Looking towards tower blocks and Richmond Park from the balcony of Binley House on the Alton Estate, Roehampton

Some very lazy blogging here, but below is an article I wrote for the LGIU’s C’llr magazine. It isn’t very profound, but when thinking about the subject a web-search didn’t find a single reference to the Kübler-Ross model of grief being applied to regeneration (other than regenerations in Dr Who which seem to provoke strong senses of bereavement among some).

Although written a few months ago, last week I was talking to a Roehampton resident who seemed somewhat depressed when expressing support for regeneration. I enquired further, and he told me why his words and demeanour didn’t match: “I’ve lived here since 1959. I know it will be better for my grandkids and their kids, but I’m losing my home for them.” However hard we try, there will be some human cost, in this case the resident saw it as sad but worthwhile, the challenge is making sure that cost is worth it for everyone.

However noble the intention regeneration projects sometimes seem to bring nothing but grief. From the big arguments over vision to the tiniest details that suddenly become all-consuming, it’s easy to sometimes wonder if regeneration is just a series of segues between tension, disagreement and frustration.

Any regeneration project will inevitably spend much of the process dogged by criticism. Aside from the human tendency to dissent vigorously but assent apathetically, is the simple fact that even well supported regenerations will still have been opposed by a significant minority of people: nine out of ten supporting still means one out of ten don’t.

In Wandsworth we are currently involved in three big regeneration projects. Nine Elms is the one that attracts the headlines: central London’s biggest opportunity area will see industrial land along the Thames transformed, creating over 20,000 new jobs, a revitalised Battersea Power Station and a new diplomatic quarter which will be home to the US Embassy. No less important are the schemes currently running in two of our most deprived areas which will see up to £100 million invested to transform estates that have, for different reasons, not aged well.

At first sight all three are no-brainers. Nine Elms transforms inaccessible brownfield sites and creates jobs and amenities while providing access to the Thames riverside. Our estate regenerations will see the creation of high quality homes along with the creation of new jobs and better communal spaces and facilities.

Yet for those directly affected, the benefits are not always that obvious. I have come to realise the process does not only cause grief to those of us involved in delivery, but also causes grief for the beneficiaries.

It is easy to be overwhelmed with the technicalities of regeneration: the homes standards and densities, phasing studies, the permeability of the new neighbourhood. But no-one lives technically, they live emotionally. They live in homes and neighbourhoods measured in memories, not by space standards.

These emotional aspects are not lost on the council. We try hard to engage whenever possible; community engagement involves the whole council, from housing to schools and even the council’s arts team. Despite that, there is a regeneration to deliver and residents sometimes can not help but think the council is doing, but not feeling.

Increasingly, I wonder if the classic Kübler-Ross model of five stages of loss can be applied to regeneration schemes. First is denial, a belief the council will not deliver. Second is anger, perhaps a suspicion that it is motivated by ulterior motives. Third comes bargaining; I met one resident who wanted their block demolished, but only if we kept and rebuilt around their ground floor flat. Next is the depression of residents thinking the council just will do what it wants.

Finally comes acceptance; and with it engagement, understanding and—hopefully—enthusiasm. Wandsworth’s experience may just mirror the regenerations seen elsewhere: but that should not detract from any individual experience, because once trust and ambition is shared, the magic starts to happen.

Residents understand, better than anyone, the problems we want to address, and are able to contribute to the process. They can see how their views and opinions are incorporated as regeneration plans take shape and, just as importantly, understand when they are not. When the plans start to become reality, residents start getting the tangible benefits: in Wandsworth the number of people getting jobs on the developments through the council’s jobs brokerage service grows almost daily. When they see the benefits residents can become champions for regeneration, as So Solid Crew’s G-Man surprisingly did in Wandsworth, and will undoubtedly influence some people who are unmoved by the council’s information.

It is when you see those unexpected contributions and realise that people’s imaginations are turning to the possibilities of the future, rather than the suspicions or inconveniences of today, that the grief is well worth it.

I attended the LGiU’s C’llr Achievement Awards last night. A small event to celebrate the winners (and nominees) of a series of awards recognising their service to their local communities.

A few quotes from the night stuck with me:

  • Andy Sawford, the Chief Executive of the LGiU observed that being a councillor is “the highest form of community service.
  • Caroline Flint, former Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government commented that councillors are special in being “ordinary enough to be representative, but extraordinary enough to be representatives.” (Confession, she actually said that at last year’s awards, but it’s a fine bit of rhetoric that deserves repeating.)
  • Eric Pickles, the Secretary of State for Local Government, and a former councillor himself, celebrated that “councillors come with a passion to make a difference to their community.
  • And finally, although not at last night’s event, the RSA in their report Connected Communities (PDF) state: “more people recognise and find value in their postman than their local councillor.

The RSA’s report is quite old (it was published in 2010, although I’d not come across it until someone mentioned it to me recently) and I mention it because it is, sadly true. Yet the evidence of last night’s winners shows how much difference councillors can and do make to their communities.

This is not to belittle councillors or postmen – both have their roles – but instead to express a little sadness at the way society views or, more accurately, generally ignores those that undertake public service.

You need only take a moment to think about the huge amount of influence local councillors have over a local area, from keeping the streets clean and parks pleasant, to educating the young and looking after the elderly, it is local councillors who have the biggest direct impact on your local area.

But it often seems that they are overlooked, unless there’s something negative to say about them. And when it comes to electing a local council it’s often what’s happening in Whitehall not the Town Hall that determines people’s votes.

I know full well that, as a country, we give too much weight to the views of the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Daily Mail. I stood for election knowing that, so can’t complain. But I do wish we sometimes paid a little more attention to the positives, like the very worthy winners of last night’s awards. Congratulations to them all.

The following is the text of an article I wrote for the Local Government Information Unit‘s C’llr magazine as part of their Big Society edition:

The Big Society’s greatest strength is that no-one actually knows what it is, possibly not even the Prime Minister whose stroke of genius was to create a concept so vague, but so obviously ‘good’, that almost anyone can support it. Whether you want a small state, government involved in every aspect of community and social life or something in between you can find some- thing in the Big Society that will fill your needs.

Trying to divine what the government actually means by Big Society has become a small industry. Taking David Cameron’s speech in Liverpool as a starting point he outlined three strands, social action, public service reform and community empowerment and peppered his speech with words like philanthropy, innovation and ‘voluntarism’. But these are hardly new concepts, most have appeared in various government fads that have come and gone over the years (I was struck by how much the themes of public service reform and innovation resonated with the early 90s vogue for Osborne and Gaebler’s ‘Reinventing Government’). Indeed, David Cameron might view the philanthropic founding of Eton College several hundred years ago as nothing more than a proto-Big Society free school!

What is new is the need for central government to dramatically reduce public spending at a time when government – for good or bad – impinges on more aspects of people’s lives than ever before.

It’s tempting to take the cynical view that it’s a smoke screen policy to offer warm and fuzzy feelings the Treasury can no longer afford. Yet that would be overly simplistic and fail to reflect the reality. Big Society is the mantra of all politicians in government. Every department has a Big Society minister, every announcement a Big Society reference. UK government websites already contain over 13,000 Big Society references and the total grows daily. Across the country voluntary organisations and community groups are starting to think about the opportunities the policy gives them. Slowly and surely a Big Society is being built, even though no-one quite understands the architect’s drawings and vision.

If there is a common understanding it’s that local councils are not a part of the Big Society. While there may not be any diktat stating that local authorities can’t join the Big Society gang, the language rarely mentions them. In the Prime Minister’s announcement he may have named four councils as early pilots, but then went on to address the people of those boroughs and challenged them – not their councils or councillors – to identify the blockages they needed removed to build the Big Society.

And it almost seems that councils have rolled over and let this happen. Two months after the Prime Minister’s launch of the four pilot areas only Windsor and Maidenhead had published anything other than press releases related to the Big Society and how they were helping to make it work. Liverpool had not even published a press release, despite being host to the launch.

It is almost as if, after decades of centralisation and Whitehall direction, Town Halls are unable to take on the opportunity without being told. The irony is that while this is the biggest chance in a generation for councils to exercise freedom in shaping their areas, it might also be their only chance for another generation. The government’s approach to local government seems to have been populism rather than localism; should a localist minister really be telling Newham if it needs a chief executive, or Leicester its councillors’ IT needs?

If the vague nature of the Big Society is its greatest strength, it can also be a great opportunity for local government. The choice is simple, either stand back and watch the Big Society being built around us, or join in with the building and help our communities improve our neighbourhoods; and isn’t that the reason most of us got into local government?

I seem to have stopped taking photos this year – so the cup of tea is getting a few outings – not that photos of meetings or a fairly damp and dreary London are any more exciting.

Councillor Awards
I started the week off acting as a judge for the Local Government Information Unit’s first national councillor awards. While I’ve judged a few things in Wandsworth (most recenty the SNT award) this is the first time I’ve been part of a national award’s judging panel.

It was certainly a fascinating, and humbling, experience – and a real privilege to be asked. Seeing what councillors and local government around the country are achieving was an inspiration.

While the winners aren’t announced for a few weeks (they all find out at a conference at the Emirates next month) I can, of course, start acting on that inspiration.

Wandsworth LSP
The Local Strategic Partnership is one of those bodies that exist in every local authority that no-one actually knows about.

The name gives away what it is (or should be) it’s a high level partnership of everyone involved in the local area – the council is an obvious member, but they are joined by the police, local health service, local businesses and charities to help set the overall direction of the area. The partnership in Wandsworth works remarkably well, and has certainly improved enormously since I first joined (that is a function of a change in the partners around the table, rather than my joining).

One interesting point that came up (I think from one of the health service representatives) was the amount of work we can create for local businesses when tendering contracts.

Until fairly recently it would have been illegal to consider bids on anything but price and quality, though this has relaxed recently, but is an issue that I’ve been looking at over the years. One thing I wouldn’t want to do is start putting a price on location. Is being Wandsworth based worth a £1,000 or £10,000? And what happens if a company moved mid-contract?

The key problem, though, is that Wandsworth is predominantly a small business economy and the public sector is forced to be quite restrictive. For example, we require significant financial guarantees and will look through a company’s accounts to ensure the public money we are spending is at as little risk as possible. These have certainly deterred businesses in the past and often a small company just won’t have been in existence long enough to meet these requirements.

But we can improve access for local businesses by advertising the opportunities and providing advice on how to bid and this is something we are starting to improve. We have long been accessible to local businesses (through things like the Wandsworth Business Forum, the next one being on Monday) and are always willing to advise and help a business compete for our contracts.

Nine Elms Opportunity Board
My last meeting of the week was the Nine Elms Opportunity Board. Now that the area is finally starting to develop this is becoming an exciting meeting again (for years its meetings seemed to be just to discuss what wasn’t happening).

The body was initially formed to try and maximise the benefits to local residents of the development of the Power Station site and the report from Job Centre Plus was interesting. Yesterday I highlighted the small drop in Wandsworth’s JSA claims, but apparently the movement in the market is considerably higher than this time last year. So while there were only a few job vacancies being reported at the beginning to 2009 there are plenty being reported and filled this year. Perhaps we can start being a little more confident about the end of the recession.