Matthew Humphreys MBE: what does it take to change a place?

Reflection on EC1 New Deal for Communities

 

EC1 New Deal made a difference. This was a difference both to the area where its work was focussed, with improvements to long neglected housing estates and projects for services in the area, and to the people in that area, both to the recipients of various schemes made possible by the funding to those involved in the programme in other ways, including resident board members. It was very positive and we all learnt a lot. A particular positive of the New Deal was the way it built in collaboration into all its work. The New Deal was set up as a partnership, and the partnerships were on many levels. On one hand the New Deal was a partnership between the responsible local authority (Islington), responsible government department and the delivery arm (Renaisi). On the other hand, it was a partnership between residents and service providers both through its formal structures and through more informal project work. And on a third hand it brought public sector service providers together in ways that don’t seem to happen on their own accord. Sometimes it was very difficult getting all three hands to work to the same aims, but on balance the collaborations that were at the heart of the New Deal were itself a positive.

This reflection on the New Deal is part of a bigger project for Renaisi on what it means to improve a place. I am sure the experience of EC1 New Deal was a positive improvement to the EC1 area, in all sorts of ways. Much of the work done by the New Deal was often debated through the prism of big un-answerable questions – be they what sort of impact can the New Deal have in employment opportunities when so much of what drives pay and even unemployment is caused by broad economic factors which are not at all local? Or how can the projects the New Deal funds be sustainable when the New Deal funding stops? In hindsight, the New Deal spent quite a bit of time talking about things which we could not answer, but this was, in my view, a consequence of the new partnerships that were created by the scheme. It is not that surprising that residents and public sector service providers had to find their way to work together when this involved spending public money that was extra resource for the area, with some scrutiny checking the quality of what the money was being spent on, and then other scrutiny checking the funds were being spent according to a timetable set in some distant part of central government.

I only noticed after I started thinking about this that the brief was to comment on what it takes to improve a place. My first reading of the request was that it asked about how to change a place. This got me thinking about whether changing a place and improving a place are different things. Change happens whatever we do, so it is important to try to shape change so that it makes an improvement. Place based improvements that are driven by particular interests can be alienating and actually rather poorly disguised exercises in airbrushing for commercial gain. So, there is a desire with schemes that work across an area like the New Deal scheme to improve things because otherwise the changes that will happen won’t be positive changes. And there are lots of schemes or developments that make somehow make no change. This is the problem of a difference that makes no difference and a change that means no change. Perhaps such exercises are fine, perhaps they even produce positive results, but perhaps also the result leaves an area somehow poorer. So, sometimes shaping and enabling a change is important even if that change is not an improvement. I think there are arguments for and against this proposition.

 

An argument for change rather than an idea of what is an improvement

I have a strong memory of a quasi-political debacle for the New Deal which entailed a local planning framework. Our hope was to put something in place that ensured incremental developments in the area, and particularly affecting public housing estates, would be designed with people at the centre and with a benefit to local residents. This message got completely lost in translation and the New Deal was seen as advocating private development on council estates. The Council ultimately dropped the whole framework package, but the result some 8 years on has been the bit by bit developer led change, some good, some bad but all uncoordinated and no benefit for local communities that I can see. The New Deal would have done well, and we as residents involved in the New Deal would have done well, to focus more on change rather than the improvements a lot of people could not see and didn’t necessarily want. I am not sure the opponents of this ‘framework’ were right, in fact I doubt they were. But in hindsight, it is not surprising that someone else’s idea of an improvement to an area is not going to sell well to those living there who don’t see it as an improvement. The New Deal’s role in this could then have been more about changes people wanted and not our ideas of improvements.

 

An argument against – or an argument for trying to improve things

A lack of vision and a failure of expectations can see quite a lot of resource, both time and money, put into something that doesn’t really do very much. And that is without even factoring in missed opportunities. For example, one big capital project of EC1 New Deal related to an estate car park, a structure that had been rather brutally designed when the estate was first built and had become even more hostile after some years of sporadic upkeep. The New Deal sponsored, both in terms of people instigating, and in terms of funding, a new design which kept estate parking spaces, made the estate look better and provided some good facilities, specifically aimed at children. In hindsight, the clearly better result than what was before doesn’t quite satisfy, and I think that is not just for those of us who remember quite how much money was spent on it. It really was a lot of money and the result is a nicer car park. The might-have-beens are numerous. A bit more vision at the outset and bringing in other partners would most likely have made more for a better return on the money put in and something better for the people.

 

What does it take to improve a place?

Improving basically means people think better of the place. This can be both in terms of liking it more, and also in terms of various indicators of quality, even including assessments as to the performance of services in a locality. An improvement is then a change that people see and recognise. It is people’s perception of a positive change that means it has been an improvement. There is then something about improvements that are in the eye of the beholder. And that can get complicated when people want different things, as they always do and as they always should do.

There was always a dynamic in the New Deal about changes relating to people and changes relating to physical spaces. We had schemes that sought health and educational benefits as well as schemes that bought security doors for estates and some that even transformed a street scene. But it wasn’t an easy thing to do both physical works and people focussed schemes. If doing both was challenging, there are also many questions of how much difference such schemes made to the area. And certainly, the schemes targeting people and those targeting physical things had quite different results for the area. The schemes that focussed on improvements directly for people were ultimately not particularly place-related – there was no reason for the beneficiaries to feel they had to stay in the area and for some schemes it was almost a premise of the project that they could, if it all worked out well, move on. We wanted children to take educational opportunities wherever suited them, or to be equipped to compete in sporting competitions or to get the jobs they wanted in the careers they wanted. We wanted the isolated and housebound to be able to get out. The physical improvements to gardens, estates and roadsides are more obviously longer lasting benefits of the New Deal, and for those of us with long memories and a reason for associating the changes with projects instigated by the New Deal, there are still quite a few visible reminders of what the New Deal improved locally.

 

Taking all this together, improving a place takes vision, collaboration and learning. Government sponsored schemes, be they national schemes like the New Deal or schemes run by local authorities, often forget how important the learning is for such schemes to thrive, and by the time we had worked out how to deliver on both physical projects and people focussed projects, we were getting to the end of the New Deal’s timetable. In the end though, perhaps because of the difficulties we had either with spending money at all or with political fall-out, we actually ended up being an effective organisation that delivered for local benefit.

 

About the author:

Matthew is Professor and Head of School, School of Law, Royal Holloway University.

Matthew was Chair of the EC1 New Deal for Communities partnership board and a local resident.