Public Services Management: Clarity of vision - Sally Watts looks at the work of the Civic Trust's Regeneration Unit, which revitalises depressed urban areas

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The Independent Online
HOW DO you bring new life to an urban area where unemployment is high and confidence low? First find your visionaries, says John Lockwood.

He is director of the Calderdale Inheritance Project, a ten-year scheme to revitalise the Calder Valley's six towns after the closure of many textile, engineering and other firms.

By visionaries he means those who can harness latent resources - property, money, skills - and persuade people to work together instead of each doing their own thing; co-operating as well as competing.

The catalyst was the closure in 1983 of Dean Clough carpet mills, in Halifax. Even before that, 2.5 million square feet of industrial floor space stood vacant; the demise of Dean Clough - which at the turn of the century employed 6,000 people - added to the grim total.

The valley had grown prosperous through textiles; could it still have an economic future? Mr Lockwood, a town planner and designer with the local council, prepared a paper showing Calderdale's attractions. The Civic Trust carried out a survey, then produced a strategy for prosperity, which started in Halifax and extended through the valley.

In 1985 the Calderdale Inheritance Project was born and with it the Inheritance decade. Dean Clough has been regenerated. It was bought and developed by Sir Ernest Hall and converted into an arts and small business centre employing 3,000 people.

Improvements in Halifax itself include the railway station's facelift, a leading hotel's refurbishment and development and upgrading around the town.

Last summer saw the opening of Eureka], a centre built on derelict land and equipped with highly technological facilities to show people, especially children, the world around them. Within a year it attracted 400,000 visitors.

Regenerative work is also progressing or planned in the other towns: Brighouse, Elland, Hebden Bridge, Sowerby Bridge - where a major mill complex is being refurbished - and Todmorden, which has attracted EC money. Here training and technology are grafted on to the Inheritance approach. This has three themes: partnerships between public and private sectors; small-scale projects; promotion and marketing. They form an inherent part of Civic Trust strategy and, according to Mr Lockwood, have proved 'quite dramatic', fundamentally changing Halifax's economic outlook.

'We've stimulated investment by encouraging others to buy and improve property. Enhancing a town's appearance gives a sense of place, stimulates trade and brings new business. It's commercially led conservation.'

When McDonald's took art deco premises to sell their hamburgers, a striking design resulted, using white palatine marble to team with the existing Portland stone.

Calderdale is not eligible for government help - apart from English Heritage funding in conservation areas - but the project team has promoted pounds 16m of investment; Calderdale council has contributed over pounds 1m.

Business in the Community has secured investment from national retailers and commercial organisations. Grand Metropolitan seconded a senior executive from one of its breweries, since bought by Courage which continues the practice. Boots the Chemists, which has supported the Halifax venture, is now adding its weight to Build a Brighter Brighouse, a programme based on a business plan by local retailers and professionals.

According to the Civic Trust, the Calderdale Project is a model for heritage-based regeneration. The Department of the Environment has commissioned a study to see if the techniques can be used as a prototype for other areas. As Mr Lockwood says: 'We have to look towards next century and find self-sustaining methods of regeneration. What we've achieved in less than eight years would have taken twice as long by traditional town planning methods.'

In 1987 the Regeneration Unit was established as the Trust's professional and executive arm. The unit makes economic, visual and practical improvements to meet local people's needs and hopes. Backed by the Government, industry and local authorities, it forms partnerships between business, residents and the public agencies.

A skills development programme for partnership managers has just begun, funded by J Sainsbury and the DoE. Last December the unit set up Inner City Action Scheme, a joint venture with GrandMet and the DoE. (GrandMet is currently donating over pounds 150,000 a year to the Civic Trust.)

'The ability to get results is the skill which businessmen bring to a regeneration partnership,' Sir Allen Sheppard, GrandMet chairman, told an urban development conference earlier this year. Once begun these projects expand independently. As Sarah Peasley, the unit's campaign manager, says: 'We start them, then they have a life of their own.'

Ilfracombe is a Victorian seaside resort, with minimal investment during most of this century and tourism declining for 30 years. In that time the railway station and main hotel closed, the steamers departed and recession increased unemployment to 22 per cent.

The Ilfracombe Project grew from the Regeneration Unit's recommendation prepared for North Devon District Council. It established a Civic Society, encouraged pounds 5m investment and created an action plan.

Building on this, business 'seedbeds' have been opened in the old gasworks, an officer appointed to stimulate North Devon's economy, improvements made to lighting and roads. Historic buildings have been repaired in the town quay; more development is planned for the harbour.

In addition, a library has opened and a redundant church has become the Lantern community centre. Funding has come from grant aid, local authorities and English Heritage. 'A lot of good things happened because of the Civic Trust,' says Helen Dimond, project officer. 'People were in despair and it gave them hope.'

Since the Regeneration Unit began six years ago, it has been involved in more than 40 projects. One recent study is for the improvement of Blackpool seafront, coinciding with the tower's centenary in 1994.

Two schemes give Paul Davies, head of the unit, particular pleasure. One, for Batley, helped Kirklees Council in West Yorkshire win over pounds 37m of City Challenge money and attract investment totalling pounds 250m. The other, at Greenwich, won the Royal Town Planning Institute's 1991 achievement award.

This project includes social, economic and physical regeneration along seven miles of waterfront, balancing the needs of business, tourists and residents, and tackling traffic congestion and the future of the Royal Arsenal. Greenwich Council's partners include the National Maritime Museum, British Gas, Woolwich Building Society and the DoE.

Because Greenwich is seen as a blueprint for regeneration, last March it was chosen as the launch pad of the Civic Trust and GrandMet's Campaign for Liveable Places. This will examine best practice abroad, in order to further improve the quality of life in urban Britain.

(Photograph omitted)