Why the future of regeneration is small
The term ‘inner cities’ seems to have disappeared from the vocabulary of educated debate. The Guardian itself says so. Why, given that it dominated political discussion in the 1980s? The answer is, I think, that – certainly in London – the poor don’t live there any more. The ultra-rich have taken their places.
The former homes of the poor, as in the Heygate Estate, are now being offered for sale in special exhibitions in Singapore and the Far East.
This terrible failure of conventional regeneration raises an important question. Is it possible to imagine an alternative regeneration strategy that does not cheat in quite the same way, which had help the people who live there without demolishing their homes?
Can we imagine a strategy that does not require outside grants or investment, but uses the existing resources that are in any area?
This would mean using the money better which is already flowing through each community. It would mean using the wasted people, land and buildings, the wasted material – putting them altogether and, not creating wealth exactly, but creating enough economic activity to claw back some of their economic destinies.
We can catch glimpses of what might be possible in the development of linked local food businesses in Vermont, or the community currencies for women entrepreneurs being rolled out by the Brazilian central bank. Or in this country in the emerging community banking and community energy models.
We need to develop these ideas, and I set out how in my report Ultra-Micro Economics, published by Co-operatives UK.
Because the prize is worth winning. It would be a genuine antidote to the ‘trickle down effect’ on which most economic policy is still based, even though most evidence suggests that wealth tends to hoover up rather than trickle down. It is a potential answer to the sheer dependence of local poverty.
But there are three important blockages.
First, our institutions of regeneration, from the energy intermediaries to the high street banks, are designed for big institutions and find it hard to connect with small players.
Second, there is a blind spot about economic regeneration in most local authorities. They don’t see it as their business, and this kind of learned helplessness – passive in the face of whatever disasters the global economy might throw at them – has been carefully nurtured by the Treasury for a generation.
Third, there is a kind of snobbery among economic policy-makers about it, as if ultra-micro was all a bit too small to matter. Economic strategy has kudos and status; looking at money flows on the ground and how to make money connect more locally isn’t what they imagined doing. It’s a bit too much like plumbing for comfort.
The future direction of ultra-micro economics is extremely sketchy, but I believe it represents the future. But only when local politicians start to demand it from their local leaders.