Design for life

The smart regeneration journey to 2030

Author: Sandy Forsyth   |  

Design for life

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In the context of a national housing crisis, soaring global temperatures and sluggish productivity growth, the next political cycle is likely to be characterised by the vexing problem of improving the public realm in a situation of parlous public finances. Recent crises have left the state with very little fiscal headroom, yet the political and economic imperative for regenerating our cities and towns has never been clearer. Design for Life presents an analysis of local regeneration policy through the lens of five overarching strategic concerns, amounting to a best practice framework from which recommendations to local and central government can be drawn.

The overarching question is, as we enter the end of one political cycle and await the start of a new one, what lessons, both broad and particular, should our placemakers be drawing from and putting into good practice from now until the end of the decade?

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An appendix detailing some of the underlying case studies from the research project is also available for download here.

Key points

Regeneration as an engine for reform: housing health and climate

  • Urban development and regeneration are crucial to solving our ongoing and increasingly urgent housing crisis. Local government spends billions every year on temporary accommodation for homeless families, highlighting the intense need for urgent action and spending on preventative measures above even the huge emergency spends going towards immediate, short-term responses. Local authorities need to be able to provide homes locally without neglecting their other statutory duties and to prevent the crisis of housing spiralling further.
  • Urban regeneration is at the heart of upstream and integrated healthcare and could be the valve to releasing some of that intense pressure on the UK’s health systems. Methods for ensuring urban planning that shore up health and wellbeing include an emphasis on sturdy relationship building and long-lasting political alliances as well as understanding, from a systems-thinking perspective, the multitude of ways in which health interacts with the urban environment
  • One of the most pressing issues of urban policy is ensuring climate resilience and promoting development that ensures mitigation, particularly sustainable housing, prioritisation of biodiversity in the public realm, and low-carbon or carbon-neutral construction practices. When regeneration actors take heed of the potential for damaging processes to occur and proactively engage in mitigation, there is a significant opportunity for long-lasting and often widespread benefit.

Place leadership and partnership working in a challenging environment

  • Local authorities can be the hinge around which regeneration actors revolve, particularly in the case of large-scale and innovative schemes for urban development. Place leadership is the task of marshalling resources and stakeholders across sectors, using formal and informal mechanisms to chart a course for regeneration projects which is recognised and accepted by local residents.
  • The share of responsibilities for regenerating urban spaces in the UK has changed since the post-war era of state intervention, driven by policy in favour of localised independence that depends upon the growth of partnerships with the private sector or that may be cultivated by third sector parties. However, the drive to localism of the 2010s was offset by the introduction of austerity measures, resulting in a rhetoric supporting autonomy at the level of place that was missing the resources to buttress its ambitions.
  • Modern regeneration necessitates collaboration between private and public sectors, central and local government, and different government departments, upon whom the private sector must rely. Yet despite the established model of partnership working, increasing short-termism and instability at the central government level regarding the financial capability of local authorities currently jeopardises the viability of long-term, strategic partnerships.

Planning for socially responsible, sustainable regeneration

  • Properly financed planning departments are crucial to delivering regeneration projects with maximum efficiency, particularly when facing the challenges of decarbonisation and climate resilience such as the need for mass retrofit of housing stock. In the absence of formal strategic planning arrangements, place leaders must try to work around a planning system which can be obstructive to regeneration and make use of mechanisms like developer contributions and neighbourhood forums to deliver socially and economically beneficial regeneration.
  • Financial capability sets the parameters for development – both in terms of the levels of investment available and the expected returns – but must be considered in the wider context of social, environmental and economic benefits in the long-term. As well as involving private businesses, partnerships can greatly improve the sustainability of and local support for regeneration by integrating the third sector and community organisations into the process.
  • Governance architecture such as the National Planning Policy Framework does not go far enough in ensuring that net zero targets are hit and climate change is guarded against, leaving local leaders and partner organisations with the role of stepping up action. Taking a whole systems approach to regeneration – where different spatial scales are considered across multiple interdependent networks when calculating the impact of a project on climate goals – is essential to responsible regeneration.
  • Increasing acknowledgement of the role of prevention and quality of environment in reducing pressure on the health service has led to governance architecture and policy direction being realigned towards a holistic understanding of health. The pooling of assets and combination of leverage across the public sector, from local authorities and NHS organisations, can help to scale up the limited capacity of individual institutions and deliver more ambitious and far-reaching regeneration.


Place Leadership

  • To facilitate effective long-term place leadership, central government should legislate for a return to strategic regional planning. The Spatial Development Strategies of combined authorities should be given greater legislative heft, with built-in housing targets handed down to constituent authorities. In areas without combined authorities, local authorities should be required to come together to produce Subregional Plans analogous to the Regional Spatial Plans of the pre-2010 policy regime.
  • Plans should be integrated with infrastructure strategies and Local Skills Improvement Plans to ensure a strategic vision is created for a pipeline of development which is sustainable and locally beneficial.
  • To allow for the uplift in capacity required across planning departments, government should establish Regional Planning Offices to pool talent and resources to support local and subregional plan-making within a region. This could be carried out in partnership with other national bodies such as Homes England and One Public Estate to draw on their built-in expertise and help release capacity quickly where it is most needed.
  • Funding for regeneration projects should be released to relevant authorities conditional to the setting and realisation of long-term targets within plans across the areas covered – including housing delivery, infrastructure delivery and local skills provision.

Financial capability

  • The revenue/capital funding split in local authorities is an obstacle to delivering holistic regeneration projects and should ideally be abolished in place of single budgets for local authorities.
  • In the absence of such reform, councils should be allowed to hold a separate regeneration account with a similar structure of rules and restrictions to a housing revenue account, where capital raised for regeneration can be spent on projects without the bureaucracy of revenue expenditure accounting – even if it is on areas normally covered by revenue spend such as provisioning for the maintenance of newly installed buildings and infrastructure.
  • Strategic use of public assets is often crucial to successful regeneration for the common good, as such the loosening of regulations on council asset sales to fund revenue expenditure must be halted and reversed.

Net zero and climate change

  • There is a clear need to tie in regeneration efforts with the wider requirement for retrofit and climate resilience measures needed by most UK buildings. Government must create a fund to leverage regeneration capital to invest in local energy-proofing local housing stock. As well as being an investment in energy efficiency and national energy security, this would help make local regeneration a more attractive offer to residents.
  • Understanding the entirety of a project’s carbon impact is crucial to making a judgement on its efficacy in the age of global heating, therefore whole life carbon assessments must be made a mandatory requirement of local and subregional development plans. Similar weight should be given to urban heat islands and other climate resilience measures, as is currently the case for flood resilience.
  • Urban densification and ‘infilling’ can be less economically viable than major developments but are more carbon efficient. Local and subregional plans should package together urban sites for infill and densification as single investment prospects to help improve viability.

Role of the private and third sectors

  • The most prominent obstacle to sustained public-private partnership at the local level is fiscal uncertainty and therefore, to support local authorities delivering in partnership, a long-term settlement on financing regeneration must be reached in the next Parliament. This would entail abandoning much of the current system of competitive bidding.
  • Government must make a long-term investment in the capacity of community housing initiatives to allow for greater small-scale, community-led development within regeneration projects.

Health and wellbeing

  • As part of the broader turn to subregional health partnerships embodied by ICSs, these bodies should be given additional funding based on demographic profiles to boost investment in prevention – this could be used as part of regeneration projects to ensure a healthy environment.
  • The consideration of the impact of development on health in vulnerable communities should be mandatory in local and subregional plans.
  • Government should work with the NHS and LGA to produce a strategy for community-driven healthcare in urban centres, to inform the development of local and subregional plans, emphasising the importance of building healthcare provision into regeneration.

Research kindly sponsored by:

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