This article was originally published in React News (link here).
Key Cities’ members have been mulling over the government’s recently-announced plans to boost local communities – Right to Regenerate. Among a raft of proposals, the new legislation would make it easier for members of the public to challenge local authorities to turn disused land and buildings into new community space, housing or other uses. The government argues that underused public assets could be sold to individuals or communities by default, unless the owner had a compelling reason to hold onto it. Launching the proposals, Robert Jenrick, the housing secretary, said the government was cutting through red tape so that communities could make better use of available land and derelict buildings.
The concept of vibrant, fit-for-purpose – and democratic – local communities is central to Key Cities’ ethos, and there are aspects of the government’s thinking that are certainly welcome. Derelict land or buildings aren’t simply eyesores; they clearly do not serve the communities in which they are located. We welcome the chance to debate the prospect of bringing such neglected assets back into use.
That said, there are some areas of the proposals that need testing. Better engagement with the public with regard to sites of interest being redeveloped is a good idea, but some Key Cities members are concerned that the potential legislation would be ineffective and potentially burdensome. The question of how to implement the new policy will inevitably arise, since it would mean more work for local councils, many of whom are already overstretched and under-resourced. The government’s proposals also pre-suppose that local authorities are not already making strenuous efforts to regenerate assets where they feasibly can. A number of councils and other bodies may already have long-term plans for the use of land and buildings, but don’t have the funds to undertake the development in the short term, or indeed are subject to delays caused by other factors, such as the planning system. There is also the fear that publicly-owned assets would end up being sold for profit rather than for community or economic development benefits. Speculation for short-term private gain should be resisted.
The idea that community groups could simply acquire property is a worry for some. The proposals are sufficiently vague enough to suggest they could potentially open the door for campaign and self-interest groups to use the new regulations to delay and or even undermine the delivery of wider regeneration programmes that are vitally important for the benefit of wider communities, not just a select group. There were also fears around the diminution of public open space, some of which could disappear as a result of development.
It is also worth bearing in mind that while it is important that local authorities are seen to be ensuring their assets are being used efficiently and for the public good, one might ask how the government’s Right to Regenerate plans affect the private sector. After all, privately-owned land is not immune from the sort of problems experienced by publicly-owned property. It could be that an effective strategy would be for the government to incentivise private land and property owners to improve their assets, particularly where this would help a local authority’s efforts to regenerate areas such as the high street. Another strategy might be to increase the use of compulsory purchase orders, where it could help deliver a scheme for the public good.
The government’s Right to Regenerate proposals are, at this stage, just that. Proposals. Ministers will no doubt take on board the positive feedback – and the concerns – of stakeholders across the board when shaping the new legislation. We share the government’s vision for better urban environments, places that work for everyone, where opportunities to thrive are readily available. We hope ministers recognise that local authorities are ideal partners to deliver these hugely important goals.