Twenty years ago today the first issue of New Start magazine was published, with a mission described as ‘bringing together the partners in community renewal’. I and two colleagues set it up and recruited a team of writers, advertising and production staff to fill what we saw as both an evidence and a commercial gap: a place where knowledge and action could join forces to create better places.
With hindsight, there was a certain hubris there. But the evidence gap – and, more tellingly, the gap between evidence and action – remains, even if the commercial gap proved temporary.
Take a look at that cover feature from our first issue. It asked, with journalistic hyperbole, whether British regions would face the scrapheap if European funding went. It was reporting on a review of European structural and social funds in anticipation of the enlargement of what was then a community of 15 nations.
Local authorities were worried that deprived parts of the UK would lose money for economic development and job creation as the EU expanded. We quoted council officers from Wisbech in East Anglia and Dudley in the West Midlands, where pockets of extreme poverty persisted alongside relative affluence. One said that without European funds, one third of food-related jobs in Wisbech might disappear.
As it happened the jobs didn’t disappear, but they couldn’t have been maintained without European labour. And while places like Wisbech and Dudley wanted European support for their prosperity, they apparently didn’t want European workers in their warehouses. Both places voted decisively in favour of leaving the EU in 2016.
To see that shift as a change in attitudes to immigration or a sense of lost control is only one facet of the story. The way people feel about where they live, and how they express those feelings in terms of political decisions, is complex and more often than not contradictory. But it’s worth revisiting those debates of two decades ago (and not only to determine whether history is repeating itself as tragedy or farce).
It’s particularly apposite in the light of current whisperings that the ‘R’ word – regeneration, although ‘region’ is also in the frame – might make a comeback after Brexit. As I’m writing this, prime minister Theresa May has been desperately trying to woo Labour MPs in regions that might face, if not the scrapheap, then certainly real and prolonged hardship.
The hardship is partly a consequence of Brexit, a case of biting the hand that feeds you if there ever was one. And it’s partly a consequence of nearly a decade of austerity policies, promoted and supported by the very prime minister who is now offering deprived localities a sudden injection of government help.
Hindsight can be useful, not just to reflect on the past but to critique plans for the future. And like the regeneration programmes of the 1990s, especially those of the John Major era, what seems to be gaining favour now is the kind of thinking that gave us City Challenge and action zones: short-term, focused initiatives that create a sense of momentum without touching the underlying problems.
In the first issue of New Start we also reported on a study led by Murray Stewart at the University of the West of England, criticising government action on cross-cutting issues, the ‘wicked problems’ that remain with us 20 years later. It said government was failing either to define the problems or find solutions and producing ‘initiatives that are in danger of getting sucked under by the very culture they claim to challenge’.
With some notable exceptions, the UK has failed to do what we set out to do in launching New Start – to bring together the partners in community renewal. The communities we focused on then remain fragmented, poverty persists, and many of the projects and premises funded by the EU and other agencies over those two decades have been and gone.
On neighbourhood renewal, on regional economic disparities, and on poverty and deprivation, we face the same challenges. On climate change and on care for the natural environment we have barely got going; on housing and on social equality we have made a shambolic retreat.
And yet: the impetus and energy and passion for social justice that we saw in communities and that we shared in setting up New Start remains. New people are rising up and saying loud and clear that an unequal society is not OK.
So while we need to be sober about the challenges and the pace of change, and critical of policy ‘solutions’ that are nothing of the sort, we need to keep doing one thing – perhaps the one thing – we got right in 1999: to keep telling the stories of the possible and encouraging those who are working to make the possible actual. Not because they have succeeded or transformed society, but because they show what might and can be done and continue to remind us that life can and should be better, fairer and more hopeful.