East London – 10 years of regeneration

I gave two speeches today. The first was at an event organised by Community Links in Canning Town.


[I’m going to see if you can multi-task! While I’m talking, sketch a little map of a bit of East London you know well – a patch, a piece of neighbourhood (a few roads around a junction, or maybe a block of flats, a scrap of land and a dead pub, or a parade of shops with space behind, or a high road with a tube station and shops). It doesn’t have to be accurate but it will help focus you on the scale I want to talk about.]


I want to say something about timescales – we focus too much on electoral, developer or academic timescales. The timescales I’m interested in are RIGHT NOW, GENERATIONAL, and THE 100 YEAR HORIZON.

There are 4 types of regeneration:

Laissez-faire – not really an option in East London since Booth revealed the extent of what they called ‘the Social Problem’ in the 1890s.

Traditional regeneration has barely touched relative deprivation, though it has tidied up very well – everything from the great public health infrastructure projects to shopfront improvements, from employment and training to healthy living. It was starting to infiltrate every area of life (I remember when km of road built and number of LA dwellings demolished were regeneration outputs, joined by childcare places and pupils benefiting). But rarely transformative either of places or power.

Radical (neo-liberal) regeneration certainly shifts the demographics around. At best its massive interventions have their own public good (eg Olympics); at worst they are ideological clearances, either physical through major demolition or fiscal as with benefit capping and the bedroom tax. They change places by shifting people with the equivalent of shock and awe.

True regeneration

  • redistributes power and agency so that people can make change without losing their footing.
  • believes in people and nurtures mix
  • about consciousness-raising to take charge not capacity building to sit round the tables of the powerful
  • is obsessed with growing leadership and trust, rather than not partnerships and monitoring
  • changes the physical and social landscape, one patch at a time, rather than focusing on master-plans and flagships

Thinking about ‘true regeneration’ has led me to the idea of ‘self-renovating neighbourhoods’.

4 key elements of self-renovating neighbourhoods

  1. Self-defined, fine-grain neighbourhoods
  2. Local people initiating, managing and making it happen for themselves
  3. The importance of self-interest as motivator – selfish versus selfless. Greedy selfishness cannot motivate collective action. Worthy selflessness might mean you will save a child from running into a road, but that’s a one-off act, it cannot sustain motivation. Only collective self-interest can do that.
  4. The three grassroots virtues of thrift, impatience, sociability – so ignored by traditional/neo-liberal regeneration.

Overall – self-renovation is about unlocking trapped resources – people, land/buildings, money.

In the next 10-100 years I want to see:

a) prioritising of systematic listening, networking and leadership support

b) groups of people with a mutual self-interest coming together to agree to self-renovate a patch

c) all the top-down stuff being about enabling (the state as enabler) and all the bottom-up stuff being about doing.

d) community anchors – creating wealth in local communities and keeping it there

I’m ambitious – I want neighbourhoods where everyone is working. It’s not like there isn’t enough to do in our neighbourhoods. But it will require a shift in the way we understand ‘work’ and how we reform welfare, not to punish the poor and clear out neighbourhoods but to reward work that is good for the neighbourhood – the Community Allowance.

So how did you get on with your sketch maps?

  • How does it feel to think fine-grain rather than master-strategy?
  • Can you imagine the self-interest that might drive the change at that scale?
  • What is in the way of self-renovation?

What can you do right now?

  • Spread the word, help to embed the elements of self-renovation – fine-grain, self-interest, listening, leadership development
  • Reject or, if you’re brave enough, subvert authoritarian, neo-liberal regen wherever you encounter it
  • Be ambitious, and don’t make assumptions about people or places – given a chance they will usually surprise you.
  • Help develop the National Grid for Neighbourhoods (as with electricity grid) – drawing down funds to undertake self-renovation, mini-agreements with the beneficiaries, uploading funds as the results come through. We will need to challenge funders to think differently.

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