Of course, there have always been industry leaders heading government taskforces: luminaries spring to mind such as Lord Richard Rogers, Sir Neville Simms, Sir John Calcutt. And now Sir Adrian Montague. Such business minds bring their expertise, invite their private sector buddies to the table, and try and help government figure out how to tackle critical issues facing the design and construction industry. They write their reports, champion their findings, and then the civil service is meant to get on with implementing (at least those bits they agree with).
One of the most profoundly depressing aspects of modern culture is the flight to celebrity. Being famous for being famous has to be one of the most vacuous and soul-destroying ideas of our age. And yet... regeneration in the UK is in such a parlous state that it is tempting to head for any port in a storm.
The conference season is now in full swing and Ed Balls today has some bold ideas on boosting housebuilding, but it is still the sad fact that the regeneration sector in the UK is absolutely on its knees, and we are utterly desperate. And in these years of complete collapse, those who wish to regenerate parts of their towns or cities will accept help from anywhere they can get it!
If it is potential media exposure, rather than real expertise, that could unlock a problem in an area, then how could you stand in its way? In my own purist fashion though, I feel duty bound to point out that there are a shed load of quiet professionals out there who really know how to crack complex problems, were they to be empowered to do so. I would be more comforted if I thought their voice was being listened to.
So we see the likes of Wayne Hemmingway, Kevin McCloud, George Clarke et al; all intervening in the housing and the homelessness debate. Then a few weeks ago, Sir Terence Conran, the design guru, was tasked with giving our communities the chance to design their own neighbourhoods (will we now start to see Conran communities up and down the country?). But first among equals of course, in terms of capturing the public imagination, is Mary Portas, tasked with revitalising our high streets. There are now 27 Portas Pilots launched in our town centres, although it hasn't all been plain sailing (and it is still not very clear at all what happened in Margate a few weeks ago, but hey!).
It is indeed a joy to report that some of the "Town Team" methodology has seriously caught on and CLG did very well in issuing a guide (rather than a prescription). But Mary is not content to confine herself with just one decades-old problem, she ventures into reforming hotel recruitment and training this week with the egregious Gordon Ramsey and their "Hotels GB" television series involving a slew of other so called slebs for good measure (amusingly, Tim Danaher tweeted at the weekend: "I struggle to believe that Hotel GB can be quite as appalling as it looks on the basis that no-one would have made it if it was going to be"). And she even had a bash at mystery shopping the Kentish Town Job Centre Plus in Saturday's Daily Telegraph; producing quite a thoughtful report, if no real solutions.
Where does it all end?
And what of the poor soul who needs things to happen in their community and, in desperation, decides to tread the path of embracing a celebrity-led initiative? Well, be warned: woe betide any regeneration practitioner who doesn't understand that the agenda with any celebrity (be it Ms Portas or Mr McCloud) is, first and foremost, about making good television, and the objective of meeting the real needs of your community come a very woeful second. So long as you understand that, then I would say good luck to you. But proceed with the utmost caution. Everyone in your community must be forewarned and forearmed: if local people don't mind being caricatured as "colourful characters" for the cameras, then go ahead. But keep in the forefront of your mind that it is an ephemeral phenomenon and certainly not the long-term answer to regenerating communities.
This blog leans heavily on the ideas of the utterly brilliant Paula Hirst, head of regeneration for Mazars (and, in her personal life, very involved in a Town Team for the Roman Road, E2) who I thank for her clear thinking and continued support for UKR. And I give her the last word: "Whatever next?" she quips, "Will Ricky Gervais, the office guru, be tasked with getting the down-in-the-doldrums commercial property market buzzing again? Will Alan Titchmarsh, the gardening guru, be tasked with creating a landscaping revolution in our streets? And finally, because I couldn't resist, with such challenges facing our industry, surely it can only take a minute before Gary Barlow, pop music guru, is tasked with making sure that everything changes."
Worryingly, this genuinely is the logical extension of this phenomenon. Sorry. I was wrong at the outset of this post. I abandon my schizophrenia as woolly thinking. More than ever now, we need a triumph of substance over style.