I have been living in Stratford for over twenty years and I clearly remember how Stratford used to be. A combination of new transport connections, business spaces, job opportunities, housing, and Olympic 2012 facilities mean Stratford is now – for some people - a luxury village, with average house prices over £600,000.
The Stratford area and its local businesses have benefitted from the Olympic 2012 regeneration, but Newham is still one of the poorest boroughs in London. There is a feeling in the community that long-term residents may not have fully benefitted from the regeneration. Many people have had to move out to other areas because they could not pay the high rent that regeneration led to. Most of the residents in the Stratford were aware that their local area has been changing because of the 2012 Olympics regeneration, and local residents with low income believe that such a change was linked with shifting class relations that didn’t include them (Watt, 2013). This is one of the reasons community engagement is needed in the heart of place-based regeneration.
We all know the population of London is growing fast and there is a growing demand for new homes. London needs to build enough homes to accommodate everyone – at least 49,000 every year. The RSA’s recent report “Scale to Change” highlighted the importance of integrating newcomers in mixed and balanced communities within large-scale new development. The Government’s latest plan is to increase London’s housing supply through the regeneration of housing estates.
But I believe that whatever actions government and housing institutions take to increase the country’s housing supply, community engagement has to be an integral part of any regeneration that government is planning to do. One of the reasons why community engagement is important is that regeneration changes existing physical and economic characteristics of the local community. Many people in a community that is facing regeneration have strong social and emotional connections with their local buildings, streets, parks and wider area. Effective, comprehensive community engagement means existing residents are given the autonomy they need to shape and influence regeneration from the beginning to the end. Saying this is easy. Doing this is hard, for several reasons.
Firstly, regeneration is about finding where public benefit and private benefit align. We can’t pretend that influence over plans doesn’t ultimately follow the interests of those who own the land. A great regeneration plan doesn’t come to life through the will of the community, or convincing powerful interests to do things that aren’t in their interest; it is often about successfully piggybacking on the aspirations of the disproportionately powerful – those who have the most extensive ownership over assets in the community (which can include public sector organisations). Sometimes it is difficult to achieve representation of the community, and even to access hard to reach groups - let alone engage them meaningfully in a discussion about local regeneration. Effective community engagement requires a detailed appreciation of the community groups and community members and creating a robust process to ensure the opinions of all members are heard. This will empower residents, especially marginalised groups, to exert influence over the regeneration plan. For example young people can prove the hardest group to engage or to reach but they can be the future core of the community. In this sense, they have the most at stake.
Consulting with the community on local authority regeneration plans – and any planning application – is a statutory requirement. Yet the point at which this happens is often both too early and too late. For the local public interest to be fully understood, community engagement is more impactful at the stage of establishing what regeneration is trying to achieve. Often, regeneration brochures land on your doormat when there is a plan already made with a goal in mind – “what do you think?”.
A more inspiring engagement question than ‘what do you think?’ is ‘what would you like your role to be”. Local people are going to be more likely to contribute their time and talent towards creating their future community if they were part of a consensus on what different people and organisations in a place are lining up to try to achieve together. True regeneration capitalises on thousands of small contributions, as well as the actions of the powerful.
Inclusive engagement of community in regeneration areas should capture residents’ aspirations and their concern. It is the best way to find out from people how they want their local area to look and the best way community can benefit from the opportunities that regeneration can bring. Regeneration should be about all stakeholders taking action together to address the challenges and problems which are faced by communities and residents. It is about creating opportunities for local residents, growing the local economy and improving residents’ life opportunities. And I think it shouldn’t be for the government or wealthy investors to define what regeneration should look like or what measures to be taken; it should be the local people who measure their aspiration and define what ‘the public interest’ means to them locally. No one asked Stratford residents if they wanted to bid to host the Olympics. If they had (and had said yes), this would perhaps make easier the current challenges of having a legacy of local impact.
I hope my local area becomes a place where existing communities and newcomers benefit from the regeneration and changes that have happened in Stratford. I hope that regeneration builds the existing community’s capacity and creates opportunities for everyone in the local area, rather than displace them with a new community designed by, and for, rich investors.