Are ‘regeneration myths’ holding back creative approaches to community regeneration? Or do these myths hold some hard truths that are being overlooked in contemporary regeneration approaches? In this blog, SURF’s Andy Milne looks at both sides of the debate in the context of early outcomes from SURF’s Alliance for Action programme.

Classical myth: Caravaggio's Medusa

Classical myth: Caravaggio’s Medusa

Throughout all human history, we have invented stories to help us face and understand an often scary and complex world.

Myths are stories with particular meaning for our place in the scheme of things and how we should act. There is a conventional regeneration myth which, like most myths, is only half true. It runs:

Over the last 40 years much time and many resources have been devoted to addressing area-based poverty. We have not, however, seen much in return and poverty continues to be associated with many of these areas.  

It’s only half true because it doesn’t refer to degeneration. Over the same four decades, the much bigger forces of degeneration have overwhelmed the relatively tiny regeneration responses that we have chosen to invest in. Widespread collusion with the myth of local failure is based on the false but somehow comforting idea that poor places and people are black holes of our benevolent investment.

Evidential delusion

Collective delusion persists despite the fact that there is abundant myth-busting evidence that the main causes and solutions do not lie in those people and places; not least from the seminal regeneration partnership programme New Life for Urban Scotland, which ran from 1988–1999 in four selected disadvantaged communities. The hard won learning of the limitations of local budgets, assets and activities led to the 2003 Community Planning legislation which was specifically aimed at engaging the much larger ‘mainstream’ regeneration budgets of local authorities, health boards and national agencies like Scottish Enterprise.

In 2007, the minority SNP government offered a helpfully clarified narrative of its purpose. It was based on sustainable economic growth and supporting accessible, high quality services for a flourishing Scotland with opportunities for all. As Mike Tyson observed: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” A radically changed reality intervened in 2008 when the banking and private property markets abruptly wrecked many dreams with the calamitous results of their unregulated greed.

Pull quote - Andy Milne Dec 2014

Changed narrative

"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face."

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Photo used under Creative Commons license from icantcu, Flickr.

The current revised Scottish regeneration story involves community participation, capacity, assets, anchor organisations and empowerment. SURF’s Alliance for Action initiative is constructively testing the scope for greater ‘community led regeneration’ in Govan and east Kirkcaldy. By using SURF’s cross sector networks to collaboratively link local and national knowledge and assets, we are supporting creative approaches to change the local and national narratives of these contrasting but similarly challenged communities. Some big regeneration players, including housing associations, are being creatively pro-active but some remain absent from the local story.

National narratives are open to question too. Despite all of the self-congratulatory rhetoric on both sides of the referendum debate about Scotland’s caring, egalitarian traditions, only 4% of public expenditure is directed at disadvantage. Meanwhile, the UK Government’s ‘austerity economics’ goes on sucking even more support and opportunity away from the people and places that had no role whatsoever in creating the banking/property crisis – but that’s another story.

A closing summary of the main lessons from SURF’s early Alliance for Action chapters would be:

  • Local enterprise, partnership and creativity are all important but not sufficient;
  • Poor places are mostly a reflection of broader societal trends and macro-economic policy decisions;
  • Those same poor places evidence the reality of national values, priorities and investments much more than local ones;
  • The predominant focus on the internal assets of poor places and people can be seen as a displacement of responsibility by the rest of us;
  • The most potentially impactful ‘community assets’ are still held in national and local government budgets and institutions.

For more information on SURF’s Alliance for Action initiative, visit: