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Regeneration in Wales: Joined up thinking in a devolved new world?

Regeneration in Wales: Joined up thinking in a devolved new world?Richard Essex explains what the ‘professions’ are doing to increase joined up thinking.


Urban and community regeneration has a long and chequered history in Wales. Over the past thirty years or so, it has been taken forward under a number of guises and has been the subject of a plethora of ‘new’ initiatives and public sector funding programmes. Despite this overall commitment, there has been a general lack of continuity and consistency, with limited success in achieving real integrated action. Indeed, the amount of investment and effort that have been directed to regeneration have met with varying degrees of success. In the words of the actor Peter Davidson, on ‘regenerating’ for the first time as the ‘new’ Doctor Who some years ago, ‘That’s the trouble with regeneration. You are never too sure what you’re going to get’.

As outlined in Barbara Castle’s article Thinking about regeneration in issue 56 (September 2004) of WHQ, the Welsh Assembly Government have given priority to regeneration during its second term, with the establishment of a Social Justice and Regeneration Division. This is a progressive step in the right direction. However, it is essential that public policy makers recognise that the process of regeneration requires a ‘horizontal’ commitment, across departmental and portfolio boundaries, similar to the approach taken by the Assembly on such critical issues of sustainable development and equal opportunities. Equally important, it is essential that an integrated policy agenda can be translated into action on the ground. Barbara Castle’s article suggests that we have a long way to go in this respect, certainly from the local community regeneration perspective.

A Memorandum of Understanding

Given this context, what can the professional institutions contribute to the process of more integrated regeneration policy and practice in Wales? In 2002, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Wales began to explore the possibility of joining with other professional institutions to improve the quality of delivery of regeneration action in Wales. Initially RICS Wales, the Royal Town Planning Institute and the Institute of Civil Engineers took the agenda forward. Following the production of a draft Memorandum of Understanding between the professions, they were joined by the Royal Society for Architects in Wales and CIH Cymru. The Joint Professions Group remain conscious of the need to establish and maintain contact with other relevant professions and organisations having an interest in the urban and community regeneration agenda in Wales, and organisations such as Constructing Excellence Wales have been supportive in this respect.

The Memorandum of Understanding was adopted in early 2003. It recognises that the processes of regeneration involves members of several professional bodies in Wales, and that it is therefore vital that the professions associated with the built environment play a full and co-ordinated role in taking the regeneration agenda forward. In particular, the group are committed to working together to assist decision makers; and to better plan the skills and resources needed to improve performance in urban and community regeneration in Wales. The Group consider it important to work with the Welsh Assembly Government to help to deliver its regeneration objectives in a very practical way.

The Memorandum focuses on the need to:

  • facilitate ‘joined up’ thinking and action
  • address professional development and regeneration skills deficiencies
  • create reliable information systems in relation to regeneration policy and practice, and
  • establish the basis for real partnership working

egeneration Skills Initiative

Initially, the key issues identified were the need for an analysis of professional needs and work to address skills shortages. This will need the development of cross professional training, and consideration of how this might be best delivered. Other key actions identified include the promotion of integrated and co-ordinated approaches to regeneration and the identification and dissemination of best practice.

The Professions Group also prepared a Regeneration Skills Initiative for Wales. This focuses on:

  • the establishment of research and data base facilities in Wales
  • the establishment of a range of skills and training initiatives relevant to national and local needs
  • support for regional regeneration partnership structures
  • the identification and dissemination of best practice to guide action in Wales
  • the assessment of the potential for a real or virtual Welsh Centre of Regeneration Excellence, and
  • the establishment of awareness raising programmes, focussed towards young people

Taking the issues forward

The Memorandum and the Skills Initiative were the subject of consultation with senior officials in the National Assembly for Wales during 2003. This led to an active Workshop session between representatives of the five professional institutions, the National Assembly and the Welsh Local Government Association in August 2003, which was facilitated by the consultants Shared Intelligence.

A whole series of issues were identified as a result of the Workshop. For the professional institutions, the major challenges were identified as:

  • the need to improve the responsiveness of the planning system to the requirements of the regeneration process
  • the need for all professions to respond positively to new approaches to scheme design and contract procurement and delivery
  • the need in Wales to adopt the principles of the Egan Review in terms of promoting best practice
  • collaboration with Higher Education and training providers in meeting new skills needs

On regeneration practice and policy improvements, it was concluded that the Welsh approach of concentrating almost exclusively on economic development-based regeneration and capacity building at highly targeted deprived communities needs to be balanced by a greater commitment to physical regeneration. Current town centre regeneration was considered piecemeal and inconsistent, whilst housing market renewal was highlighted as a major issue in Wales, requiring sustained and long-term investment and innovation. Skills deficiency was identified as a major impediment to successful regeneration at local, regional and national levels in Wales. This needs to be addressed on a partnership approach by the major public sector players, Higher Education institutions, other training providers and the professions. The use of new technology was advocated, with a virtual learning network providing a better basis for skills enhancement throughout Wales.

The consistent message from the Workshop was the need to work in partnership across all sectors and between different geographical scales of operation. Regeneration is a competitive activity, in which Wales no longer plays the leading role that it once could claim ten to fifteen years ago.

Practical action

One of the practical results of the Workshop was the immediate engagement of the Joint Professions Group with the Higher Education sector in Wales. This has led to the establishment of a Wales-wide Higher Education Regeneration Network in 2003. This group has met on a regular basis over the past twelve months or so, and is proceeding towards collaboration in terms of research and skills training. The collaborative approach is not one that appears to be encouraged or supported by the funding regimes associated with the Higher Education sector. Therefore Network participants require the encouragement and support of partners within the public, private and community sectors, if they are to succeed.

Given the commitment of the professional institutions to work together on the Welsh regeneration agenda, and their willingness to engage with policy makers and practitioners from all sectors, the Joint Professions Group convened a conference Delivering Regeneration in Cardiff on 30 September 2004. It was attended by around 150 delegates, and addressed by a wide range of speakers from the Welsh Assembly Government, local government, the Welsh Development Agency, Skills Councils, academia and organisations from inside and outside Wales. The subject matter of the conference is too wide to cover in an article of this nature. But the general conclusion appeared to be that there is a need for an informal network of equal partners, which can address those regeneration issues requiring a cross sector response. Key to delivery of regeneration at local and regional levels appears to be the establishment of a pool of skilled practitioners possessing core competences and with access to supplementary professional services that are able to contribute on a fair and transparent basis. The Profession’s Group Regeneration Skills Initiative was referred to at the conference, and as a result of the presentations and consequent debate, is currently being amended. This will be presented to a Breakfast Briefing between representatives of the Profession’s Group, the Welsh Assembly Government and representatives of other sectors before the end of January 2005.

Some personal thoughts

Finally, perhaps I could make some brief and random comments on the current situation relating to regeneration in Wales. There would appear to be a clear commitment by the Welsh Assembly Government to the social inclusion and community regeneration agenda in Wales, although Barbara Castle’s article has raised some significant reservations as to the effectiveness of delivery of this activity. The merger of the WDA into the National Assembly raises questions as to the future effectiveness of the economic and property development elements of integrated regeneration activity in Wales within the foreseeable future. If performance in this area diminishes as a result of the conditions of merger, this will be to the detriment of overall Welsh performance in regeneration. The decreasing commitment to physical regeneration and a quality built environment in Wales over the past decade has not been good news, and this needs to be redressed as a matter of urgency. And these three key strands of integrated regeneration need to embrace the principles of sustainable development.

In terms of real commitment, the various phrases often used to describe or promote the delivery of regeneration activity in Wales need to be adopted in a real and practical manner. For example, ‘partnership’, ‘integrated action’, ‘holistic’, ‘engagement with all stakeholders’, ’inclusive’ are valueless, unless they are consistently taken seriously. ‘Talking the talk’ has to be converted into ‘walking the talk’.

And lastly, there is no doubt that housing has emerged as a key sector around which integrated regeneration programmes can focus. There will always be circumstances where a particular sector (housing, economic development, environment, social inclusion etc.) might be the appropriate lead activity in taking such a programme forward on a regional or a local community level. But it is important to recognise that key, ‘lead’ actions can, and should be, the catalyst for other related cross-sector activities.

Richard Essex is an independent consultant, currently providing policy advice to RICS Wales. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of RICS Wales!

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