City region strategy needed to integrate policy

Roger Tanner calls for a unified regeneration programme to tackle poverty

The Welsh Government faces a huge challenge in regenerating our poorer communities in the wake of the recession and the 41 per cent cut in its capital budget over the next three years. It needs to co-ordinate its existing programmes for economic, social and environmental renewal more effectively so that they complement each other rather than pulling in different directions. It should also seek to integrate these programmes with spatial planning and housing policies to create the most effective use of the Government’s limited resources. In short, the Welsh Government needs a unified regeneration programme.

In the past, regeneration initiatives in Wales have suffered from being sponsored by separate ministries with different spatial priorities. Alas this looks set to continue. First Minister Carwyn Jones’s new ministerial portfolios split responsibility for regeneration policy between no less than seven Ministers:

  • Huw Lewis – Housing, Regeneration and Heritage.
  • Carl Sargeant – Local Government and Communities.
  • Edwina Hart – Business, Enterprise, Technology and Science.
  • John Griffiths – Environment.
  • Leighton Andrews, Education and Skills.
  • Alun Davies – Agriculture, Food, Fisheries and European Programmes (which, bizarrely, includes the administration of European structural funds in urban areas).
  • Jane Hutt – Finance.

This means that a typical town centre improvement scheme may have to apply separately to the Minister for Agriculture for European grant aid, the Minister for Finance for funding, and the Minister for Housing for additional match funding if it is fortunate enough to be in a Regeneration Area. All of these have their own different spatial priorities, grant funding criteria and bureaucratic procedures.

Moreover, there are a plethora of ad hoc regeneration programmes, sponsored by different ministries and created at different times with scant co-ordination between them, including:

  • Communities First, Local Government and Communities – based on empowering the most deprived 10 per cent of Welsh communities identified originally in the 2001 Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation. These initiatives are at ward level or smaller. In many areas they exist alongside Community Councils with similar objectives.
  • Regeneration Areas, formerly Strategic Regeneration Areas, following the model of the Heads of the Valleys programme initiated in 2005. There are now eight Regeneration Areas divided into two distinct types – large sub-regional initiatives such as the Heads of the Valleys area (population 250,000), and much smaller single town target areas such as Barry and Aberystwyth.
  • The European Union’s Convergence Programme identifies 44 priority deprived areas, varying in size from Swansea to small villages. The basis for assessing their deprivation is different from that used for Communities First and the Regeneration Areas, even though all three use the flawed Welsh Index of Multiple Deprivation data. Most physical Convergence projects also have to obtain match funding from the Finance Ministry’s Targetted Match Funding pot, whose panel has different criteria to those used by Wales European Funding Office.

These three initiatives are all targetted at areas believed to be of greatest deprivation. However, the Wales Spatial Plan identifies a different set of ‘key settlements’ that could be centres for economic growth. Here there is further confusion since though the hierarchies of key settlements used in South East Wales and  Pembrokeshire regions identified in the Spatial Pan differ from those in the four other regions. In practice the Spatial Plan is largely ignored by Welsh Government ministries. Rumours abound that it will be superseded by a proposed National Infrastructure Strategy.

Meanwhile, there are a raft of further initiatives, all of which have some purchase on implementing regeneration policy. These include:

  • Newport Unlimited which is Wales’ only Urban Regeneration Company  -there are several dozen in England.

  • Visit Wales the remnants of the Wales Tourist Board, with its own spatial agenda.
  • The Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales, which recently emerged from the EU’s Joint European Support for Sustainable Investment in City Areas (JESSICA). This has the potential for an innovative public/private sector approach to development opportunities across Wales. However, it offers loans rather than grants, and there are doubts about its relevance in regeneration areas characterised by low land and property prices.
  • The Strategic Capital Investment Fund established in 2008. This has been anything but strategic, since it has had to make sense of the disparate spatial strategies listed above. It has ended up pepper potting considerable sums of money into a wide variety of schemes of questionable regeneration value. Since 2010 it has had no fresh funds to distribute.

  • Of largely unrecognised importance in the regeneration field is the emerging set of unitary authority Local Development Plans. Yet these are of great importance in that they identify areas where private sector development will be encouraged.
  • Directly contradicting each other are the Regional Transport Plans which generally seek to promote public transport improvements and discourage the growth of trips by private car and the now dated Wales Property Strategy which clung to the idea of promoting business parks at motorway junctions.
  • In the background is the Stock Transfer process, which has created powerful new municipal mutual housing associations which have great potential as regeneration agencies, for example in Rhondda Cynon Taf and Torfaen.

How could this plethora of initiatives be better co-ordinated? Despite the almost universal derision that has been heaped upon it, the Wales Spatial Plan has the potential to be an overarching and truly strategic document. Among other things, it could ensure that the many initiatives in train could fit together in a complementary and mutually supportive way. However, it would need to be re-written with specific, joined up proposals rather than its present vague wish list of unconnected desirables.

For example, the potential for Swansea, Cardiff and Newport to generate jobs should be recognised and linked to regeneration initiatives in more deprived areas. One of the planning tragedies of the past decade has been the squandering of the vast public investment in Cardiff Bay in the 1990s. At a cost of £500 million plus, the Bay was transformed into what could have been a uniquely attractive business environment. Instead, it was overrun in the subsequent decade by retail sheds and speculative apartment developments. Wales abounds with expensive infrastructure projects that fail to exploit their regeneration potential.

In February the IWA organised a conference to launch a new report by Mark Barry, A Metro for Wales’ Capital City Region – Connecting, Cardiff, Newport and the Valleys. This detailed plan for a  rapid transit ‘Metro’ system could form the starting point for real regional planning in South-East Wales.  Similar proposals for a rapid transit system to serve the Swansea city-region were put forward by Mike Smith in the Spring 2011 edition of Agenda.

The Welsh Government’s new legislative powers should be used to create a Welsh Planning Act that would provide for an effective regional planning system to give a context for local authority Local Development Plans. In turn this could be used to promote city-region initiatives such as the Metro proposal.

Scotland provides a precedent for this approach. Above their system of local authority plans the Scots have regional plans centred on the country’s four main cities – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen and Dundee. Whether or not regional planning would also be desirable in the more rural areas is a debate to be had in both countries. However, the case for integrated planning in the urban areas of Wales, including the north-east Wales, should be self-evident.

Cardiff, Swansea and Newport should be prioritised in city-region strategies as locations for employment growth, while associated new housing developments should be concentrated in the increasingly attractive Valley communities to the north, the two linked by enhanced public transport.

At the other end of the spectrum there are pressures to respond to the ‘Localism’ agenda being pursued in England by the UK coalition government. In Wales it could be argued that we already have a surfeit of localism, some would say parochialism. For example, do we need Community Councils and Communities First Partnerships in the same areas? Community Councils are elected and therefore have some legitimacy to speak for the communities they represent. Yet as presently organised they are largely irrelevant to people’s lives. Meanwhile, the Communities First Partnerships are self-selected but are charged with creating and implementing regeneration plans. It would make sense to merge the two into partly elected, partly co-opted local bodies, with the power to levy a local rate but only if they have an approved improvement plan in place.

Crucially, the interconnectedness between housing, employment and transport needs to be identified at a strategic level. Areas of deprivation should be identified in the Wales Spatial Plan, linked to potential growth points and areas of opportunity, with relevant public  transport links specified. The boundaries of Regeneration Areas should acknowledge these requirements. They should include areas of opportunity that serve areas of deprivation, so that investment can be targetted in the most efficient and effective way.

In all of this planning and policy interventions should be at the most appropriate level. So Communities First Partnerships should focus on building the self-confidence of deprived areas, tackling local community safety and environmental issues. Transport plans will usually have a regional focus and concentrate on linking areas of housing and employment growth. Major challenges such as addressing child poverty and economic inactivity should be tackled at the all-Wales level.

Above all, we need a new sense of urgency in moving this agenda forward at a time when, in the face of severely constrained budgets, the need for an effective regeneration strategy is more pressing than ever.

Roger Tanner is Strategic Planning and Urban Renewal Manager with Caerphilly County Borough Council. This article appears in the current issue of the IWA’s journal Agenda

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