Controlling the urban landscape: the pros and cons of putting public spaces in private hands

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A 2007 report from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) described the growing private ownership and management of the public realm as a “quiet revolution in land ownership”.

The study included a handful of early examples, such as the Excel Centre and Canary Wharf in London, and Liverpool’s Paradise Street development (later rebranded Liverpool One). Since then, more of these privately owned public spaces (POPS) have been appearing across the UK, including Granary Square and the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London, Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth, and Brindleyplace in Birmingham.

The evolution of public space

Until relatively recently, local government owned, managed and maintained streets and squares in the UK’s towns and cities. But over the past two decades, budgetary constraints have diminished local authorities’ ability to maintain the public realm. Increasingly, the gap has been filled by the private sector, which has created new POPS.

On the face of it, the redevelopment of previously run-down areas with no cost to the public purse would appear to be a good thing. But there are concerns about the private landlords of these spaces who have the power to restrict and control activities of the public using these spaces.  Alongside these new private-public developments, the rise of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs) has increased private sector influence over town and city centres.

A bridge too far?

The issue of privatised public spaces was given renewed prominence with the proposals for a new “Garden Bridge” across the River Thames. Designed by Thomas Heatherwick  the project envisions a pedestrian bridge with its own elevated garden.

Supporters say the Garden Bridge will enrich London, providing economic, environmental and aesthetic benefits. But opponents have expressed concerns about a list of rules prohibiting activities on the bridge, such as busking and cycling. Restrictions of this kind have been applied to other POPS, sometimes resulting in awkward encounters between members of the public and security guards representing the property managers.

As things stand, the fate of the Garden Bridge remains uncertain, following the decision by the Mayor of London to set up an inquiry into the project’s use of public money, and a warning from the National Audit Office that the money may have been wasted.

The pros and cons of POPS

But does it really matter if urban spaces that appear to be public are actually privately-owned?

No, say POPS supporters. Without private funding, spaces such as Brindleyplace and LiverpoolOne might not have been developed at all. Furthermore, the cost of maintaining these privately owned public spaces can be borne by the private sector, instead of local authorities (and the taxpayer). They also point to Liverpool One as a successful example of town centre regeneration, and suggest that private ownership of public space can be a catalyst for renewal of neglected spaces.

But others are unhappy with the creeping privatisation of public spaces, arguing that they sacrifice community spirit and historical identity for the sake of a sterile, monotonous, corporatised spaces. Opponents of POPS are also concerned about the restrictions land owners place on such spaces.

The view from Aberdeen

One city which has recently bucked the trend towards private control over public spaces is Aberdeen. In 2010, the city council planned to hand over the historic Union Terrace Gardens in the city centre to a consortium of business interests – Aberdeen City Garden Trust – under a long lease. The trust released its plans to redesign the Victorian park, raising the sunken gardens to street level. Campaign groups mounted opposition to the scheme, but it was narrowly approved in a city-wide referendum in 2012. However, a new Labour administration came to power shortly after the referendum, and the scheme was finally scrapped. During the summer of 2016, the council announced new plans to redevelop the site, which will remain in public hands.

Final thoughts

The Aberdeen example shows that moves to put public spaces in private hands are not universally popular, or inevitable. Even so, many local authorities are struggling to maintain public spaces, leaving the way open for private developers. The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, in the borough of Newham, is one of the most recent POPS to appear in London. Sir Robin Wales, the elected mayor of Newham would have preferred the park to be maintained using public funds, but has accepted that his borough could not afford to manage it: “We know we don’t have an income stream.”


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Local poverty, national wealth: reflections from the annual SURF conference

The annual SURF conference took place in Edinburgh on the 1st September 2016. The theme for this year’s conference was Local poverty, national wealth: resourcing regeneration. Delegates came from a range of organisations across Scotland, including local authorities, the Scottish Federation of Housing Associations, COSLA, Creative Scotland, Skills Development Scotland and Transport Scotland. Speakers on the day included director of the Common Weal, Robin McAlpine, Minister for Local Government and Housing, Kevin Stewart MSP, Fiona Duncan from Lloyds TSB Foundation Scotland and Sandra Marshall coordinator and community activist from Leith Hub.

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Image by Rebecca Jackson

Building resilient and equal communities through regeneration

The conference focused on connecting policy, practice and people within communities to promote effective regeneration of spaces to reduce inequality. One of the recurring themes of discussion throughout the day was the localisation of power and services, allowing local communities the ability to plan and decide the best way to regenerate their local area. Other general themes discussed during the day included finance, infrastructure to facilitate regeneration at a local level, and how to create a network of support and integrate professional knowledge to support community regeneration plans. Revisiting a theme from last year’s conference, cooperation with communities rather than imposition of regeneration, formed the backbone of discussion for the day.

Image by Rebecca Jackson

Image by Rebecca Jackson

Economic planning is key to reducing inequality and promoting regeneration

The first session of the day focussed on the policy and economic context around regeneration and reducing inequality. It was suggested in the opening remarks that there needs to be effective development and investment where people live- that poverty and inequality lead to degeneration, and that both must be tackled in order to facilitate effective regeneration of an area. In a way the two are not mutually exclusive: regeneration can help to alleviate poverty and inequality, but in order for regeneration to be as effective as possible, poverty and inequality should be eradicated as far as possible.

As well as this abstract macroeconomic debate delegates and panellists discussed locality based funding, including cooperatives. Panellists suggested that in Scotland the problem is not a lack of money, but a lack of effective distribution of resources. They also discussed how to reduce the gap between the lived experience of communities and what politicians think lived experience is. These insights were put into poignant context by panellist Sandra Marshall, who discussed her own personal struggles, and those of others she has helped in her community of Muirhouse in Edinburgh.

Tackling inequality is high on the agenda of the current Scottish Government, something which was emphasised during the panel session by Kevin Stewart MSP. Working at a community level and having the power to do so was also something which was highlighted as being vital to helping communities affect change through regeneration. Kevin Stewart highlighted the proposed decentralisation bill currently being discussed within the Scottish Parliament, which aims to give greater power to local communities to effect their own change.

pink pig and coins

Resourcing regeneration: the view from funders

There was a general consensus that funding is one of the key enablers, but also one of the biggest barriers to those who want to carry out community regeneration. The ease of access to funders and the ability to identify and engage with them was seen as a big barrier. Longevity of funding was also raised, with most funders donating grants for 3-5 years, despite acknowledging that many projects take longer to come to fruition. The second session of the day invited funders from major Scottish regeneration funding bodies: the Big Lottery Fund, Heritage Lottery Fund, Highlands and Islands Enterprise, Resilient Scotland, and the Scottish Government to present themselves and their funding options to delegates. Panellists were able to highlight their major funding schemes, how to apply and allow people the opportunity to chat directly with funders. The panellists also took part in a “funding cafe” exhibition which saw representatives from 20 of the major funding bodies in Scotland host stalls and interact with delegates.

Making connections and sharing learning

During the afternoon session delegates were able to hear about the lessons from SURF’s Alliance for Action collaboration projects. The projects in Govan, Kirkcaldy, Rothesay and Dunoon highlight the work done by SURF and their partners in using regeneration to promote community cohesion and reduce inequality. Discussions focussed on the projects themselves, how they were implemented, the challenges, barriers and differences in each of the projects, particularly in relation to scale, and the impacts and outcomes they produced. They also discussed how the models used in each of the projects are sustainable and transferable, and considered the role of SURF as the intermediary body through which policy and practice can be merged to the benefit of communities.

Community concept word cloud background

Community concept word cloud background

A bold new vision for regeneration in Scotland

The final session of the day put forward some suggestions for the future of regeneration, in particular using regeneration as a tool to reduce inequality within Scotland’s communities. Panellists discussed alternative and innovative funding methods, including co-operative and community ownership models, the decentralisation of power to help improve community decision making and the importance of addressing systematic and structural themes which underpin inequality within our communities and hinders the process of regeneration.

The conference was a day filled with interesting and unique insights into the regeneration agenda and the impact it can have on reducing inequality within communities. It also provided a platform for discussion about the future potential for regeneration projects within communities. Speakers and delegates came from a variety of policy, practice and community backgrounds, which resulted in a wide ranging and thorough discussion about many different aspects of the regeneration agenda within Scotland.


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Digital Greenwich: a local council approach to smart cities

By Steven McGinty

According to research by Lucy Zodion, a leading designer and manufacturer of streetlighting equipment, smart cities are not deemed a priority for local government. The findings show that 80% of local authorities have little or no involvement with smart cities, and that only a few had specific teams managing smart city initiatives.

The research explains that the challenging financial environment was the main reason for the lack of prioritisation. However, it also finds despite funding challenges, some local councils have been successful at introducing initiatives, through working in partnership with private organisations and universities and encouraging local businesses to participate in developing solutions.

On our blog today, we’re going to look at the Royal Borough of Greenwich, a local council quietly leading the way in the smart cities revolution.

Greenwich Smart City Strategy

On the 22nd October 2015, Greenwich council officials launched their smart city strategy at the Digital Greenwich hub. Denise Hyland, Leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, outlined the council’s reasoning for investing in technology, explaining that:

In the face of the rapid increase in the borough’s population and in the face of globalization and technological change, we have to invest in the future and face these challenges head on, right now.”

The strategy introduces four key principles:

  • Inclusivity – the strategy will benefit all citizens, communities and neighbourhoods.
  • Citizen centric – citizen engagement will be transformed to ensure citizens are at the heart of policies and that their needs are met.
  • Transparency – citizens will be informed of changes and desired outcomes and accessible information will be provided to all citizens.
  • Standards and good practice – the Royal Borough of Greenwich will become a ‘learning organisation’, willing to listen and share ideas, and using evidence to inform decision-making.

The strategy also explains that it will transform four main areas:

  • Transforming Neighbourhoods and Communities – the council will reach out to the Boroughs diverse communities, including strengthening links with key organisations to improve the quality of life for citizens, and introducing projects to reduce digital exclusion and promote digital skills.
  • Transforming Infrastructure – the council will improve fixed and mobile connectivity in the Borough and encourage the widespread use of sensors in the built environment, to provide the building blocks for smart city projects.
  • Transforming Public Services – innovative pilot projects will be introduced to help ensure public services are co-ordinated and citizen-centric.
  • Transforming the Greenwich Economy – many jobs in Greenwich’s economy are vulnerable to automation, therefore the council will look to make businesses more resilient to technological change, as well as encourage the development of digital SMEs.

Bringing together the right team

Digital Greenwich has been established to develop and take forward Greenwich’s smart city strategy. The in-house, multidisciplinary team, provides expertise in the areas related to smart cities, such as the modern built environment, implementing Government as a Platform, and economic regeneration in the digital age.

The team will play an important role in shaping thinking, managing pilot projects to mitigate the risks of innovation, and ensuring that the council’s strategy is aligned with emerging practice.

 Partnerships

The ‘Sharing Cities’ Lighthouse programme

The ‘Sharing Cities’ Lighthouse programme is a €25m project, which involves cities from across Europe investigating how innovative technology can be used to improve the lives of citizens. As part of this programme, Greenwich will act as a demonstrator area and trial several initiatives, including:

  • introducing 300 smart parking bays to help drivers find parking quickly and conveniently
  • developing a shared electric bicycle and car scheme to reduce the number of citizens using private cars
  • installing solar panels in local homes to improve energy efficiency
  • using the River Thames to provide affordable heating for local homes.

Digital Greenwich and Surrey University

On 27th July 2016, Digital Greenwich and the University of Surrey set up a partnership to develop smart city technologies, with a focus on creating ‘resource-efficient, low-carbon, healthy and liveable neighbourhoods’.  The Digital Greenwich team will now have access to the university’s 5G Innovation Centre (5GIC), which will enable it to develop and trial smart city solutions. The university have highlighted that the centre’s 5G infrastructure (the next generation of communications technology) will provide the opportunity to scale solutions to a city or national level.

The university’s 5GIC is funded by a £12 million grant from the Higher Education Funding Council.

Leader of the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Denise Hyland, commented that the new partnership will act as a ‘valuable catalyst’ to their smart city strategy and help strength the Borough’s economy and improve services.

Involving industry

GATEway (Greenwich Automated Transport Environment)

GATEway is a collaborative project involving academia, government and industry in the field of automated vehicle research. It’s led by TRL, the UK’s transport research centre, and has several aims, including:

  • safely and efficiently integrating automated transport systems into real life smart city environments
  • inspiring industry, government and the wider public to engage with using autonomous transport technology
  • understanding the technical, legal, cultural and social barriers that impact the adoption of autonomous transport technology

One of the companies involved in the research (based at the Digital Greenwich Innovation Centre) is Phoenix Wings Ltd, who specialise in innovative mobility solutions, fleet management and autonomous vehicle technology. In 2014, they announced ‘Navia’, the first commercially available 100% driverless shuttle.

The GATEway project is funded by an £8 million grant by industry and Innovate UK.

Final thoughts

The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) have highlighted that local council spending power reduced by 23.4% in real terms between 2009–10 and 2014–15. This is clearly significant, particularly when there is pressure to meet greater demands.

However, to conclude, we’ll leave you with the comments of Professor Gary Hamel, a leading management expert,

My argument is the more difficult the economic times, the more one is tempted to retrench, the more radical innovation becomes the only way forwards. In a discontinuous world, only radical innovation will create new wealth.”


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Supporting regeneration and creative start-ups … what can we learn from Hackney?

View of Amazon HQBy Morwen Johnson

A traditional pub, standing alone in the midst of a massive development site in East London. The photo above, taken at the end of June, seems to sum up dramatic changes that are being replicated all across London as regeneration transforms many Boroughs. Social and community regeneration, however, does not inevitably follow from investment in commercial property development. And ensuring that local communities benefit, and are not displaced or excluded by processes of gentrification, can be a tough balancing act.

I recently went on a study tour within Hackney, organised as part of the RTPI Convention in June, to understand how the council’s planning and regeneration team have been working to attract investment into the area and tying this in to employment support and small business growth.

Rapid economic growth but continuing deprivation

A number of high profile major site developments are underway in Hackney, including multiple hotels and the new Amazon HQ. This has gone hand-in-hand with its emergence in the last few years as an attractive location for start-ups and entrepreneurs.

Hackney experienced a business growth rate of 40% between 2004 and 2012, 17% higher than London as a whole. The population of the Borough has also grown from approximately 265,000 in 2006 to an estimated 310,000 in 2015. A report from Tech City published last month also highlighted the importance of the key sectors of creative, technology and business services in the local economy – they make up 37% of all employment in Hackney and 54% of its 11,000 businesses.

It’s worth noting, however, that this economic success has come at a time when Hackney still has some of the highest levels of deprivation and poverty in London. For example, in 2016, 30% of nursery and primary school pupils are eligible for and claiming free school meals, rising to 33% at secondary level (London Datastore).

Vibrancy of the area at risk?

The improved perception of the area, while welcome, is pushing up property and rental prices. And now, as start-ups and small businesses risk being priced out of Hackney, it is important for the area to retain the ability to host start-ups. One solution is ‘meanwhile use’ – the temporary use of vacant buildings or sites, especially for community projects.

Hackney council has engaged with local developers and property partners to create innovative and cost-effective spaces on a temporary basis to promote local business, employment and culture.  Hackney House on Curtain Road is just one example – the building provides a café and bar area, as well as exhibition and meeting space for hire. Wi-fi and desk space is available for not-for-profit organisations and start-ups to use, and regular events encourage business networking. The project won the Best Town Centre project at the London Planning Awards in February 2016.

The council suggests that while it’s important to keep businesses in the area, the core aim should “be to keep projects innovative and exciting”. Some churn is inevitable and councils should “extend both a platform and an open mind to its current local business communities”.

Ways into work

Another example of collaboration which has delivered cost effective assets to support the local community is The Opportunity Hub on Pitfield Street. The council has been working to develop its role as a broker between the private sector and community sector to create jobs and training for local people. The Opportunity Hub sits next to a large housing estate and research showed that nearly a quarter of residents local to the Hub had never used the internet.

Previously a community centre that was only being used for two hours a week, the building has been redesigned to offer an antithesis to job centres. As well as having space for training or employer recruitment sessions, there is free hot-desking space. A team of information and guidance advisors are available and focus on getting local people ‘job-ready’. They also engage with local businesses to promote apprenticeships. Touchingly, the local group of women who used the previous centre for afternoon bingo now use the Hub space instead.

Hackney collateral

Looking to the future

It’s clear that the council in Hackney aren’t resting on their laurels. As well as continuing to use Section 106 as a tool to ensure larger businesses moving into the area will offer jobs to local unemployed people, they are planning another Opportunity Hub in the foyer of a local library. They are also looking at new ideas to provide space for temporary uses, such as the untapped potential of over 2000 empty garages in the area.

Close relationships between planning professionals, town centre managers and the business development teams appear to have helped the council to use regeneration to benefit the local community.


Read more about Hackney’s three year framework to promote enterprise and regeneration in the Tech City Best Practice report.

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Creating inclusive, prosperous places to live

by Heather Cameron

What does quality of life and ‘a good place to live’ mean? What are the key challenges to ensure quality of life in cities today? How can we create better places to live and who needs to be involved? These were just some of the questions explored at a seminar hosted by Policy Scotland, Glasgow University’s research and knowledge exchange hub, last month.

Running the event was Dr Georgiana Varna, Research Fellow at Glasgow University. Georgiana is a multidisciplinary scholar, specialising in urban regeneration and public space development.

Cities back on the agenda

A particular emphasis was placed on the importance of both place and people. Georgiana noted that cities are very much back on the policy agenda as we try to fix the mistakes of the 60s and 70s. She alluded to the New Urban Agenda, which embodies three guiding principles:

  • Leave no one behind
  • Achieve sustainable and inclusive urban prosperity
  • Foster ecological and resilient cities and human settlements

Following Georgiana’s introduction, several short presentations were given by a range of professionals and scholars.

Speaker: Michael Gray, Housing and Regeneration Services, Glasgow City Council

Michael Gray of Glasgow City Council delivered the first of the presentations, focusing on the Commonwealth Games Athlete’s Village in the East End of Glasgow. There was a clear pride in what they achieved with a belief that the result is a sustainable, cohesive community.

Michael did allude to some concerns that have been highlighted by GoWell East surveys regarding speeding vehicles, lack of buses and lack of local retail. But he also noted that lessons have been learned from the project, which was very complex in terms of procurement, design and construction, and that future development is addressing such concerns.

Speaker: Keith Kintrea, Glasgow University

Keith referred to Scotland’s standings in the PISA survey, showing that maths, reading and science achievement in Scotland sits in the middle and ahead of England, despite their efforts to improve. However, he noted that there is no room for complacency as those children in the most deprived areas were less likely to do well – nearly 70% of Glasgow pupils live in the most deprived areas.

Again, the importance of neighbourhood/place was emphasised, this time for local educational outcomes. It was noted that while Scottish schools are less segregated than the rest of the UK and more inclusive according to the OECD, (similar to countries such as Finland), this is not necessarily the case in cities. Keith concluded that we need to do much more about what places do in terms of educational outcomes.

Speaker: George Eckton, COSLA/SUSTRANS

George highlighted the importance of transport for delivering social, economic and environmental initiatives, and for growth in city-regions. Inequality in social mobility was put down to inadequate transport and it was noted that many people are disadvantaged in the labour market due to lack of mobility.

He stressed the need to increase the use of sustainable transport and argued that a collaborative approach will be essential to create inclusive growth for all.

Speaker: Andy Milne, Scotland’s Regeneration Network

Andy focused on community regeneration, arguing that the issue of centralisation and decentralisation is crucial. He stated that as a result of centralisation, urban areas – where most of the population live – are vastly under resourced.

Interestingly, he also noted that regeneration doesn’t work when not all areas are addressed. He argued that successful growth and inclusion will depend on economic policy decisions and not on all the small actions taken to address inequality.

Speaker: Richard Bellingham, University of Strathclyde

Richard’s focus was on smart cities. He noted that cities rely on critical systems – food production, waste/water handling, transportation, energy systems, health systems, social systems – and that if any one of them fails, the whole city fails.

The issue of rapid growth was emphasised as something cities need to respond to in a smart way. The recent 50-lane traffic jam experienced by Beijing suggests that there was a lack of smart thinking in its approach of building more roads for more people.

Richard suggested that greater collaboration is required for smart cities to succeed.

Speaker: David Allan, Scottish Community Development Centre & Community Health Exchange

The final presentation focused on community development. David highlighted the importance of community development approaches to build healthy and sustainable communities and referred to four building blocks of community empowerment:

  • Personal development
  • Positive action
  • Community organisation
  • Participation and involvement

Two examples of successful community-led initiatives were presented: Community Links (South Lanarkshire) and Getting better together (Shotts Healthy Living Centre).

Key elements of these initiatives were identified as: community-led, responsive to community need, fair and inclusive, and flexible and adaptive. Challenges were also identified: the level of understanding of ‘community’, community ‘stuff’ is often seen as nice but not essential and there is a lack of capacity and supply at the local level. David also noted that there is a danger that city-regions may exacerbate existing inequalities by concentrating resources in powerhouses.

He concluded by noting that future cities are unlikely to look like something from Back to the Future. Rather, they will probably look very much like today but the underlying systems need to change.

‘Smart successful cities – distinct, flexible and delightful (great places to be).’


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Rebuilding a community without bringing down the house: an alternative to demolishing ‘sink estates’

In January, the prime minister outlined plans for a £140m development programme in England that he said would improve the life chances of the most disadvantaged people living in social housing estates with high levels of deprivation.

“A new Advisory Panel will help galvanise our efforts and their first job will be to build a list of post-war estates across the country that are ripe for re-development, and work with up to 100,000 residents to put together regeneration plans. For some, this will simply mean knocking them down and starting again. For others, it might mean changes to layout, upgrading facilities and improving local road and transport links.”

The proposal received a mixed response. Some commentators observed that demolishing the worst “sink estates” built during the 1960s and 1970s would free up much-needed land for new homes. Elsewhere, the head of the ResPublica think tank welcomed the chance to replace ugly estates with more attractive environments

Others criticised David Cameron’s idea as a form of “social cleansing”, claiming it raised the spectres of privatisation and gentrification. And Councillor Richard Lewis, executive member for regeneration, transport and planning on Leeds City Council challenged the prime minister’s view that the problem of ‘sink estates’ could be resolved by demolition.

“Through careful management of our housing funds and rental income we have managed to make significant investment in council housing. “I simply don’t recognise the language of ‘sink’ estates when it comes to Leeds and I don’t think we should write off entire areas and the people that live in them.”

After the storm, a dramatic turnaround

A recent New York Times report echoed the view that renovation of deteriorating housing estates can be more effective than demolition. The article reported on a 1970s housing estate on Long Island that had gone into decline after years of neglect. Crime, drugs and vermin were just some of the problems associated with the crumbling properties of the estate. Things got a great deal worse when Hurricane Sandy stormed into the estate in 2012, flooding many of the apartments and cutting off power and fresh water supplies.

The obvious next step would have been demolition. But instead of being torn down, the estate has undergone a remarkable transformation that astonished the newspaper’s reporter:

“The place is almost unrecognisable. Apartments are occupied once again. Hallways, kitchens, bathrooms and electrical systems are refurbished; lobbies opened up with big windows; a floodwall installed; the landscaping upgraded, with a broad promenade to the beach; and leaky facades clad with new, waterproof, energy-efficient panels. Energy bills have dropped 30 percent.”

The turnaround is thanks to a partnership between developers, government and the local community. The new owners renovated the estate at a cost of $60m, but avoided having to raise the rents of longstanding tenants through subsidies from the federal government. The improvements raised property values, enabling the developers to rent out vacant apartments at market rates.

Lessons from Long Island

As in London, there is a severe shortage of affordable housing in New York City. And – also as in London – subsidised public housing has largely given way to private developments for the super-rich. The New York Times reporter described the changes in his own neighbourhood of Greenwich Village, and other parts of New York that were once home to low- and moderate-income residents:

“Now the Village is like a gated playground for runaway wealth. Subsidised apartments all across town are converting to market-rate rentals and condos faster than City Hall can build affordable units or preserve old ones. The city Housing Authority is broke. Its ageing properties face $17 billion in capital repairs.”

Some key factors played a part in the transformation of the Long Island estate:

  • Private development was made possible through tax incentives and other publicly financed programmes
  • The developers consulted a sceptical local community, earning its trust and building consensus
  • On-site management teams maintained oversight of the renovation project
  • Design features to save energy, improve the neighbourhood and enhance quality of life were built into the renovation process

Final thoughts

The $60m price tag for renovating a single estate in New York City suggests that the £140m earmarked for regenerating England’s 100 worst “sink estates” won’t be nearly enough, and may even have been downgraded. A month after the prime minister’s announcement, it emerged that the money set aside for the project will only be available in loan form to private sector developers.

And a warning of how badly off course the prime minister’s plan could go came from The Independent, which highlighted London’s Heygate Estate:

“Formerly one of the largest social housing projects in Europe it was home to thousands, a large number of whom disagreed with its nefarious depiction as problematic sink estate. Widely praised for its green spaces and innovative architectural design, many argued in favour of its refurbishment, but it was nevertheless ‘decanted’ and finally demolished last year to make way for largely private apartments.”

Perhaps addressing the needs of declining housing estates requires a more constructive approach than bringing in the wrecking ball.


Further reading from our blog on housing and regeneration

Learning from “Alcatraz” – the regeneration of the Gorbals
Empty homes…Britain’s wasted resource
Improving the built environment: how to tackle vacant and derelict buildings

Our popular Ask-a-Researcher enquiry service is one aspect of the Idox Information Service, which we provide to members in organisations across the UK to keep them informed on the latest research and evidence on public and social policy issues. To find out more on how to become a member, get in touch.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Evolution or revolution … the challenge of delivering future high streets

The crisis facing our high streets and town centres shows no sign of ending, with end-of-year figures revealing that December was the ninth consecutive month in which shopper footfall declined. The vacancy rate of high street premises also continues to be high – an estimated one in nine premises are lying empty across the UK.

This data suggests a systemic problem for present-day retailing and town centres. The causes are complex including business locational strategies, planning decision-making, consumer spending and expectations, household debt, technology and online shopping opportunities. In addition, inquiries such as the Scottish National Review of Town Centres and the Future High Street Forum evidence review, have shown that town centres remain a pressing planning challenge, with strategic and local ramifications in terms of economic, social and environmental well-being.

Making our town centres more resilient will require changing our attitudes to the use and management of these spaces. They need to deliver a mixed and diverse economy, and provide social experiences not just retail. But while this message seems to be accepted, putting it into practice seems to be more problematic.

Policies into practice

At a policy level, the National Review of Town Centres in Scotland asserted the case for a deliberate ‘town centre first’ principle to stem the leeching of investment and retailing activity to out of town locales. The review also advocated the diversification of town centre activities, including provision of residential uses and affordable housing. This was broadly accepted by the Scottish Government; and the Town Centre First principle, agreed with COSLA, to discharge a ‘collective responsibility to help town centres thrive sustainably, reinvent their function, and meet the needs of residents, businesses, and visitors for the 21st century’ sums up this ambition.

Meanwhile Paragraph 23 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), along with the revised National Planning Practice Guidance (NPPG) on town centre development and planning, recognises town centres as being at the heart of communities.

Addressing complexity

In practice, however, the ongoing failure of many high streets suggests that they are not transforming at the rate or scale that is needed.

Positive, organised and strategic (joined up) intervention, working across the public and private sectors, seems to be the only way to address a highly complex matter. Initiatives such as business improvement districts (BIDs) have been trialling new ways of managing and marketing successful town centres. A report last year from the Centre for Policy Studies looked at the positive impact of the 41 BIDs within London – 7.6% of London firms and over 11% of the total London workforce were located in BID areas.

The report noted that outside of London and Scotland, property owners cannot financially contribute to the measure. Business tenants tend to demonstrate relatively more short-term approaches to the development of the BID, so rolling out of property owner BIDs across England could be a way to maximise the full potential of the business-led measure.

Applying lessons from London to other parts of the country can be problematic however – after all, London is a city and a city-region with a very marked concentration of economic and political power in terms of investment, spending power and employment. The experience there of economic resilience does not resonate with the circumstances elsewhere across England and the UK.

Moreover, BIDs involve not simply economic considerations but complex issues around governance, democracy and transparency. Understanding the challenges of town centres must involve an appreciation of market decisions and the unintended consequences of government actions to address those very problems.

The barriers created by complexity were also raised last month in a report arguing for town centre investment zones to align initiatives and unlock improvement. Pooling a critical mass of property assets into an investment vehicle could allow area-wide problems to be tackled.

The community dimension

What seems to be missing from the town centre debate at the moment is a specific focus on the causes of a tangible malaise – the loss of community in many urban areas. The BID concept could very well be a compelling one, but a wider and more informed political conversation is needed before we dismantle all public interest considerations.

And so the conundrum at the heart of our towns and cities remains … how do we create and maintain vibrant places that people want to work and live in, when our planning and economic policies are still geared towards prioritising growth over wellbeing?

And how do we transform our high streets in a strategic way, to meet the needs of 21st century living?


This blog draws on the article by Professor Greg Lloyd that first appeared in Scottish Planning and Environmental Law Journal: Greg Lloyd (2015) High streets again! SPEL 172, pp124-125

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Innovation districts – the way forward for sustainable growth?

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By Heather Cameron

“Innovation is the lifeblood of any society or any economy” Julian Beer, Birmingham City University

Innovation districts, first coined by Bruce Katz and colleagues at the Brookings Institute in the US, are a recent trend in urban planning that is on the rise across the globe.

They represent a move away from the traditional corporate campuses, socially isolated in out-of-town sites, consisting of clusters of innovative research facilities in working areas that are also liveable, accessible by foot or by bike, and have good transport links.

The move towards these innovation hubs reflects the growing importance of the geography of innovation to urban areas.

Driving economic growth and regeneration

According to the judges and partners of the inaugural Lambert Smith Hampton Enterprise Award, consisting of leading figures from the property industry, innovation districts can drive economic growth and ensure the Northern Powerhouse and UK-wide devolution are successful.

The Sheffield City Region’s Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District (AMID) Partnership was selected as the winner of the £15,000 Award, the proposals of which were highlighted as an example of how developing industry clusters can deliver economic growth, employment and community regeneration. They also called for the AMID Partnership to be considered as a model for regional development.

The AMID Partnership consists of The University of Sheffield, Sheffield Hallam University, Harworth Estates, Sheffield Business Park, Sheffield City Council and Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council.

This integrated approach utilises newly devolved powers and funding for the greatest economic and social impact.

The role of The University of Sheffield and its Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre (AMRC) in driving productivity improvements and innovation has been recognised in three independent reports.

One of the reports, Making it: the advanced manufacturing economy in Sheffield and Rotherham, notes that “R&D and industry-led innovation in Sheffield-Rotherham has been driven by the AMRC and led by the University of Sheffield, a UK leader in advanced manufacturing and research.”

Another notable innovation district in the UK is Corridor Manchester. Developed over the past 10 years, it is a partnership between the city council, local universities and regional hospitals that supports nearly 12% of the city’s workforce and generates £3bn GVA per annum. The recently opened £61m National Graphene Institute, which is to explore new commercial uses for graphene technology, has been described as “the perfect example of innovation-district potential.”

Growth in collaboration

Such university-industry partnerships are becoming increasingly common as a way for higher education institutions (HEIs) to enhance their research, create new research and development opportunities and increase revenues.

Robert Tijssen, chair of science and innovation studies at Leiden University in the Netherlands, has stated that “university-industry connectivity is now the third mission of a university, next to teaching and training and research.

The most recent Higher education – business and community interaction survey shows a continuing increase in the exchange of knowledge between UK HEIs and the public, private and third sectors.  Between 2012-13 and 2013-2014 these interactions increased in volume by 10.1%, the value of which was £300 million – increasing from £3.6 billion to £3.9 billion.

At a time of reduced government funding, it should be no surprise that such collaboration is continuing to increase.

A recent Universities UK report highlighting the extensive economic value of universities states that they have an important part in supporting businesses to drive product, process and service innovation.  And in terms of policy implications, it argues that:

any policy aiming to promote the long-term economic success of the UK needs to have universities at its heart, recognising the breadth, complexity and significance of their contribution and the need for stable, continued support to enable further impact.”

Barriers to innovation

Despite the wide recognition of the value of such partnerships, it has been argued that the UK’s fiscal policy of austerity acts as a barrier to industry innovation.

According to Simon Marginson, professor of international higher education at the UCL Institute for Education:

As long as the rewards for investment in financial assets are higher than the rewards for investment in knowledge-intensive industry innovation, the latter will be neglected… This is a serious problem in the UK economy, where finance generating finance often seems to be the main game.

Way forward

Nevertheless, it would seem likely that the rise in innovation districts will continue due to the organic nature of their growth, as highlighted by Katz and colleagues. Economic and demographic forces will continue to change the way people live and work.

Brookings has called for local decision-makers, global companies and financial institutions, and government to ‘unleash’, ‘embrace’, ‘support and accelerate’ innovation districts. The result: “a step toward building a stronger, more sustainable and more inclusive economy.”


If you liked this blog post, you might also want to read our previous post on science and innovation

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The Govanhill Baths: a successful example of community-led regeneration

A run-down looking sign for the Govanhill Baths.

Image by Laura via Creative Commons

By Steven McGinty,

In September, the Govanhill Baths Community Trust (GHBT) was given £1.2m from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The funding will enable the Trust to begin the refurbishment of the Govanhill Baths, including the ‘Ladies’ pool’, the ’Teaching Pool’ and the Turkish baths and sauna.

The Trust’s chair, Alan Walsh, highlighted that this was a ‘breakthrough’ moment, explaining that:

This award means that we can finally confirm the long term future of the project and begin work soon that will realise the aims of our 14 year fight to bring swimming back to Govanhill.”

History of the Govanhill Baths

The fight, referred to by the Trust’s chair, started back in 2001 with the high-profile campaign to save the Govanhill Baths. At that time, Glasgow City Council had indicated that £750,000 worth of refurbishments were required to keep the Baths open. However, they argued that there was no economic case as too few people used the Baths. And although these statistics were disputed, the Baths were eventually closed in 2001.

The impact of closure

In 2009, research was carried out into the impact of the closure on black and minority ethnic (BME) communities. The Govanhill area has a higher than average BME population (approximately 34.9%), therefore addressing social exclusion is a priority for the area. The research found that:

  • Older people were negatively affected by the closure as they found it difficult to access other swimming pools.  This occurred because of a lack of local transport to the Gorbals Swimming Pool (nearest alternative); fear over gangs and safety; and the cost of travelling.
  • Very few women went to the Gorbals Swimming Pool. The majority of women noted that it was difficult to find ladies’ swimming nights.
  • The Baths building had become derelict and vandalised.
  • The majority of people, including a police officer, felt that anti-social behaviour in the area had increased. One of the main reasons cited was a lack of activities and facilities, particularly for children and young people.

Govanhill Baths Community Trust ‘in the community’

In 2005, the Govanhill Baths officially became a charitable trust. The aim of the organisation was to:

…re-open the baths as a Wellbeing Centre and at the same time contribute to the wider social, cultural and built regeneration of Govanhill as a community through a range of activities.

Over the years, the Trust has worked in collaboration with a number of statutory and voluntary sector partners, including the Govanhill Baths Advice Centre, Govanhill Housing Association and Development Trust, and Historic Scotland.

At present, the Trust runs a variety of community-based wellbeing activities and educational and training courses, primarily aimed at the residents of Govanhill. These include:

  • Govanhill Baths Art – which includes using art to campaign, but also to improve the health and wellbeing of the community.
  • Rags to Riches – an award winning upcycling project, which reuses materials creatively to create products of a higher value. The project provides workspace and educational programmes in topics such as dressmaking, bookbinding, and home furnishing.
  • The Emporium – a charity shop which opened in 2011.

The impact of the Govanhill Baths Community Trust

An evaluation of Rags to Riches has shown the project to be a great success. It has brought a number of benefits to participants and the wider community, including:

  • Providing high-quality apparel that can be sold to generate income for the Trust.
  • Developing the abilities of participants and providing them with a sense of enjoyment.
  • Increasing the Trust’s involvement with other community groups and participating in local events. This has enhanced the reputation of the Trust within the local community.
  • Supporting community integration – for instance, after the event, most of the participants have kept in touch.

The Govanhill Grub programme, based in the GBCT kitchen, has proved to be successful at supporting a wide range of people in cooking healthy, affordable meals. It’s been particularly effective at bringing different members of the community together, and engaging women living in hostel accommodation or who have just moved into their own tenancy, as well as older men who live alone.

Final thoughts?

The GBCT is a great example of a community-led organisation. Although without its historic Baths, the community has been able to lead the way in delivering services to the people of Govanhill, the Trust has been able to move away from simply being a campaign group to becoming an important community asset.  Hopefully, with this latest announcement of funding, the Trust will be able to reopen the Baths, and continue to be a positive force in the community of Govanhill.


 

Further reading:

If you enjoyed this blog post, you might also like to read James Carson’s post on regeneration in Glasgow’s Gorbals district

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