A Statement by Paul Givan, MLA, Minister for Communities to the Assembly on the Progress of the Regeneration Bill
22 November 2016.
I wish to make a Statement to the Assembly in respect of the extension of my Department’s Urban Regeneration and Community Development powers to Local Government.
Over the last year, we have seen real change in Local Government. The 11 new councils have been established and a range of additional functions and powers have been transferred from central government to them. The aim of the transfer of such key functions as planning, local economic development and local tourism coupled, with the new responsibility for Community Planning was to allow councils to take the lead in reshaping and building their communities.
As Members will be aware it was also the intention of the Executive to extend to district councils the Department for Social Development’s statutory powers for Urban Regeneration and Community Development but this was unable to progress within the mandate of the last Assembly. It was also recognised that the new Department for Communities would have responsibility for a much wider range of functions than the Department for Social Development and it would be better to assimilate the various new functions into the new Department before deciding if, and when, some of these responsibilities would be best delivered at a local level.
I have now completed 6 months as Communities Minister. I have spent a lot of that time out on the ground, speaking and listening to the people who use my Department’s services and those who receive its funding, and to elected representatives and community activists. I have seen at first hand the transformative impact that regeneration projects can have on our town and city centres and the contribution they can make to enhancing the shared space and vibrancy of our communities. And I have seen that, irrespective of where legislative responsibility lies, Local Government plays a huge role in ensuring the successful implementation of our regeneration programmes.
Whether this is in Belfast or Londonderry, Lisburn, Armagh or Newry or in our important towns across Northern Ireland, for example in Enniskillen, Dungannon, Ballymena and Bangor, a key feature of all of this work has been the level of collaborative working that has been achieved between Local Councils and my Department.
This is exactly the type of cross-boundary working that is needed under our new Programme for Government.
The Programme for Government sets out an entirely new context for the delivery of our services, including the way in which we address poverty and disadvantage, and the way that we use our statutory powers to drive economic growth and lever new investment to benefit everybody in this society. The key message from the Executive is that we all, whether in central government, local government or outside of government, must ensure we work in a joined-up way, across departmental, organisational and sectoral boundaries, and that we must use all our resources and skills to deliver lasting change.
It is my assessment therefore, that the new context calls for a new direction of travel. I want my Department to be at the forefront of that change, using all of the powers and resources at its disposal to achieve the outcomes and the ambition the Executive has for our society as set out in the Programme for Government. This is not the time to tinker with who is responsible for what, or to concern ourselves with the splitting up of the regeneration budget. Rather it is the time for all the stakeholders to work together to maximise our joint effect and achieve positive change in the issues that have bedevilled this society for too long.
So I am announcing today, that I do not intend to bring forward proposals to extend my Department’s urban regeneration and community development powers to local government during this mandate.
Rather, I want to see both central and local government, operating within our respective existing legislative, community planning and resource frameworks, working with other stakeholders whether in the community, or private sectors, to maximise the impact that we can make together. This is not simply about improving our public realm and increasing our shared space. It is about creating more vibrant places with more employment opportunities and better housing, addressing poverty and improving the quality of people’s lives.
I also want to explore whether there is a case for extending our regeneration activities to settlements of less than 5,000 people.
There are many small settlements which serve the same role in the community as larger places but which, because of our current policy to restrict access to town centre regeneration funding to towns with populations above 5,000, do not directly benefit from the investment in the enhancement of public and shared space available to their larger neighbours.
A change to, or indeed the removal of the population threshold could open up new opportunities to lever in much greater investment including that from the private sector and local government to new areas, producing new employment opportunities by, for example, exploiting social clauses. This proposal also offers the scope for enhanced collaboration and cross government working with the Department for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs and the Department for Infrastructure.
I have therefore, asked my officials to review the current population thresholds and consider options for extending my Department’s physical regeneration programme, public realm schemes, development grants and revitalisation activity to projects which promote the vibrancy and vitality of smaller settlements which currently are designated as rural but which provide retail services and employment opportunities equivalent to more populous ones.
This would ensure that citizens living, socialising and availing of services in smaller settlements have access to the same benefits of public space developments as their counterparts in larger conurbations.
In all of this, I want to emphasize the essential involvement of colleagues in Local Government. We already have many fine examples of really good public realm improvement which has resulted from the combined efforts of Local Government and my Department. Nothing I have said to-day will change that. On the contrary, I want to see more of that type of collaborative effort, where each sector exploits its strengths and authority to maximise the benefits and reach of our public realm programmes.
And finally I want to set out my intentions with regard to the Neighbourhood Renewal programme.
Neighbourhood Renewal was a ten year strategy, launched in 2003 to deal with the circumstances at that time. There has been investment of almost £280m since its inception in 2003. The programme has had many successes in helping to nurture community development and in improving the physical fabric, facilities and environment of many of our most deprived areas and there have been significant improvements across a number of social and economic indicators during the lifetime of the existing strategy.
The programme has been subject to both interim and final evaluations. These studies reported that whilst there has been some narrowing of the gap between the Neighbourhood Renewal Areas and the rest of Northern Ireland on a range of the social and economic outcome indicators. The areas remain some way behind when compared to the rest of the country.
Neighbourhood Renewal has had notable success in community development outcomes. It has laid many of the foundations necessary for ensuring that communities are able to engage in Community Planning with councils. It has instilled a sense of pride amongst residents in their areas and encouraged high levels of community participation in the development of Action Plans and in the interventions which have flowed from these.
The Strategy also had many demonstrable successes in relation to physical and environmental improvements with ample evidence of the benefits accrued through neighbourhood renewal capital investment. Examples include: sports facilities, childcare facilities, community centres, business units and play parks.
But we have to recognise that things have moved on. There is a different context now.
Programme for Government places responsibilities on us to focus our efforts on things that make a difference, and to challenge ourselves to find better ways of making a positive impact on the outcomes it sets out to achieve.
So given where we are and in the context of the achievements of the programme over the last thirteen years. I wish to announce to-day, that it is my intention to review the current strategies for tackling deprivation, with a view to replacing them with a programme that will be more closely aligned to support the delivery of the new Programme for Government outcomes.
It is in all our interests to see if we can design a programme which will have a greater impact on the intractable social and economic barriers which limit life chances for so many in our community. In that way we can be better assured about the effectiveness of our interventions to address poverty and deprivation and to improve the lives of people facing barriers to participation in the economy and in the cultural and social life of Northern Ireland.
It will be important to ensure that any new programme builds on and does not lose the real benefits of the existing programme.
I will also wish to consult stakeholders on the way forward as proposals are being developed and their impact assessed.
The current Neighbourhood Renewal Strategy has provided many good news stories across all of the areas that have participated in the programme. In acknowledging these successes I want to record my gratitude to all involved.
I want to conclude by giving an assurance that there will be no sudden change to the delivery of the Neighbourhood Renewal Programme. This will remain in place until the review is complete and I believe that this process will take 18 months to two years to complete.
The development of proposals will be informed by widespread consultation. I particularly want to ask those who have been involved in the Neighbourhood Renewal process to bring their experience and knowledge to these discussions with my Department as we take this work forward.
In closing, Mr Speaker, my statement to-day brings much needed clarity to an issue in which there is huge interest across Northern Ireland. It sets out an inclusive way forward which will allow us to exploit the strengths of both central and local government. But more than that it provides an opportunity, through collective effort, to extend the reach of our programmes so that more of our constituents can better benefit from our interventions. The new draft Programme for Government signals a new way of working, a renewed focus on outcomes which requires us to think differently and to challenge the way we do things. This is an important step on that journey. I look forward to the outcome.