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Brave choices; big rewards

23.05.24 | Written by Nick Kilby

This article was written by Nick Kilby for The Municipal Journal.

After the last decade, a lack of political courage could be the biggest barrier to regenerating our high streets or our ageing social housing stock. It is not surprising the rising demands and responsibility faced by local government, combined with increasing costs and decreasing central support – not to mention council tax freezes, Covid and the rise of hung councils – has led our political leaders to question if they have an appetite for more risk.

Why is political courage needed? Without the political will to make these projects work, many will fail to even get off the drawing board, let alone be seen through to reality. Most schemes have a ten-year life cycle – at least – and that means there will be two to three election cycles to work through. Add to that the turnover of members and officers. Teams change and, as we all know, the economic conditions you start with can look very different over the course of a decade.

But there are some recent examples of political courage that we can look to for inspiration.

Bracknell’s decision to regenerate the town centre took 20 years. More than 90 properties had to be bought under Compulsory Purchase Order (CPO) for what is now the Lexicon site. It was a mammoth achievement but as it was happening, one of the funding partners announced they wanted to pull out, jeopardising the entire project.

The then council leader called in the chairman of the investor to say that, having CPO’d the 90 properties in question, he was happy to CPO the newly-cleared site at a drastically reduced land value, thereby creating a multi-million-pound loss for the investor. Legend has it that construction began within three months of that infamous call, and Bracknell now boasts a thriving new town centre.

Southwark LBC launched an ambition to build 11,000 new council homes. Working with the development community, they set about regenerating the Heygate Estate, the Aylesbury Estate, Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre, London Bridge Station, the Shard, Borough High Street, Old Kent Road, More London, Bermondsey and Canada Water.

The attacks on councillors via social media, by activists of all kinds and local community groups, was significant. Anti-development campaigners are always quick to question the motives behind big urban schemes. They portray the regeneration as gentrification, benefiting developers and not the communities; it is the simple negativity of the keyboard warriors who remain anonymous but who are happy to trash the reputations of those who are seeking to change their communities for the better. Change is never welcome until it is done.

When I moved to Wokingham in 2012, the then Conservative council had announced it had purchased significant parts of the town centre. Through a council-owned regeneration company it said it would re-develop the town centre with a new square, shops, restaurants, cafés, housing and a complete new public realm around the historic market.

Then in Elms Field, the vision was to create a square with houses on two sides and a cinema, flats, shops and a food store with a hotel on the third. To the south they built a car park, more flats and a new pool and leisure centre. Brave and bold.

The political courage was not one person but an entire political group that, over three election cycles, lost a few more seats to anti-development campaigns, but they kept their eyes on the prize. Finally, they lost control of the council but the result of their vision is one that is far greater than anyone could imagine. The town has a heart that beats when others are on life support. Political courage was required every step of the way. Social media has had a significant impact, the morale of officers and members has been dented and the pressure on services has drained many of the energy to take on more for their communities.

We hear about the brave, we celebrate their courage but in the current financial uncertainty you can understand why there could be a growing shortage of political courage to take these life-changing visionary projects forward.

Future governments need to address the role and funding of local government, not just to protect the frontline services but to give them renewed confidence to undertake the regeneration projects that transform the lives of their residents.

The development community can also do more to give local authorities more confidence. Without council leaders providing that essential political courage, nobody else will and our communities will suffer for the loss of it.

Brave choices; big rewards