A warm, if wintry, welcome to the Homes and Communities Agency. A powerful new body charged with regeneration, housing and sustainable communities couldn’t come at a better time.

The HCA is offering a new big idea to make things happen: the ‘single conversation’.

It’s not quite Obama’s ‘Yes we can’, but it recognises the need for what it describes as ‘a place rather than programme based approach’ to its work.

It will be the HCA’s ‘most important business process’, bringing together the agency’s experts and local partners, led by the democratically accountable representatives of the local authority.

Nobody quite knows what a single conversation will look or sound like yet, but it sounds eminently sensible to replace the hubbub of multiple conversations with one tidy, systematic form of negotiating and implementing a shared vision.

What would have happened if we’d had such a system some time ago?

Doubtless much frustration could have been avoided. But there would have been other, unforeseen consequences.

The Eldonian Village in Liverpool, lauded by Gordon Brown and showcased as a paragon of neighbourhood renewal, would probably not have happened: the local authority, with its democratic mandate to lead place-shaping in the city, wanted the neighbourhood flattened.

The resident-led Walterton and Elgin Community Homes would probably have remained a tenants’ pipe-dream.

Westminster Council wanted the community dispersed and the Victorian terraced streets sold to private developers.

Coin Street, the community-run development trust on London’s South Bank, would have struggled to survive a ‘single conversation’.

A carve-up between the Greater London Council and speculative office developers would have seen local residents elbowed out as the authorities sought to maximise the area’s business potential.

This is not to say the HCA’s approach is wrong. But it needs to recognise that communities are messy systems whose aspirations don’t readily fit into neat, logical planning processes.

Often the strength of local feeling isn’t apparent until the bulldozers are about to move in.

To get the ‘single conversation’ right will take a great deal of skill, but it will also demand a huge amount of empathy. Perhaps the best way to start is by holding these conversations in the places most likely to be affected by them.

Julian Dobson, editorial director, New Start Online magazine

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