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Where next with ‘regeneration’?

Duncan Forbes outlines his vision for the future of CREW and its role in community-led regeneration.

With a new Welsh Government taking office it’s a good time to reflect briefly on current approaches, to ask if they provide the answer for most of the people and communities in Wales and to tell you more about the future of CREW and why it is important.

Just before the Assembly elections, there was a great razzmatazz around the clinching of the Cardiff City Deal for Wales. In South Wales, infrastructure investment in the M4 relief road, the Heads of the Valleys dualling, the electrification of the valleys lines are all seen as the answer to boosting the economy of Wales. Over the next few years, the focus of ministers, senior councillors and senior officials in Welsh and local government will be on these large schemes. Like all large schemes, they will gain a momentum of their own with too much having already been invested to question whether they should proceed or will provide the answers. In fact, the original questions are often forgotten in the celebration of success.

So what are the questions we should be asking? The first is whether these schemes will benefit the economy of Wales. I daresay there is a strong case for them on this basis in the sense that Wales as a country may benefit in our national GDP. The second and equally important question is whether this economic benefit will be shared across the communities of Wales and amongst the people of Wales. In other words, will households incomes grow as a result and what outcomes will people see from these initiatives? Here there seems to be little or no evidence. As Dr Mark Lang states in a recent review of the Cardiff Metro for the Federation of Small Businesses: ‘The manifestation is…likely to follow the priorities of the dominant rationale and it may miss important opportunities to grow local and distributed economies across South East Wales.’ (Lang, 2016) These schemes are confidently proceeding on the basis that the ‘trickle down’ effect is a given when many communities and households in Wales have experienced and are experiencing a ‘trickle by’ effect; seeing little or no economic benefit from many economic regeneration initiatives.

Across Wales, many communities are declining or starting to decline. We see it in rural and seaside towns, in rural villages, in Heads of the Valleys communities and in inner city communities. Money is being sucked out of the communities through benefit cuts, transport is getting more difficult, jobs are distant. The figures are masked in population trends because they only show local authority figures, but we see it in the steadily reducing numbers of people wanting to live in social housing in some of our communities.

Alongside this, many individual households are already really struggling. The bedroom tax has already forced people to choose whether to heat or eat. The reduced benefit cap, removal of housing benefit for under 21 year olds and the cap on social rents at local housing allowance levels will massively increase the numbers affected. We are seeing many more people with low level depression and mental health problems, unsurprisingly overwhelmed by their circumstances.

We need a new regeneration strategy for Wales that unpicks these localised data and trends enabling us to understand fully the localised impact of any changes in the economic climate. It should enable us to work with local people to develop localised plans for regeneration and come up with local solutions. Finally and most importantly, it should ensure that the voice of communities is heard and reflected from the start in the planning of any national infrastructure initiatives to ensure that the wide sharing of the benefits is a key objective of the initiative from the start.

Many of you will be aware of the work of the Centre for Regeneration Excellence Wales (CREW) www.regenwales.org. Until recently, it was funded by Welsh Government to support the Vibrant and Viable Places programme. In April, Bron Afon, Coastal Housing Group and Cartrefi Conwy became the shareholders of CREW and the Board. We did this not because we believe regeneration is a solely housing issue (it isn’t) but because the survival of our tenants and our organisations is dependent on the future sustainability of our communities right across Wales. Our housing is in some of the most deprived communities that are the most challenged. We want CREW to now go back to its roots, as an organisation that works with you and other partners from all sectors to develop and share leading community-led regeneration practice that is evidence-based and delivered locally, drawing on the ideas and expertise of practitioners and academic researchers from all over the world. I want CREW to be a voice for an alternative approach.

Duncan Forbes is chief executive of Bron Afon Community Housing and a director of CREW

Lang, M. (2016) On the right track? A consideration of the potential local and socio-economic impacts of the proposed Cardiff Capital Region Metro. Federation of Small Businesses, Wales

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