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Tim Williams on the new look UK and its potential in urban regeneration under Boris

boris johnson

About a year ago I wrote in a leading planning and place-making journal in the UK a critique of the urban regeneration sector in the UK, of which I had been a part of for many years before leaving for Oz at the end of 2010.

I felt that for reasons both good and bad, based both on objective market conditions but also on subjective policy choices, the sector had turned away from the original mission: the transformation of previously industrial areas and the creation of new economic opportunities for their communities.

I also suggested that in part this reflected a wider cultural and political rejection of the claims on us of such communities and the post-industrial working class. I saw the contempt felt by many of my colleagues and indeed the whole meritocratic knowledge worker class of which we are part, towards Brexit voters as both an example of this “turning away” and a further impetus to it.

I also wrote a piece advancing the notion that the Tories had, through former Thatcher-hating Tory minister Michael Heseltine, virtually invented urban regeneration while recognising the importance of Blair minister John Prescott – wrongly patronised by others but not by our sector – in taking this tradition forward.

Further, I wrote a defence of Boris as, in London, a Tory with whom the London councils had worked closely on such matters as the Olympic legacy work.

I recall now, by the way, that the whole “convergence agenda” which the Olympics host boroughs came up with, which Boris and his agencies backed, was about reducing the gap over a 20 year period between the outcomes in key socio-economic policy areas between under-served and under-privileged communities in East London and the London average.

I was involved in developing this approach with my work colleagues – former GLA planning advisor Eleanor Young and another navigant co-worker, Anthony Brand – in collaboration with the talented chief executive officer of the Host Boroughs Unit, Roger Taylor.

Western Sydney could benefit from this example

“Convergence” sounds very much what the Boris team are looking to achieve in relation to the gap between London and the post-industrial heartlands – or what they should be looking for. I happen to also think such an approach is needed to guide investment in Western Sydney.

What Boris needs now is for the UK urban regeneration sector to get its boots back on and to get back into the work it was invented to do.

So following the election of someone whose victory relied , irony of ironies, on the “left-behind” communities that the left itself seemed no longer interested in or passionate about – being metropolitan elites who seem obsessed with any and all identities except the working-class communities who actually formed the Labour party and in whose interests it is meant to serve   – it now looks to me that what Boris et al need is for the UK urban regeneration sector to get its boots back on and to get back into the work it was invented to do.

That is to improve the economic outcomes for under-served communities in the former industrial heartlands.

Despite the challenges of the moment and despite living thousands of miles away I am excited as an urban regeneration practitioner about meeting the challenges ahead – and of making the new government put its money where its mouth was.

The opportunity for UK based practitioners is to help them come up with the right strategies and interventions – and innovative ways of funding the future of a “national convergence” program.

I add, as someone who spent more or less 13 years working on the renewal of East London – though part of it on initiatives under ministers David Miliband and Yvette Cooper which became the city regions program subsequently – I hardly want to damage London to rebalance the regions. London will need imaginative policies too and closer collaboration between its Mayor and the national government.

But I think what I am hearing from the Boris team about changing Treasury rules around infrastructure appraisal is right. It’s to enable projects that reduce the gap in the industrial heartlands to be approved.

Also right is the attack the team has launched on the EU’s crazy state aid rules preventing investment being targeted at areas of market failure.

I well remember being prevented from doing such projects in East London and the associated madness of the need to advertise all public projects over 140,000 euros in value in OJEU – the dreaded Official Journal of the European Union.

Let me let you into a little known fact. So law-abiding was the UK and so committed to the single market that usually such UK adverts formed more than 30 per cent of all OJEU notices for public contracts. Remembering we were one of 27 countries in the EU this tells you all you need to know about the actual protectionism of other member states and the weird and self-destructive compliance of the British state.

Whether there is life beyond the EU and indeed beyond London’s Orbital, the M25, remains to be soon. I wouldn’t rule it out – and I think urban regeneration practitioners will be at the heart of any success.

Tim Williams was a special advisor to a number of ministers for urban affairs and housing in the UK’s Blair and Brown governments.

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