The central question behind the SURF debate on 18 September should have been “What difference (if any) might independence make to regeneration in Scotland?” There were many interesting contributions – from speakers and from the floor – but the debate did not manage to provide an analytical focus on this question.
Part of the problem is that “regeneration” is itself a broad term, covering different aims and approaches. Similarly, what might happen in a post-independence Scotland is necessarily speculative. With these caveats I will try to explore the question.
Regeneration – property-led or people-led?
A distinction has often been drawn between property-led and people-led approaches to regeneration. Regeneration policy in Scotland has varied over which of these approaches it prioritised. By disaggregating “regeneration” into these two approaches, we may be able to get a clearer picture of what might be in store after 2014.
Property-led regeneration has basically seen the problems as market failure within a particular area, and therefore invested public resources there to foster confidence amongst investors. Thus, apart from the public policy sphere, the investment climate is a key determinant for the success of regeneration. It is easier to deliver when the market is on the up. Since the banking crisis began investors have been very cautious about putting money into property in general, and into marginal sites in particular. So for property-led regeneration the key question is how might a “yes” or a “no” result impact on investor confidence? Because investors are risk-averse, and prefer familiar rather than novel situations, my guess is that, other things being equal, immediately after a “yes” vote their confidence might drop. The pace and extent of the recovery of investor confidence would depend on how the wider economy and more particularly the property sector was performing.
People-led regeneration is more focused on training and income-support for individuals and households. As with property-led regeneration many of the public policy levers are already with Holyrood. The real difference would seem to be in the control that an independent Scotland would have over welfare policy. Strictly, nobody knows how an independent Scottish government – or a future UK government – would use welfare policy. However, under independence the welfare decisions would be closer to those in need here in Scotland. If an independent Scotland were able and prepared to fund a more generous welfare package than the Westminster government then it would seem that a “yes” vote would be beneficial to this people-led regeneration.
How much difference can a government make?
The success of future urban regeneration in Scotland is thus subject to several contingencies, regardless of the outcome of the referendum. We also need to recognise that the will of governments, whether in Edinburgh or London, is not the sole determinant of the success of regeneration.
Looking back at the three most concerted efforts at renewal and regeneration in
Scotland over the past three generations, none really achieved what governments hoped for. The era of comprehensive redevelopment in the 1960s was aborted when it became clear that clearances were unpopular, expensive and reducing housing stock at a time of shortage. The GEAR project delivered a physical upgrade to Glasgow’s East End, but the area remains blighted by deprivation that has spurred the attempt to use the Commonwealth Games as a new driver to a better tomorrow. Finally, in the 1990s New Life for Urban Scotland worked on partnerships in Ferguslie Park, Wester Hailes, Castlemilk and Whitfield over a decade in the belief that owner occupation would transform the estates. Results fell short of initial expectations.
Despite good faith from politicians, and investment of human and financial resources (not least those of local residents through the partnership process), we know that the map of deprivation has changed little, improvement has been slowest for the poorest, and that in the economic downturns the poorest areas are the hardest hit. Furthermore, it has proved extremely difficult to “bend the spend” in mainstream services, despite aspirations for regeneration projects to act as catalysts for area improvement. Can anyone make a convincing case that either a “yes” or a “no” vote next September would lead to greater success?
The nature of labour markets continues to change, with the growth of services and e-business seeing the emergence of an “hour-glass” pattern, squeezing the middle income jobs and locking more into low pay and flexible conditions. Housing markets also shape who lives where and in what conditions. There are issues too of culture and lifestyle, while we know from research that stigma is long-lasting and self-reproducing when attached to neighbourhoods. These factors structure the regeneration challenge, but are not easily manipulated by government whether in Holyrood or Westminster.
What does seem likely if we get independence is that Edinburgh’s economy will get a boost relative to that in the rest of Scotland. Research in the European Observation Network for Territorial Development and Cohesion (ESPON) has shown that in most European countries the capital city is the strongest economic player. As a “full” capital, Edinburgh might be expected to accrue functions and activities that would help grow the local economy. Whether that would have the effect of supporting regeneration – or of widening divides within the city – cannot be predicted.
Inequality and area-based deprivation have been persistent features of Scotland, surviving despite a plethora of regeneration initiatives. The strongest (regeneration) argument for independence is that it would create a new political landscape that could pave the way towards a Scandinavian-like commitment to social inclusion: though there are still deprived areas in Scandinavian cities, the depth of disadvantage is not as wide as in Scotland today. The strongest (regeneration) argument for staying in the UK is that the Scottish Government already has control over regeneration and related matters (housing, education, transport, local economic development, local government etc.), and that a break with London could frighten investors, at least initially, and so weaken property-led regeneration that has already suffered because of the long crisis triggered by the bankers.