Urban Renaissance

Urban Renaissance [1998-]

General outline

One of Labour's intial moves following their ascension to power in 1997 was to establish the Urban Task Force [UTF] in 1998; a body that was chaired by [Lord] Richard Rogers. The UTF's remit was "to identify causes of urban decline and
establish a vision for our cities, founded on the principles of design excellence, social wellbeing and environmental
responsibility within appropriate delivery, fiscal and legal frameworks."1 What has been the impact of this report on housing, and how has the "urban renaissance" been delivered?


The desire to regenerate British cities was borne out of the many years of decline they had suffered. Cities, who had once depended on manufacture and mining as their main employer were in need of vast reinvestment, particularly in the north of the country. Attempts at regeneration were made in the late eighties and early nineties, notably in the form of large redevelopment schemes like those in Sheffield's Lower Don Valley and the London Docklands - both schemes had sort to reconcile former industrial areas with new tertiary, service sector development.

Urban regeneration under the New Labour Government, was seen as a necessary step to strengthen the economy, but more importantly people's attitudes toward their city centres as places to live and work. Indeed, the success of the city is rooted in its people, not just its bricks and mortar. The UTF was therefore tasked with identifying the reasons for the physical decline in urban areas, and then providing a vision for a future 'renaissance' - "a vision of well designed, compact and connected cities supporting a diverse range of uses – where people live, work and enjoy leisure time at close quarters – in a sustainable urban environment well integrated with public transport and adaptable to change."2

Charting the "Renaissance"

The Urban Task force report of 1999 was influential in its 105 recommendations in the foundation of the Government's white paper of 2000; "Our Towns and Cities: the Future - Delivering an Urban Renaissance"3 outlined plans for towns and cities and how they could become "places for people"4. The paper outlined many aims, policies, funding strategies and the way in which the 'renaissance' would be delivered to Britains towns and cities. As Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott wrote in his foreword to the paper; 'our aim is to make urban living a positive experience for the many, not the few; to bring all areas up to the standard of the best; and to deliver a lasting urban renaissance'.5

In order to bring about such a largescale regeneration, Government instigated new Regional Development Agencies - made possible by the R.D.A. act of 19986. These agencies [9 in total] are responsible for each of England's Government Regions - e.g. Yorkshire and Humber. Their funding is made up of money allocated by various Governmental departments - such as the Dept. for Culture, Media and Sport and the Dept. for Communities and Local Government. Furthermore the RDA's are independently responsible for the distribution of European funding. [In the case of Sheffield, its transformation has been facilitated by Yorkshire Forward]7 As a note of interest, the Government's baseline amount of funding [2000/01] is illustrated below - notice the lack of emphasis on housing.

£ - billions
Education - £38.8
Health - £45.3
Transport - £4.9
Housing - £3.0
Criminal justice - £12.5
Leisure, culture, sport - £1.0

There has certainly been a visible change to our urban environments, particularly across the north in city centres like Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds and Sheffield. People have returned to their city centres and city living is now fashionable again, although it often seems prescriptively for the 18-35 year olds. Family life is seemingly not so readily encouraged. This fact is reflected in the types of housing that have been built in our towns and city centres - the 1 and 2 bed flat - these have become prevalent, sometimes at the expense of seemingly good existing housing stock in well established communities. For example, the 10 "Pathfinder"8 schemes launched in 2002 [as part of the Housing Market Renewal Initiative] have met fierce criticism for the way in which they have attempted to regenerate deprived areas by erasing the existing built fabric and community.

The change in our city centres has been heavily determined by private sector housing development which has often addressed the issues of brownfield redevelopment and increased dwelling densities - both central to Government's regneration approach - by capitalising on a particular demographic's desire for urban living. Development of family housing is unfortunately still seemingly constrained to the peripheries of our cities or the greenbelt ribbons that surround them. Furthermore, the style of the family house, or out of town housing estate alludes only to romanticised view of a British architectural style and social values. More needs to be done to create the Sustainable Communities [Government proposal of 2003] that the Government have promised.

An acknowledgement that private investment is necessary has also facilated the PPP9 and PFI10 schemes that have been prevalent during this last decade. However, with this reliance on the private sector for inner city, as well as out of town, housing supply and with the economic situation we find ourselves in currently, [at the endof 2008] the supply of much needed housing in the forthcoming year will be badly affected - the Government's target of providing 240,000 new homes per annum11 therefore now seem more unacheivable than ever.

What many critics of regneration seem to agree on, is that in order for it to be successful, both public and private sectors must work more closely together. The bureaucracy in the planning systems must also be overcome. Often as has been the case, the private sector develop areas of the city without truly investing in its future - profits are inevitably taken for private benefit. In the case of housing, and mixed use development, the speculative process through which the majority of schemes are conceived, has led to many regnerative projects frozen halfway through, or remaining empty upon completion. This ultimately adds no value to the immediate environment or the social context itself - too often gentrification comes above social sustainability, and development is undertaken without any local consultation [particularly at the design stage] at all.

The Government's current stance on housing development and urban regeneration is more focussed around the issues of environmental impact and social sustainability than ever before. Housebuilders are being forced into being more responsible, not only in the means of construction, but the way in which houses are powered now and in the future. Homebuyers are being encouraged to question the sustainable impact of owning a property through things like the Home Information Packs [HIPS]. A push towards MMC [modern methods of construction - which has been actively embraced by the Social Housing sector] and the announcement of Eco-towns is representative of Government's intentions, though they are far from a fully resolved/tested set of initiatives. We still need beteer designed affordable homes, and joined up thinking when it comes to the issues of delivering sustainability.12 We are therefore embarking on another interesting phase of regeneration.

In Conclusion

Regeneration is not a quantifiable subject. It is driven not only by policies and economics, but by people and communities. Transformation in the fabric of our cities is visible, but gauging the success of the renaissance is clearly subjective. While regneration is obviously a national issue its success cannot be interpreted in the same way. The process is also an ongoing one, and whose to say how the current economic turmoil and move towards a "greener" society will dictate the next phase of regnerative development.

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