Kirby Swales: what does it take to improve a place?

Learning from place experience

The ‘How’ question is best understood and answered alongside its regular bedfellows: why, who, where and when.

The Why Question

The ‘why’ question is most important as it is the basis for a vision and how success may be measured. In my experience of looking at community and regeneration plans, the hardest part is creating a distinctive and compelling strategy. Too many are generic, aiming to tackle a wide range of issues (employment, health, education) and not distinctive to the place. Diagnosing the ‘why’ will help lead to a better chance of making a difference. So, for example, is the place suffering from poor public services, or is it a lack of community involvement, or is the state of the environment, or that the local economy is not strong, or skills not suited to the wider economy, or that is under the radar in the local authority. Of course, many disadvantaged areas often have all these issues which makes it hard to prioritise or diagnose root causes. Area chosen for place-based funding are often selected because of levels of poverty but the interventions are often focused on property-led projects. Too many politicians claims success for regeneration when it is driven by the wider market – objective indicators in inner city London are a good example of this, which much of the apparent rebirth being driven by inward migration rather than improving the lives and living standards of longer term residents. The EC1 area was distinctive in the style of social housing in a city fringe location – so we tried to influence the planning environment, improve the physical environment of housing estates, and better connect residents to the nearby opportunities.

 

The When Question

‘When’ is all about getting the timing of improvement right. In my experience, it is better to seeing improving place as needing a ‘slow burn’ long term commitment rather than fixed by the latest, short term policy or initiative. It is also important to think about the sequence of change, for example is it worth a building a new community centre if there isn’t an organisation to run it. I am now seeing some of the longer term planning and regeneration schemes coming out of the ground in EC1 New Deal, more than 10 years after the first masterplanning work stimulated and funded by the community partnership. We were simply over-ambitious in the level of physical change that could have been achieved. Similarly, it can take years to set up and develop community organisations, and build relations and trust between different parts of the community.

It can be hard to match the time availability of those working in public services with residents and volunteers. The Big Local programme has set a key principle as ‘going at the pace of the community’ which has been a successful way of building up activity more organically. Area strategies tend to overestimate what can be done in the short-term but under-estimate the potential for change in the longer term.

 

 

The Who Question

‘Who’ is responsible for change and who is best placed for making it happen? Often plans to area improvement fall down because a lack of delivery. This can be particularly tricky at the neighbourhood level because there no formal governance and delivery ‘system’. What are the options? Local councillors are elected to represent the area and often know it very well. The only other obvious point of local leadership are public service workers, such as doctors, head teachers or police officers? Local businesses, private and particularly social landlords are all important but can be quite narrowly focussed on their own interests. Of course, residents are the people who live in an area but effectively representing and involving them can be difficult, and there will be a huge amount of diversity in experience, views and characteristics. ‘Community leaders’ are the gold dust – residents committed to change and with wide and deep social networks. In my experience, the local community and voluntary sector organisations are the key to local delivery – they are ‘on the ground’ and can make things happen in a way that remoter agencies often find difficult. At EC1 New Deal, a lot of the focus was on successfully supporting and developing a large local voluntary sector organisation (St Luke’s Trust). Attempts were also made to start or develop other organisations with mixed success – developing new community-based organisations should not be undertaken lightly but, equally, it is important to think who will deliver and drive change if they don’t exist. The Big Local programme has attempted to take what is an ‘asset-based community development’ approach, which aims to build on pre-existing community infrastructure rather than impose new structures.

The Where Question

The ‘where’ question is designed to focus on the spatial level where issues are best addressed. Neighbourhoods are not islands unto themselves and it is often better to ensure they are better connected to the wider network or thinking than try to solve all issues themselves. A good example of this is transport – bus and rail services need to be organised at higher spatial scale but it can valuable to make sure all communities have a good bus stop or route – at EC1 we helped influence to keep a local bus route going through the area. Moreover, a lot of focus at EC1 was ensuring local people could access services available elsewhere in the borough – so a project called ‘Help on your Doorstep’ was set up to do this – with welfare rights advice and employment support being the most popular. Of course, a more concerted attempt to drive local change can involve bringing services closer. One of the outstanding changes in EC1 was the creation of a local ‘adult learning centre’ – which has helped hundreds of residents with a range of entry-level courses, and then signposting people to regional further and higher education colleges.

So, in summary, it is a complex environment and strategic place-based change can be challenging to manage. A major review in the US of ‘Comprehensive Community Initiatives’ argued that there success was often undermined by theoretical and delivery failure. This is an important challenge so I would argue we need to simplify the story of change – accountable and effective public services, mixed social networks, community assets and facilities, healthy politics, clear leadership, and a forward-looking and outward-looking culture of improvement. There also needs to be a commitment to ensuring place improvements are based on linking to market opportunities, as argued in Bruce Katz’s arguments about ‘choice and connection’. It easy to be distracted by the latest fad in improving places – such as community asset transfer, neighbourhood planning or joint development vehicles.

The latest relevant statistics show that only 14% of people feel that their neighbourhood had got better over the last two years and, more worryingly, a quarter felt it has got worse. There is a large portfolio of available interventions available in the toolkit of place-making, built up through many programmes tried over the years (such as neighbourhood management, NDCs, Big Local). So, is it time to revisit how these deployed – and how they can be part of the everyday fabric of society and public sector delivery rather than left in the realm of ‘special initiatives’. To help this refresh, the sector has to answer the hard questions of when, where, and especially why place-based interventions are required, and who will deliver them.

About the author

About the author:

Kirby is currently the Head of Survey Research Centre at NatCen Social Research, and will soon be Head of Troubled Families Policy and Evaluation at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government.

Kirby used to work at Renaisi and during his time was: Chief Executive of EC1 New Deal for Communities, the ten-year regeneration programme in South Islington that Renaisi managed from 2001-2011, and part of the team that helped set up the Big Local programme, run by Local Trust. Kirby is a member of his local Big Local partnership on Hackney Wick.

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