It is widely agreed that more can and should be done to share lessons and best practice between UK nations in an era of divergent approaches via devolved administrations. This was a point emphasised by the Chief Executives of JRF and the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA) at the 2011 SURF Annual Conference. In this new regular feature, SURF will update Scotregen readers on relevant developments in the rest of the UK. Here, the HCA’s Dermot Sellars discusses the shifting regeneration policy landscape in England.

I was lucky enough to be able to join SURF for its Annual Conference in Edinburgh on 17th March. What really struck me, coming from England, was the strong and vocal presence of community groups there. The people actually affected by regeneration were present and making clear their priorities for their places.

For the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA), engaging with local communities has always been at the forefront of our work. But often that distinctive voice has been missing from the national debate in England. The role of the HCA can be to represent that voice of local delivery at a national level.

Localism, localism, localism

Last May’s change of government in England led to swift and emphatic changes in policy direction. The Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, was quick to dismantle the regional institutions that had developed over the previous decade. Regional Development Agencies, Regional Strategies and the Government Offices in the regions were all removed.

What’s come in place of all these institutions is a new policy landscape. The emphasis has been taken off producing top-down guidance and, instead, there’s a move towards supporting local places in delivering their own priorities. This has manifested itself through a shift towards incentives for growth that reward communities where growth occurs. The New Homes Bonus and Community Infrastructure Levy will let neighbourhoods share the advantages of development.

In policy development, too, there has been a shift to greater localism. Neighbourhoods will get new powers over planning policy, and the first trial locations for neighbourhood planning have recently been announced. Government has also announced funding to support community planning, delivered through organisations such as the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Prince’s Foundation.

New focus, new thinking

For the HCA these policy changes meaning renewing our long-term focus on working locally. Since the Agency was established, Local Investment Planning, where local authorities share their investment priorities, has been at the heart of what we do. This is supported through working closely with local communities, encouraging them to shape our development proposals.

In the North East of England, we have married delivery with greater levels of community control. On Holy Island we’ve worked with the Community Land Trust to support the development of their priority of four new affordable homes that will help to maintain local schools and services. At the other end of the scale, we have worked with Newcastle City Council to help them develop a plan to transfer the listed Byker Estate (comprising 2,000 homes) to the community to support renewal of the estate and the creation of social enterprise.

Of course, all of this is coming against a background of a very constrained funding environment. For us, this means making the most of the resources at our disposal and we’re developing a package of support that our Housing Minister, Grant Shapps, refers to as ‘enabling and investment’.

Resourcing community control

The first part of that package will mean maximising the potential of our land assets for example through a “Build Now Pay Later” model of deferred payments that will reduce the upfront costs of development. This will be supplemented by a comprehensive land disposal strategy for the Agency that will be published at the end of May.

A major part of our package of support will, of course, come in the form of direct investment. We will provide £4.5 billion to support a new Affordable Homes Programme in the years to 2015 and we’ve received Government support to maintain our commitments in regeneration.

All of this is underpinned by our work in enabling. This means being ‘the people who get things done’, as Grant Shapps once put it. We’ve supported collaborative procurement, reducing costs for our partners, and have created a variety of pre-procured panels to reduce the administrative burden of procurement for both local government and our partners in the private sector. Local Investment Plans will continue to be the method by which local authorities will tell us what the appropriate mix of support in land, investment and enabling is in their areas.

I’ve learned that Scotland has a rich heritage of vocal and active community groups making the case for holistic approaches to regeneration. For the HCA, Local Investment Plans have been our way to start developing that shared vision for places. With the current direction of policy towards ever greater local control, that’s an emphasis that we will need to build upon and develop further to ensure that we continue to deliver affordable homes in thriving communities.