I was interested to read the statement by the Vibrant and Viable Places, Ministerial Advisory Group that they consider Welsh Governments £100m flagship regeneration programme to be a success.
I was intrigued to find out more because as an independent Regeneration Practitioner I had previously provided a detailed response to the original Welsh Government (WG) Consultation Document and then helped Conwy County Borough Council secure a £12m Vibrant and Viable Places (VVP) Round One grant.
The VVP, Ministerial Advisory Group (MAG) was established in March 2014 with terms of reference to provide WG with guidance and support on how best to maximise the impact of the scheme.
Having served as a WG Ministerial advisor I have some sympathy for MAG members particularly in relation to the role of challenging the status quo of established programmes such as VVP.
In October 2015 MAG presented a comprehensive report for Lesley Griffiths AM Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty which contained 16 recommendations for WG to consider as part of their wider review and ongoing support for VVP. http://gov.wales/topics/housing-and-regeneration/regeneration/vibrant-and-viable-places/advisory-group/?lang=en
Interestingly Recommendation 15 of the Report differs somewhat from the ebullient headline of the WG press release about MAG’s independent review of the VVP programme and says:
‘We recommend that there should be a full, independent evaluation of the programme once the programme has reached its conclusion. Whilst we understand that the second round may well have started by the time this is possible we believe there will be opportunities for the evaluation to take account of the outcomes achieved and apply learning from VVP Round 1 as soon as is possible’
From this recommendation it appears that whilst in some of the 11 VVP Local Authority areas there are clearly outputs i.e. activity on the ground the actual measurement of their long term outcomes and benefits remains to be determined.
This will not be a surprise to anyone actually involved in the field of regeneration as it is well known that most successful schemes often take a generation to deliver measureable results. I have always found it difficult for politicians and funding bodies to appreciate and accept this point as we increasingly live in a world that demands immediate results. However, in my opinion when funding is offered on the basis of ‘use it or lose it’, and is tied to strict budget and election cycles it rarely produces either the best schemes or maximises public value.
Whilst I fully support MAG’s recommendation that a full and independent evaluation of VVP is undertaken I am afraid that if past history is followed this sensible advice is likely to be ignored
For example prior to VVP regeneration in Wales was principally funded and delivered by WG in 7 Regional Strategic Regeneration Areas (SRA’s). Despite millions of pounds being invested in the SRA’s to my knowledge there has never been any independent evaluation undertaken about whether they were successful, provided value for money, or offered any useful lessons for future funding regimes such as VVP.
As VVP resulted in the redirection of investment away from regional SRA’s and into 11 more localised town and city centre initiatives it begs the question why wasn’t any detailed independent research carried out prior to this change in policy? To me it certainly seems to be an oversight and poor management practice as it does not accord with the principals of post programme analysis or WG’s much stated requirements of Results Based Accounting.
However, what I probably find most surprising is that after only 4 recorded meetings and a handful of site visits MAG members are prepared to recommend to WG that they should ‘start developing the second round of funding as soon as possible without making wholesale changes to the programme’.
VVP Round One has been largely based around attempting to create diversified town centres in the form of housing solutions leading in part to the residentialisation of High Streets. However, at the launch of VVP there was never any discernible evidence to support this strategy i.e. it was theory not fact. Despite its importance the MAG report is silent on this matter and does not point to any research past or present to support the continuation of this policy. This raises the question whether in any future VVP Round Two Programme it is wise to continue with the blanket residentialisation of High Streets which to me has always seemed to be more about boosting social housing numbers than Town Centre regeneration.
The role of MAG is also to ‘Advise the Minister of emerging areas of best practice, innovative finance options and any other matters that may be of value to the Welsh approach’.
Disappointingly from my review of the minutes and report there appears to be little evidence of such expert opinion being provided. In this respect I find it odd that there appears to be no detailed assessment on the merits of the Deep Place Study which was published by the Centre for Regeneration Excellence Wales (CREW) in April 2014 See http://regenwales.org/event_63_Deep-Place-Study-Conference–Tredegar
This excellent piece of home grown research seems to be gathering dust on the shelves of WG and their advisors even though it provides a raft of alternative approaches for the grass root generation of local Welsh communities. At the very least I would have expected that the findings and merits of the Deep Place Study would have been discussed and analysed in depth by MAG as part of their ongoing expert advice to WG.
Finally if we are to have VVP Round Two should Local Authorities continue as the lead delivery bodies? The MAG report does not offer any opinion on this point which is somewhat worrying given that after the next Assembly election Local Authorities are likely to be re-structured. With a backcloth of continued austerity and the fact that regeneration is not a statutory function will Local Government have adequate, expertise, time or resources for this continuing role?
So to summarise at the present time I cannot agree with MAG that the VVP Round One regeneration programme has been a success and should broadly continue in its current form. For me the jury is still out as I consider it far too early to reach such a positive conclusion without first answering some fundamental and outstanding questions about delivery, long term outcomes and overall value for money for the £100M that is being spent by WG.