Analysis: Urban Development: Shattering the urban development myths

The transfer of funds and power from UDCs to regional development agencies will offer rich pickings to those PR agencies which can work with the public and private sector.

The transfer of funds and power from UDCs to regional development

agencies will offer rich pickings to those PR agencies which can work

with the public and private sector.



The new Government’s plans to overhaul the country’s urban regeneration

agencies should mean a number of opportunities for PR agencies.



Labour is committed to creating up to ten regional development agencies,

which will bring together the public and private sector to complete a

variety of tasks, including economic regeneration.



During the 1980s, the Thatcher government chose urban development

corporations (UDCs) as the main vehicle for encouraging investment in

economically-blighted areas. The first UDCs to be set up in 1981 were

the London Docklands Development Corporation and the Merseyside

Development Corporation.



Both had huge operational budgets and soon realised they needed all the

PR and marketing support they could get.



The UDCs drew fierce criticism from local government, because it was

excluded from the planning process and other strategic decision-making

in UDC regions. It was also angered by the huge amounts of cash diverted

to UDCs while local authority budgets came under continued attack.



The remaining UDCs are preparing for March 1998 when they will hand

control to a residuary body operated by the Commission for New Towns,

except for Cardiff Bay which will continue until 1999.



But the demise of the UDC shouldn’t be bad news for PR agencies. In

addition to the opportunities created by the ten new RDAs, other bodies

such as English Partnerships - a quasi-independent body set up by

statute to facilitate urban regeneration schemes - will also be looking

for PR support.



English Partnerships is already outsourcing work, such as the promotion

of development opportunities at the Millenium Festival site.



Sunny Crouch, LDDC’s director of marketing and public affairs envisages

plenty of work after the UDCs close.



Most of the LDDC’s work is now complete, with most of the land now

let.



But major projects which could remain unfinished next March include: a

business park, an international rowing centre and a university.



All these projects will be taken over by Newham council in joint

ventures with English Partnerships and the Thames Gateway group of

councils. Crouch has already started negotiations with the organisations

to ensure cash is available to support future PR activity.



But the experience of some PR agencies suggests that working with these

kinds of organisations has its downside as well. Last week PR Week

highlighted a Public Accounts Committee report into the Plymouth

Development Corporation which contained harsh criticism of its agency

Tamesis.



Between April 1994 and January 1996, pounds 1.2 million was paid to

Tamesis in budget and fees. The Public Accounts Committee accused

Tamesis of overcharging by pounds 123,000.



The cash was repaid to the corporation through credit notes well before

the PAC published its findings. Tamesis partner Tony Danaher says the

pounds 123,000 was not overcharged but ’overpaid’ and says the extra

payments were made as a result of the financial mess the Corporation was

in. According to Danaher, many of the problems resulted from the fact

that the PDC’s chief executive wasn’t involved in the appointment of the

agency.



’This sort of organisation involves the public sector coming together

with the private sector in an unnatural marriage, so it’s important to

get things right from the beginning - marketing and PR are important to

make sure the marriage works,’ he says.



Chris Matthews, chief executive of The Hogarth Partnership, has had

plenty of experience with clients in the public sector. ’When you’ve got

this type of account you have to keep very detailed records because the

auditors can be sent in at any time,’ he warns.



’Agencies have to be aware that all the commercial details can become

public, particularly when political point scoring is the order of the

day.’



The road to winning work can also be pretty rocky. Peter Rae, senior

partner at Hammond Communications, recalls his experience at other

agencies of working for the Industrial Development Board (IDB) for

Northern Ireland, and Trafford Park UDC.



While at Hill and Knowlton, he pitched for the IDB work in 1990 (having

previously worked on the same account for Burson-Marsteller), and he

thought it would be a good idea to meet Richard Needham MP - an economic

affairs minister for Northern Ireland at the time - before the formal

pitch was made. After the meeting, H&K was contacted by civil servants

who complained that the agency had gone behind their backs.



Rae says: ’There was nothing in the invitation to tender to say we

couldn’t do this, and in typical civil servant speak, when the letter of

refusal arrived after our pitch, it said we had lost because we didn’t

understand the problems of Northern Ireland.’



He says: ’I thought we had put together a blinder of a pitch, and we

spent pounds 20,000 in cash and pounds 80,000 worth of management time

on it.’



Some agencies lose pitches because of basic mistakes too. Clare Shannon,

external affairs manager at the Merseyside Development Corporation,

reveals: ’It’s amazing how some well-known agencies have done themselves

no favours by not understanding how we work.



’Some agencies have promised us the use of a lobbyist, when they should

know that as a government agency we’re not allowed to lobby

government.’



With a wealth of new opportunities opening up in this area it remains to

be seen whether other agencies can learn from past mistakes.



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