Government funding is just the beginning

Lord Heseltine’s work on a national strategy for regenerating deprived housing estates got published today. And there is to be an additional £32m of new funding released, to bolster the original £140m Estate Regeneration Fund announced last January.

I was nose to the grindstone in Communities and Local Government when the thing first got launched at the start of 2016. And, as ever, there were a lot of heated arguments at that time about the money being not enough. It wasn’t until Lord Heseltine pulled the thing up by the bootstraps, in an explicit recognition that while government money is (always) important, it can NEVER be enough, that we began to get some sense into it all. The funds available needed to be treated only as “enabling” or “seed corn”, rather than the be-all and end-all.

Lord Heseltine was the most perfect casting to head up this work, not just because he is a former deputy prime minister and knows his way around, and not just because he is the Daddy of Urban Regeneration (although this did imbue comfort) but mostly because he is a real property developer, and he knows how these things work.

Estate regeneration has the potential to deliver thousands of additional homes over the next 10 to 15 years, providing well-designed public spaces and a better quality of life in areas often characterised by poor-quality housing and social deprivation. So Lord H’s team (his panel of very glittery people from across the industry as well as some of the most able civil servants available) have been meeting head-on the common challenges that can stop projects. And he himself has been most resolute throughout on the principle of putting the community first, saying today: “The national strategy puts residents at the heart of reshaping their estates, working with local authorities and developers. Estate regeneration must be locally led and this strategy sets out blueprints for success, to help guide the progress and provide aspiration for delivering tangible plans.”

To which Gavin Barwell, our wondrously clever housing minister, adds: “The funding we are providing will help kick-start a renaissance for those estates that face tough challenges and have often been overlooked. I’d urge communities keen to rejuvenate their places to join together, apply for funding and make use of the national strategy to drive forward their local-led proposals.”

The estates regeneration team have been in discussion with more than 100 areas across England. Through a combination of practical advice and guidance, the new national strategy gives local partners the tools to improve and speed up the progress of estate regeneration. It covers resident engagement and protection, a good practice guide, advice on community led housing development and useful case studies which illustrate the techniques which work.

Most crucially though, the strategy assists local people in steering schemes through all the key stages including the range of finance options available. Chief executive of the Housing & Finance Institute, Natalie Elphicke (who was a member of the panel) says: “The most important ingredients for success are agreeing a clear plan at the outset, engaging residents throughout a regeneration scheme, and developing a strong and positive partnership with private sector investors. Together with an effective deployment of public land and finance, high quality long term investment from the private sector can be attracted into estate regeneration”.

And let’s get real: this is the single most important component of this work. Lord Heseltine made his team clear from the outset that the government funds could only go so far, and recognised that there is a raft of serious private sector funding trying to get into this arena. I claim a weeny part of the credit in all this, as it was me that persuaded Paul Clark of GL Hearn, an expert in delivering this work with Grosvenor and Argent-Related and others, to come in to Marsham Street on secondment to assist the team. Other industry aficionados, such as Gerry Hughes of GVA also proffered support and assistance. Andy Von Bradsky from PRP Architects joined the team to steer quality design advice. And I am thrilled to learn today that the resultant strategy is thoroughly market-facing.

As a survivor of some notorious top-down estates regeneration schemes of yore (most notably the New Deal for Communities, about which I still have nightmares) I can assure you of this: huge dollops of cash from central government is not the answer. Working with your community, to leverage your assets, to make your estate attractive to investors, most certainly is.

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