Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Whose Regeneration?

Words by Rachel Rose Reid. Photo: Sujata Aurora

Anyone wanting to live in a global city like London has to be a friend of change and diversity. Willesden Green is no exception and, as the annual Wassail demonstrated a fortnight ago, our neighbourhood can display plenty of vitality and creativity. This is an area open to newcomers, visitors, innovators and unafraid of development. The question is always: change and regeneration for whom, and for what purpose? The answer in Willesden Green and the rest of the Borough is all too often: for the benefit of greedy developers and naked profit. Books and beer seem to be a special bugbear of developers and their regenerator allies, as the Willesden Green, Cricklewood and Kensal Rise Libraries as well as the the Queensbury pub are targetted for luxury housing.

Political opponents have accused me and other Make Willesden Green supporters of negativity because of our ongoing criticism of the Willesden Green Library re-development. They don’t seem to get that we’re not against development as such, but in favour of a much more participatory, flexible and accountable ‘regeneration’. This is based on the simple principle that revenue should be raised from above – through progressive taxation by state and local authorities – and spent from below – by local residents who determine democratically the priorities for their neighborhoods. At least two such experiments in grassroots regeneration are now underway in Willesden Green. One is the Neighbourhood Development Plan (NDP) which, with strong and widespread resident participation, can become an instrument for the radical transformation of Willesden Green into an area that both preserves its past and builds its future as a socially mixed, publicly-oriented community. I am very pleased to be working with other Make Willesden Green supporters on the NDP as an experiment that demonstrates it is possible to engage in sustainable and democratic local development. The other, more established project is the Willesden Green Town Team. Formed by volunteer residents, the Town Team has made some positive changes to our neighbourhood, but we're still waiting on Brent Council to release the bulk of £80,000 allocated to our High Street so that various dormant proposals can be activated.

The real potential for grassroots regeneration will become evident over the coming months as Willesden Green’s own PopUp University is launched. I am especially happy that my own workplace, Birkbeck College, will be central to this enterprise, by offering talks, workshops and events for those in our area wanting to return to, or access Higher Education for the first time.

We are looking for volunteers to help run the Pop Up University, and also need spare tables, chairs and bookshelves to furnish Unit 12 of Queens Parade where the events will be held. So please contact me or the Chair of the Willesden Town Team, Elayne Coakes, if you can in any way contribute to this grassroots regeneration of Willesden Green.       


Anonymous said...

The Neighbourhood Development Forum sounds like a very positive thing and it's badly needed in Willesden Green where we're being held hostage by developers. I wonder if any of the other candidates standing in the ward are participating in this initiative - or are they only interested in issues that will give them short term electoral gain?

Anonymous said...

The principle is a good one, but perhaps you could suggest how much money you think is needed for substantial regeneration (let's in this instance say transforming High Street into something more resembling Salusbury Road, or Chamberlyne Road), how long that would take to raise through progressive taxation, and how that money would be used to do so. Grassroot regeneration is great, of course, but you also need larger scale and private development in unison to achieve notable regeneration.

Alex Colas said...

Anonymous II - Willesden Green Town Team have a range of proposals to revitalise the High Street, which they've developed over the past eighteen months. Getting all of the £80,000 out of Council coffers and spent this tax year would be a good start. I'm not persuaded you 'need' larger scale and private development at all. It's certainly one way of bringing money into an area but it's rarely the democratic or sustainable way. Buildings by themselves don't regenerate anything, it's people who use/manage them that bring an area alive. And that's not always related to money, but rather to facilitating participation in the management and decision-making of an area's public amenities. That's been largely absent in Willesden Green, to put it mildly. Finally, I think there's more imaginative and flexible ways of promoting retailers of social value on the High St (by not closing the only independent bookshop in the neighbourhood for a start). Raising the threshold for small business rate relief or, more boldly, levying 'supermarket tax' on larger retailers to support rate relief for smaller businesses are the kinds of ideas that should be on the agenda. Obviously this is a complex debate, but it needs a far more responsive Council and more creative thinking - much of it to appear in the Make Willesden Green Manfiesto soon.