Right to regenerate: defining success

April 8, 2021  

Luca Tiratelli on why the way we define ‘community’ and ‘underused land’ will determine the success of the government’s new ‘Right to Regenerate’.

Earlier this year, the Ministry for Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) announced plans that would allow “the public… to convert vacant plots of land and derelict buildings into new homes or community spaces”.

The policy is called ‘Right to Regenerate’ and is designed to make it easier for communities to force public organisations to release underused land for redevelopment.

At first glance, this idea will replace the ineffectual Right to Contest legislation in a way that empowers communities and leads to more homes being built.

But the policy will only work if the elements are defined properly – what is a community? what makes land ‘underused’?

As it stands, there is a risk that a policy designed in theory to give communities more power over land use might end up giving them less say.

Defining a community

Right to Regenerate will build on the portfolio of ‘Community Rights’ created by the coalition government in 2012.

However, ‘communities’ are not private individuals. Nor for that matter are they private businesses. The current proposals risk missing these distinctions, and this is a serious concern.

If the end result of Right to Regenerate is that land is transferred from public bodies (over which there is some local accountability) to private businesses (over which there is none), then the end result of the legislation is that communities are going to have less control over land use in their areas, not more. This seems to be a real risk in the way in which the proposals are currently constructed.

How can we prevent this? There are two ways.

First: Community groups need to have a specific space carved out for them in the process, which privileges them over private individuals and businesses.

Second: We need significant investment in the development of communities to give them the skills to take up these rights.

The government’s own figures show that the current ‘Right to Contest’ is rarely used by community groups. This is likely because many communities don’t have the skills, connections, or confidence to engage in a legalistic, often-untransparent, financial process. If we want communities to use these rights, we need equip them to do so.

A good place to start would be the proposals in the ‘Levelling up Communities’ report that the government recently commissioned.

Defining ‘unused’ and ‘underused land’

If Right to Regenerate is a right to develop ‘unused’ or ‘underused’ land, there will have to be a way to decide if land is unused or underused. But how that decision is made could undermine the spirit of the policy.

If Right to Regenerate is really going to empower communities, then they should be allowed to decide themselves what unused or underused means in their area. What is optimal land use to one community might qualify as underused in another. A small green space, for example, may be a vital sanctuary in urban area, but a massive waste of potential in a rural one.

A national definition that is set by Whitehall risks missing local nuance. There is particular risk that the definition of underused will just be about economic benefit. Places can mean so much more to communities.

The policy should start from the principle that communities are best placed to know what ‘useful’ land use looks like to them.

A policy with potential

The principle of empowering communities to have a greater say over the use of public land in their areas is a good one.

However, there is work to be done if we are to ensure that the proposed Right to Regenerate legislation achieves this aim. The risk that the net beneficiaries of these changes will be groups and individuals who are less locally accountable than councils is a real one – and one that we all have an interest in avoiding.

Photo by Bence Balla-Schottner on Unsplash

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