Thursday, 21 November 2013

Minimum standards for neighbourhoods? ‘Neighbourhood pressures are building once again,’ says this new report by Ed Cox and colleagues at Ippr North. The subject is neighbourhood change in Britain (by which, as far as I can tell, they mean England). The report argues that the objectives for neighbourhood policy should be: to ensure that all neighbourhoods are able to generate jobs and wealth themselves, or are connected to economic opportunities in the wider area; to ameliorate the worst effects of wider economic trends, and ensure minimum standards of neighbourhood quality and service provision; to bring about the radical transformation of those neighbourhoods that have become caught in costly spirals of decline. The last one is as important as it ever was, and more urgent now. The first objective has of course been hideously and pointlessly made harder and more complex by the systematic weakening of local government. The second objective, concerning minimum standards, is to be welcomed in my view, if we can stop politicians slipping gleefully into the grotesque folly of League Table Mentalities and Target Obsession Disorder. Curiously, there is no reference to the lifetime neighbourhoods movement, although in supporting that, the ILC-UK put forward the argument that poor design of neighbourhoods should be grounds for rejection at the planning stage. Pioneering work on ‘minimum acceptable place standards’, is apparently, imminent. Meanwhile, the ippr report calls for a regular ‘state of the neighbourhoods report’ combining statistical data with information 'uploaded by neighbourhoods themselves'. I think I first started peddling this idea in 2005, at a time when there was a sympathetic government which could have afforded to try it: so don’t hold your breath. The report argues that the principal means of narrowing the gaps between neighbourhoods is through ‘economic growth combined with measures to ensure that the proceeds of growth are better shared.’ I can’t be the only one wishing the word ‘stability’ was used here instead of ‘growth’. This is going to be a very useful report in terms of documenting knowledge, with a discussion of objective measures of the pressures on neighbourhoods, and summaries of the recent history of neighbourhood policy and theories of neighbourhood change. It includes a fascinating comparative table on ‘old versus new neighbourhoods approaches’. But I can’t find that little extra something that would make the report stand out. There are several mentions of ‘social innovation’ – but these feel under-informed and would benefit hugely from an appreciation of the movement encapsulated in the Compendium of the Civic Economy. For example – given the acknowledged point that the nature of the private rented sector is a nasty cause of problems at the neighbourhood level - how about a call for a social entrepreneurial approach to re-inventing that sector?

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