenda, however there is some room for manoeuvre – and some spaces that can be exploited. While community participation in regeneration ‘largely takes the form of ‘commenting on and working towards the achievement of other people’s agendas and not developing community ownership’ as Peter North (2003: 137) has shown, ‘well-organized and politically sophisticated activists can survive to fight another day’. Here I want to highlight areas that can, in my experience, be exploited.

First, it has been possible for local groups and organizations to put pressure on policymakers, developers and politicians to up the proportion of social housing in neighbourhood regeneration initiatives. Here groups can make use of any requirement for local consultation and participation within government funded initiatives. One means utilized is to raise the profile of the issue socially and politically so that those charged with setting out the criteria for the development are pushed to go for mixed forms of tenure with a good proportion of homes for rent by those on lower incomes; and for homes for key workers and those wanting to take a capital stake in their properties. A further lever here in the consultation process is organize so that local people and their representatives consistently ‘vote’ for those interested developers that offer the best deal on social housing.

Second, local groups and organizations have been able to lever improved public spaces, facilities and services in regeneration schemes. This has taken the form of increased overall resources being devoted by developers and local authorities to public provision; and through direct participation by local people in the forms of provision required – and their design. The concrete outcomes have included improved play facilities, safer walkways, new community rooms, and funding for community activity.

Third, some tenants in England have taken the opportunity to set up tenant management organizations (TMOs) – and to take over the running of their blocks and estates. The scope and scale of these organizations vary – but there have been some very significant gains for tenants and leaseholders. These include practical benefits such as cleaner and safer common areas in blocks, and quicker and more effective minor repairs. Alongside these benefits come social and political gains. People can see a direct benefit in becoming involved in TMO meetings and events. That participation increases people’s sense of ownership of their block or estate and the network of people they know. This has the dual benefit of fostering social capital and giving their representatives a stronger voice in discussions with policy-makers, politicians and developers. They are people with visible and real constituencies.

Regeneration initiatives often promise far more than they can ‘deliver’. They frequently sell short the interests of those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. But there can be some real gains in terms of the physical environment – and in creating a density of housing that allows local services to function. The importance of local participation and organizing in all this needs to be recognized (Richardson 2008).

Further reading and references

Hanley, Lynsey (2007) Estates. An intimate history. London: Granta Books. A very readable and insightful exploration from first-hand experience of living on council estates.

Lupton, Ruth (2003) Poverty Street. Causes and consequences of neighbourhood decline. Bristol: The Policy Press. Study of 12 disadvantages neighbourhoods with a significant discussion of regeneration.

Power, Anne (2007) City Survivors. Bringing up children in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Bristol: The Policy Press. Based on a major study of people’s experiences over a number of years this book brings out the significance of neighbourhood and the problems that people face in increasingly polarized areas.

Rogers, Richard and Power, Anne (2000) Cities for a small country. London: Faber and Faber. Excellent overview of the problems of cities – and discussion of the sort of radical solutions required.


Adamson, Dave and Richard Bromiley (2008) Community empowerment in practice. Lessons from Communities First. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation. [ Accessed April 29, 2008].

Atkinson, Rob and Steven Cope (1997) ‘Community participation and urban regeneration’ in Paul Hoggett (ed.) Contested Communities. Experiences, struggles, policies. Bristol: Policy Press.

Barton, Huw (2000) Sustainable Communities. The potential for eco-neighbourhoods. London: Earthscan

Bookman, A, (2004) Starting in our own backyards. How working families can build community and survive the new economy, New York: Routledge.

Brewer, M. et. al. (2011). Child and Working-Age Poverty from 2010 to 2020. London: Institute of Fiscal Studies.   [ Retrieved 11 October 2011].

Coleman, Alice (1985) Utopia on Trial. Vision and reality in planned housing. London: Hilary Shipman.

Congress for the New Urbanism (2007) ‘How Urbanism Slows Global Warming’, CNU. [ Accessed January 9, 2008].

Department for Communities and Local Government (2006) Strong and prosperous communities. The Local Government White Paper. London: HMSO

Department for Communities and Local Government (2007) An Action Plan for Community Empowerment: Building on Success. London: Department for Communities and Local Government.

Department for Communities and Local Government (2011) Regeneration to enable growth. What Government is doing in support of community-led regeneration. London: Department for Communities and Local Government.

Dorling, Daniel and Woodward, R.(1996) ‘Social polarisation 1971-1991: a micro-geographical analysis of Britain’, Progress in Planning 45.

Dorling, Daniel et. al. (2007) Poverty, wealth and place in Britain, 1968 to 2005. Bristol: The Policy Press/Joseph Rowntree Foundation. [ Accessed January 31, 2008].

Duany, A., Plater-Zyberk, E. and Speck, J. (2000) Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream. New York: North Point Press.

Dunnell, Karen (2008) Diversity and different experiences in the UK National Statistician’s Annual Article on Society. London: Office of National Statistics. []

Field, J. (2003) Social Capital, London: Routledge.

Girardet, H. (1999) Creating Sustainable Cities. Dartington: Green Books.

Girardet, Herbert (2004) Cities, People, Planet, Liveable cities for a sustainable world. Chichester: Wiley Academic.

Green, Geoff, Grimsey, Mike and Stafford, Bernard (2004) The dynamics of neighbourhood. York: Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

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Hanley, Lynsey (2007) Estates. An intimate history. London: Granta Books.

Hastings, Annette (2003) ‘Strategic, multilevel neighbourhood regeneration: an outward-looking approach at last?’ in Rob Imrie and Mike Raco (eds.) Urban Renaissance. New Labour, community and urban policy. Bristol: Policy Press.

Hills, John (2004) Inequality and the State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hills, John (2007) Ends and Means: The future roles of social housing in England. London: LSE/Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion. [ Accessed January 31, 2008].

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Huckle, John (1996) ‘Realizing sustainability in changing times’ in John Huckle and Stephen Sterling (eds.) Education for Sustainability. London: Earthscan.

Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007) Fourth Assessment Report. Geneva: Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Jacobs, Jane (1965) The Death and Life of Great American Cities. The failure of town planning. Harmondsworth: Penguin. (First published by Random House 1961)

Kearns, Ade (2003) ‘Social capital, regeneration and urban policy’ in Rob Imrie and Mike Raco (eds.) Urban Renaissance. New Labour, community and urban policy. Bristol: Policy Press.

Kynason, David (2007) Austerity Britain, 1945-1951. London: Bloomsbury.

Landes, David (1999) The Wealth and Poverty of Nations. Why some are so rich and some are so poor, London: Abacus.

Longworth, Norman (2006) Learning Cities, Learning Regions, Learning Communities. Lifelong learning and local government. London: Routledge.

Low, Judith (2003) Behind the Gates. Life, security and he pursuit of happiness in fortress America. New York: Routledge.

Lupton, R. (2003) Poverty Street. Causes and consequences of neighbourhood decline. Bristol: The Policy Press.

McKnight, J. (1995) The Careless Society. New York: Basic Books.

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Newman, Oscar (1972) Defensible Space. New York: Macmillan.

North, Peter (2003) ‘Communities at the heart? Community action and urban policy in the UK’ in Rob Imrie and Mike Raco (eds.) Urban Renaissance. New Labour, community and urban policy. Bristol: Policy Press.

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Power, Anne (1997) Estates on the Edge. London: Palgrave: Macmillan.

Power, Anne (2007a) City Survivors. Bringing up children in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. Bristol: The Policy Press.

Power, Anne and Willmot, Helen (2007b) Social Capital within the Neighbourhood. London: Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion. [ Accessed January 11, 2008]

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Roberts, Peter (2000) ‘The evolution, definition and purpose of urban regeneration’ in Peter Roberts and Hugh Sykes (eds.) Urban Regeneration. A handbook. London: Sage.

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How to cite this article: Smith, Mark K. (2011). ‘Neighbourhoods and regeneration. Theory, practice, issues’, The encyclopedia of pedagogy and informal education. [ Retrieved: insert date].

© Mark K. Smith 2006, 2008, 2011

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