The Scottish Government’s regeneration discussion paper, Building a Sustainable Future, aimed to instigate debate around the future of community regeneration in Scotland. Here, SURF’s Andy Milne offers his perspective on the paper and the current challenges for regeneration.

Building A Sustainable Future is refreshingly frank on some shortcomings in previous regeneration policy and practice and in identifying the need for new approaches in the changed economic, ecological and demographic context.

In the interests of promoting an honest and constructive debate, the paper helpfully acknowledges the limited success of the policies of recent years in delivering successful regeneration support to disadvantaged individuals and communities. It also squarely notes the fundamentally changed operating environment that future policies will have to respond within.

“It is clear that previous regeneration models that relied on debt finance coupled with rising land and property prices have not delivered in recent times and are unlikely to do so in the foreseeable future” (p1) “The assumption that wealth generated by economic development would ‘trickle down’ to the poor through job creation is now widely discredited” (p6) “There has often been an imbalance between physical, social and economic programmes” (p6)

At the launch event for the paper in February 2011, the then Scottish Government Minister for Housing and Communities, Alex Neil MSP, drew attention to the challenge and opportunity ahead by noting that:

“Scotland has never had a national regeneration strategy worthy of the name”

SURF understands that the Scottish Government intents to use the discussion process to inform its policy development process with a view to producing a national regeneration strategy by the end of 2011.

SURFing the challenges

Based on SURF’s work in this field over the last 20 years, some of the key current challenges for Scottish community regeneration efforts include:

Fiscal failures

  • The pre-existing property based model of funding regeneration via rising land and property values is now broken; in any event, it has largely failed to meet the needs of those in greatest need of support.
  • The UK government’s fiscal policy response to the private sector financial crisis has resulted in those who had no meaningful opportunity to play a part in the speculative property bubble, paying for its collapse in terms of loss of services, opportunities and living standards.

In the interests of fairness, social cohesion and preventative spending, the Scottish Government should prioritise measures to protect those most at risk from such losses.

Running up the down escalator

  • Previous sustainable regeneration policy efforts have been significantly subverted by the dominant, short-term demands of the hyper-consumerist market economy. As a senior SG representative noted at the 2010 SURF Annual Conference, this represents a ‘powerful downward escalator’ against which all regeneration efforts have to struggle.
  • Despite their widespread recognition, the issues of ecological sustainability and predictable demographic demands remain largely unaddressed at this point
  • The wisdom of preventative investment is widely accepted. The already strong evidence base has been further supported in recent months by the publication of the Scottish Parliament Finance Committee’s 1st Report of 2011 and NESTA’s Radical Scotland. It is, however, more difficult to identify concrete examples of this approach being applied via practical ‘upstream’ regeneration activity. The same can be said of investment in meaningful community involvement.

In the longer term interests of the economy the Scottish Government should continue to plan and prioritise preventative spend to address these increasing challenges.

Healthy options

  • The scope for enhancing ‘upstream’ preventative investment in housing, wider action, community services, community asset development, tackling fuel poverty, community transport initiatives, sport and recreational activity etc. was significantly curtailed by early cross-party consensus on protecting the NHS primary care budget. There are views that, given Scotland’s existing poor health status, this approach results in an ultimately less sustainable ‘national ill health service’.
  • The ongoing work of Scotland’s Chief Medical Officer, Dr Harry Burns, in promoting an assets-based approach to health, and his view that the challenge is about supporting better life chances as well as lifestyles, is key to addressing this conundrum (see presentation extract, above).
  • In this context, it will be necessary to be more effective in building on the transferable lessons from evidence and practical successes in: community-based social enterprises; heritage and culture-based regeneration; the changing role of town centres; community based health initiatives; and wider action via housing associations.

The Scottish Government could achieve more in offsetting future health investment costs by more actively advocating and incentivising support for community based approaches to sustaining and developing community assets.

Maintaining focus

  • • Having sensibly devolved responsibility for local regeneration to local authorities and having removed almost all ring fencing of regeneration dedicated resources as part of that process, the Scottish Government is somewhat restricted in its ability to ensure that a sufficient focus on disadvantaged areas and individuals is being maintained. The earlier abolition of Communities Scotland, and latterly the Scottish Centre for Regeneration, effectively ended direct central government participation in support of its aims and partnership vision at the local Community Planning Partnership and practitioner level.
  • It is understandable that local authority policy processes are increasingly dominated by financial and legal anxieties over meeting statutory responsibilities. However, there is evidence of this resulting in steep, non-strategic cuts to preventative services and community capacity building functions. This represents a false economy.

The Scottish Government should work proactively with CoSLA on making the case for the  preventative role of community development investment by local authorities.

Competitive outcomes

  • Early hopes for innovative collaborations between public agencies under financial pressures have as yet been largely unrealised, with some evidence of a resurgence of more defensive, territorial behaviour.
  • Many voluntary and community organisations are displaying similar symptoms of pursuing competitive self-interest above outcome focused, collaborative restructuring. This tendency is being reinforced for those involved in tendering for public service delivery by ‘hard nosed’ local authority procurement processes, which can be divisive and in some cases exploitative.

The tone of political leadership at national and local level is key. Again, the Scottish Government can provide vital leadership in supporting the most conducive climate for these difficult negotiations for the third sector and local authorities. The outcome of the Christie commission and the implementation of its recommendations is likely to be important in this regard.

2.6 Building on consensus

  • Nationally, there is encouraging evidence of cross party consensus on the nature of the challenges and some agreement on the foundation stones of policies and resource streams.
  • This needs to be converted into a sufficiently stable basic framework of agreed policies and resources to underpin the sustained community regeneration effort that everyone acknowledges is vital.

The process instigated by the discussion paper offers a useful opportunity for an honest debate identifying priorities and opportunities for coordinated collaboration in addressing them. As a prerequisite, it is important to develop a greater degree of shared understanding, vision and commitment. SURF will be making every effort to support that process through scotregen and our wider programme of collaborative events and discussions. I hope you and your organisation will join us.