When it comes to economic development and regeneration providing the best conditions to enable our communities to grow and flourish, a sound planning policy is a key component. We should favour local small to medium sized enterprises and need to have much better thought out and far more consistent planning policies for in, out and edge of town retail developments, before our communities are damaged beyond repair.
Our Local Authorities have been too often tempted as developers offer includes, sweeteners and inducements to ease the passage of proposed developments. They may be advised of the financial consequences of planning applications being taken to appeal if permission is refused - so much for local democracy! Local Authorities periodically fail to have adequately researched retailing policies within their development plans. If retailing needs have not been assessed then it’s difficult to amend or refuse any potentially damaging planning applications from developers, then local small businesses and consumers pay the price.
Despite the talk (or lip service) about improving the vitality and viability of our town centres, many retail developments have consistently undermined this aim, many local authorities have turned a blind eye to the economic and social consequences of out of town or edge of town retail developments. The economic reality has fallen well short of the verbal aspiration, just look at the damage that has been done to Abergavenny, Chepstow and Monmouth within Monmouthshire and elsewhere in Wales.
How can local regeneration schemes work, when the once thriving commercial heart of our high streets has already been seriously damaged by an inability to compete on level terms with the increasingly aggressive tactics of supermarkets and retail chains who are chasing an ever larger market share. More than ever, our planners need to think about the long term economic consequences of planning decisions, to take the longer term view, rather than get fixated on short term financial gains and questionable inducements from developers.
You may have noticed that regeneration comes and goes in phases, in any particular community or town regeneration schemes will have cleaned areas up, built in cycle routes, created transport plans, pedestrianised streets, reopened them to traffic, re-pedestrianised them and made certain streets shared space with both cars and pedestrians (this is not as crazy as it sounds, and actually works) and so on.
We have restricted parking, created parking and removed parking, made it free and charged for it, created bus lanes, removed bus lanes and varied the hours when bus lanes can operate, etc - now this is all well and good and may reflect the latest trend in regeneration and development, but has it made the places where we live, work and shop any better? Has the regeneration process or scheme increased or generated wealth in our communities or provided people opportunities to get jobs, to go into business for themselves or generate wealth?
Regeneration is that often perceived (and sometimes it is) as being driven from the top down i.e. by elected bodies as a process that merely consults after the plans have been drawn up rather than before, during and after - any process run this way runs the risk of becoming deeply flawed. Our communities, towns and cities have over the years has been the recipient of much grant aid, development and redevelopment schemes and initiatives - how can we measure success?
Measuring a regeneration schemes success should be a key factor in the regeneration process. This is the question that needs to be asked - after the cement and the paint has dried, after the regeneration professionals have moved on - have the various schemes made a difference, I mean beyond any immediate physical improvements to the environment, have they made a real difference when it comes to wealth generation in the area affected by the regeneration scheme? If the end result is in reality a makeover, and the targeted community is no better off, save for being bereft of the 'regeneration funds' that have been effectively siphoned off by professional regeneration companies - is this success?
We need to think beyond the tick box list of the regeneration schemes managers? One key component that is often ignored or marginalised is the communities greatest resource - its people. So rather than regeneration and redevelopment professionals moving in and engaging in a token consultation process they should directly talk to and engage with local people and actually find out what they would like to be done, what they actually want for their community and their town.
Regeneration schemes and projects should be directed from the bottom up rather than the top down model that we often seem to pursue. When spending public money, then work it hard and squeeze out every possible benefit and maximise the impact locally of the regeneration process and build local benefits into the tendering process - whether by employing local people, using local resources, local skills and local input. If you are reusing or renovating old buildings then any regeneration scheme needs to ensure that old buildings can make a living after the regeneration scheme is finished.
If we do this rather than merely making a token gesture towards public consultation then any regeneration schemes will, with hard work really begin to deliver tangible benefits to our communities. After all regeneration should be a process rather than an event.