Regeneration challenge

Chris O’Malley, IWA Trustee and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Regional and International Development), University of Wales, Newport

The recent IWA report proposing a new Mayor for the Valleys has once again drawn our attention to the decades-long struggle for the region to overcome the decline of the coal and steel industries and to recover its confidence and prosperity. The report – and especially some of the reaction to it – has also reminded us of how difficult the challenge is.

There have indeed been some fairly spectacular examples of successful regeneration. We have seen a mini-Manhattan rise from the Isle of Dogs in London, while Cardiff Bay has become a magnet for tourists and a hub of government. These are both cases where former hubs of commerce have re-positioned themselves as new kinds of hubs. Nonetheless the track record of regeneration efforts has so far been quite patchy – mainly because those efforts themselves have been partial and fragmented.

Sometimes the focus is simply on new buildings – but it is a lot more difficult to regenerate whole communities than physical spaces. We can see countless examples of apartment blocks and other buildings that were bright and exciting when first built, but have gradually decayed, while the circumstances of the people living in them did not change in any other respect. The alternative picture we have also seen in regenerated areas is that the buildings have stayed in good condition, property prices have soared and the original community has simply been displaced by more affluent arrivals.

Sometimes the focus is on promoting jobs and economic investment. The results here have been mixed also. Where a largely generic approach is followed – notably involving grants for inward investment – it can have short-lived results. A good example of this is the case last year of LG Electronics, whose links with Newport were not sufficiently strong to prevent simple cost considerations from dictating closure of its plant there.

The key to sustainable regeneration is to start with the strengths and potential strengths of the people and places you are working with. In commercial strategy, the concept of strategy based on a company’s core competencies is well established. This means a strategy based on distinctive assets, including skills, reputation and relationships. There is no reason the same logic cannot equally apply to a region in developing a strategy for commercial success.

The same logic applies to social development as to economic development. An increasingly influential line of thinking has emerged around the concept of asset-based community development. This means that, instead of starting by establishing what is wrong with an areas and then prescribing standard fixes to bring into line with what you think is “normal”, you start by looking at a community’s strengths and potential strengths, and work out how to mobilise and exploit these.

A classic example of the former approach at work can be seen in the Five Counties Regeneration Framework (2002), published after the Ebbw Vale steelworks closure. In the report, page after page of weaknesses, whether in employment, education or health, are documented across the region. Nowhere in the document are local strengths or potential strengths identified.
Successful and sustainable regeneration is about building communities and regions starting from the inside – or more to the point, facilitating those communities in developing themselves. It is for this reason that I support the concept of an elected Mayor for the Valleys, if it encourages the development of a representative leadership capable of sustaining a true dialogue with all the community of the Valleys about where they want to go.

The prominent industrialist, Sir John Egan, wrote a report in 2005 about the regeneration challenge, in which his key message was that it is a multi-dimensional undertaking. He identified seven types of skills that are needed for the task. I would simplify this message a little by arguing that successful regeneration requires us to work on three major dimensions: not just the physical re-building and development, but also the economic strategy to sustain it and the social development to ensure that it takes root and benefits everyone.

We also have to take a long-term approach towards it. A challenge on the scale of the Valleys, where two major industries that largely sustained a whole region have all but disappeared, cannot be tackled on the basis of temporary programmes that constantly change focus. While it may be possible to build new buildings or infrastructure in a couple of years, changing patterns of activity, developing new mindsets and skills all take much longer.

The University in Newport is working with Glamorgan University on a joint strategy for how our institutions can best support a wider strategy, and we are also in discussion with the Heads of the Valleys Initiative and other players about how we can do this. Examples of developments we can directly support, that build on strengths and potential strengths of the area, include developing sustainable technology in areas such as construction; developing cultural, leisure and outdoors pursuits; building on the industrial heritage of the area; and building networks to promote the development of local small businesses. We also need to do more to support the development of local leadership in the community and voluntary sector. We need others to join with us in planning how to address all of these challenges and opportunities, and above all there needs to be a sustained approach to pursuing them.

Chris O’Malley is a Trustee for the IWA and Pro Vice-Chancellor (Regional and International Development), University of Wales, Newport.

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