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Why it's time to give urban regeneration the big heave-ho

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martin pawley

It is hard work fixing a car, all those fiddly corners you just can't get into. It is even harder fixing a boat - like being inside an egg with no doors. But both are a piece of cake compared with our national mass participation pipe dream, urban regeneration.

This, as you may recall, was what everybody voted for back in the '90s.Urban regeneration, that charismatic combination of The Fountainhead and Keep Britain Tidy that seemed set to reignite our cities with that unique species of foot-tapping, thirst-quenching urban excitement that has been missing since VJ night.

Everybody was up for it. The Lottery did its bit with a pumppriming £785 million for a tent, and the Queen did a hokeycokey in it with Mr and Mrs Blair on Millennium night, but somehow all the rest failed to materialise.

By the end of 2000, a year that not only the superstitious feared would be the end of the world, the urban regenerationists were getting restless. They had done their bit, enthusing over vibrant new bus shelters and public toilets, knocking themselves out praising here today and gone tomorrow restaurants and wine bars, and paying a year in advance for health clubs they no longer went to. Millennium year had a bad summer season, too;

by autumn the pavement cafes were deserted and London was full of people claiming to be selling up and emigrating to Ludlow.

In truth, by 2001 a fair number of the people who had marched under the banner of the Urban Task Force had begun repacking their parachutes, covering their tracks by noisily blaming the government for its failure to produce an Urban Regeneration Bill. 'Of course nothing has happened, ' they snapped. 'Nothing can happen without a Bill .' It was as though they had all become diners anxious to leave a restaurant but unable to find a waiter. And so they had, for their confluence of 'Bill' and 'bill' embodied both meanings of the word. The first the will o' the wisp 'Regeneration Bill' that might or might not be laid before Parliament; the second, all the 'bills' that were already forcing the clock off the government mantlepiece:

£180 billion for road schemes that had previously been scrapped but on second thoughts seemed necessary; £60 billion for urgent repairs to the Underground system; £200 billion for railway modernisation; £20 billion for road paint to mark out bus lanes; £60 billion for buses; £120 million for national cycleways.

In this context, the odd £150 million to kick-start the doubling of urban densities of occupation and brighten up the streets of the capital might not have seemed too much to ask. But by the time you factored in social security, health care, education, defence, Ireland, agriculture with its FMD, BSE and all the rest, it was impossible.

Somebody in the vast edifice of government, probably in the Treasury, realised that genuine urban regeneration would take 100 years and bankrupt the country - that is, if its terms of reference were appropriate and if it were properly funded - and if it were not properly funded it would be a waste of time to draft it, a bigger waste of time than banning hunting with dogs. In the first case, open-ended government spending on cities would turn out to be just a down-payment on the borrowings that would ensue; and in the second, it would be simpler for government to dead-hand the protests - 'Which do you want most: beautiful buildings or brain scan units? Art galleries or schools with smaller classes?'

- than for the bruised egos of the regeneration movement to admit that public spending in an already inflated property market is not the answer to the flames of Bradford.

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