The RTPI’s recent Planning Horizons paper Promoting Healthy Cities gives welcome attention to the poor health, social and economic outcomes suffered by people who live in areas that are defined by the
existing poverty of residents. Social housing surrounded by fast food outlets, betting shops, cheap off licences and pay day loan shops lock residents into poverty, encourage poor health choices, and have a negative psychological impact on people. The situation is lamentable, as are attempts to blame the proliferation of these premises on planning. Readily accessible gambling, fast food, and cheap alcohol are not the result of bad planning, they are the result of no planning. Planning is about bringing together a series of investments in a holistic way to create places for the benefit of communities. The idea that putting pay day loan outlets, betting shops, fast food takeaways, and cheap off licences beside housing estates is part of a conscious spatial-planning process rather than a policy of allowing the market to decide what an area looks like indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the degree to which planning is involved in national policy formulation and market led development.
Responses to deteriorating neighbourhoods
Although it results in positive outcomes for places, urban regeneration as a response to deteriorating neighbourhoods often generates new sets of problems for existing owners of social housing. Recently the Rt Hon Eric Pickles MP enthused about the ‘radical regeneration of some of London’s most deprived housing estates’ revealing plans to increase the number and quality of homes on inner city estates. This is welcome on the assumption that this regeneration of place is aimed at least in part at dealing with the challenges posed by these estates to existing residents. However if some of the current regeneration schemes in London are anything to go by then the new properties will displace existing residents while meeting the needs of better off Londoners. The displacement of low and even middle income tenants and owners in their thousands as a result of the £8bn redevelopment of Earls Court, the Heygate estate in Elephant and Castle and the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates pointed out by Professor Loretta Lees FRSA, is testament to the fact that urban renewal is not always geared towards dealing with the problems experienced by the people who currently live in inner city estates.
The Rt Hon Eric Pickles’ description of new inner city developments as being similar to Pimlico or Islington, with terraced streets of houses, apartments and commercial space, does little to allay fears that there is a misalignment between regenerating areas and dealing with the social problems experienced by existing residents. The reality is that as areas become gentrified, so prices rise and rising rents and house prices push the poorest households out of the areas they identify with. Londoners are not alone in experiencing negative consequences from urban renewal. New York is also learning the costs of regeneration, having the character and residents stripped from its inner city areas, which are being colonised by high street chains and Young Urban Narcissists (“Yunnies”).
What’s the solution to displacement?
In the interest of fairness existing residents could be offered a one for one replacement of their unit in the event of regeneration. This would then allow those who suffer as a result of deteriorating neighbourhoods to actually benefit from urban renewal projects in their area. One thing that is clear is the need to be transparent about what the aim of regeneration is. If it is at least in part to improve the health and well-being of existing residents then planning has a role to play. Planning – from development management to the location of health and community services - can play a central role in creating environments that enhance people’s health and wellbeing. If it is not, and the aim of regeneration is to meet the needs of a new urban elite, this raises the question of what the responsibilities of the state are in respect of poor social, economic, and health outcomes experienced by communities living in public housing.
Joe Kilroy is the policy officer at the RTPI. His specialisms include housing and governance. He recently authored Making Better Decisions for Places as part of the RTPI’s Planning Horizons series.