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We shouldn’t give up on estate renewal

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Today sees the launch of the What Works Centre for Local Economic Growth’s report into estate renewal.

The essential conclusion is that:

  • Estate renewal programmes generally do what they say on the tin – they make houses warmer, shared spaces more attractive and corners less inviting to criminality.
  • What they don’t do (yet, at least – we’ll get into that shortly) is improve wider economic and social conditions. Henry Overman and his team found virtually no evidence that estate renewal increases earnings or employment, or improves the education, health and general well-being of the community.
  • There is very, very limited academic-standard evidence on the impact of estate renewal

Let’s take these points in order before thinking about the response to them.

In one sense, we shouldn’t be surprised by the first conclusion. Estate renewal, in its narrowest definition, is about bricks and mortar improvements. Historically, estate renewal interventions were focused on the areas in the worst state e.g. in relation to the decency standard.

One might hope that broader benefits flowed from having residents who are warmer at night, spending less on their energy bills, but estate renewal programmes were not fundamentally an attempt to create jobs in the long term or improve children’s education. Did you find yourselves earning more or gaining an extra A-Level after renovating your kitchen?

This, however, would be a little too complacent when you consider how the centre arrived at their second conclusion. Their trawl and subsequent analysis included a number of programmes that did have, in the old jargon, an ‘holistic approach’.

The £2bn New Deal for Communities (NDC) programme, for example, did try to deal with crime, health, education and liveability, as well as improve housing and the wider environment. In fact, evaluations from NDC programmes were among the few that made the cut.

This takes us to the third point above; the paucity of evidence. The centre’s team started off with a large amount of literature but, after applying some rigorous quality tests, dismissed virtually all of it for the purposes of their study. It was either theoretical without any real world analysis or grey literature – descriptive case studies, conference presentations, small scale / non-academic research reports – which may contain useful ideas and lessons, but don’t withstand the pressure of academic analysis.

How to respond to the centre’s findings?

One response is to conclude that area-based initiatives are far less effective than people-based efforts; if you want to increase skills levels, focus on the households who need help wherever they live. Don’t try to do it through a place-based approach.

This is not a new debate of course. Peter Townsend was critical of area-based interventions on these grounds. I once heard Gosta Esping Anderson argue for the abolition of all anti-poverty measures, including area-based interventions, and the re-direction of the funding into mixed-background pre-school education.

The response we must avoid is one I’ve already observed: quibbling over the research methods, questioning the validity of the evidence and almost simply refusing to believe that all that money, all that effort to deliver holistic improvements had bought so little beyond bricks and mortar benefits.

My response is that we shouldn’t give up on the idea that estate renewal can deliver benefits beyond the built environment.

We should understand why so many attempts fail. Starting with the lack of community ownership and voice, the seeming impossibility of public sector collaboration, the dominance of central government departments leading to constantly shifting and simultaneously conflicting priorities, the lack of a learning culture in the estate renewal industry.

We need better estate renewal. We can only achieve that if we embrace evidence like the centre’s report, no matter how challenging it is, and render as much intelligence from it as we can. And to that we need to get much better at building an evaluation and learning culture and programme around estate renewal.

Will holistic estate renewal always be a success? No, but to bastardise Samuel Beckett, we need to try again. Fail again. Fail better. And learn.

Read the Estate Renewal review here.

This article was first published on the New Start website on Thursday 29 January.