Investment instigator

Responsible for helping to breathe new life into the district of Harlem in New York, Bill Boler was lured to the UK to encourage businesses to invest in deprived areas, Catherine Early finds.

Boler: focusing on planning rules
Boler: focusing on planning rules

My meeting with Bill Boler is, quite appropriately, in Starbucks, the US coffee chain whose arrival in Harlem was hailed as the defining moment in the New York suburb's renewal.

The signal this sent to other investors was vital, Boler says. "Jobwise, it was five baristas, which we were thankful for. But by getting Starbucks in it was easier to get the second investor, then the third." It took four years to get the first investor into Harlem, but another two years later in early 2000 big developments such as a cinema complex were being built in the district.

Hot on the heels of his success in Harlem, Boler was brought to the UK to work on a two-year project to help businesses and communities capitalise on under-served markets in deprived neighbourhoods. Four years later and he's still here. "We quickly realised that this would take a lot longer than two years," he reflects.

Boler's main challenge in Harlem was winning over the private sector, whereas in the UK the focus has been on the planning system, with its town centre first policy. "It dawned on me that I was here to get investment in deprived areas, but that most deprived areas are not in town centres," he explains.

Retailers complained that the planning system prevented them from investing in the area. "As one retailer said to me, unless we sort that out all we would have is a nice research project," he comments.

The Under-Served Markets project, which is supported by the DCLG, has this week published guidance for councils on its findings so far. It has had some successes, notably last year when Lidl won an appeal for a discount food store and offices after showing that it would bring employment to a deprived area in Oxford.

The inspector cited wording from PPS6 to defend the scheme, which the DCLG had included following advice from Business in the Community. But, despite this victory, the case also highlights how much more work remains for Boler to do. "It points to the challenges of deprived areas, where Lidl has to hire lawyers and consultants to open a store on a council estate. You can imagine how tough it is to convince other retailers," he notes.

The inspector in the Lidl case acknowledged that the location is not close to any town centre. However, he maintained that bulk food shopping was inevitable and the majority of people would use cars.

Balancing the environmental and social arguments on such developments is a big challenge for planners, Boler realises. But the issue is not as simple as saying that not building outside a town centre will be better for sustainability, he believes.

"Logically, that only works if you live in the town centre. Ultimately, sustainability is about economic, social and environmental issues. You have got to look at all three areas and doing so might lead you to a different conclusion in terms of what you gain and lose," he says.

Boler fears that by concentrating on environmental issues, the debate can become polarised between well-off people talking about climate change and poorer people talking about jobs. "We like to say that the policy is town centres first, not town centres only," Boler stresses.

He says the government has been very supportive of his programme, but he would like to see more support for local authorities: "It's about being given the tools and freedom to make braver decisions where this is appropriate."

Better collaboration between planners and regeneration professionals would also be beneficial, he continues. "It involves whether and how retailers are going into the area. Right now, whether a retailer is helping support jobs or training, it doesn't really matter in terms of the planning system," he maintains.

Attracting the private sector to an area involves a change in perspective, Boler argues. Back in Harlem, most of the community groups are expert at talking about how bad Harlem was because that was how you got public money, he says.

"We realised that it was like setting someone up on a blind date by saying, 'She performs badly in education and in health and has been unemployed for several years. But would you like to go out with her?'"

However, perception is "nine-tenths of the law" when it comes to getting the private sector interested, he contends. Harlem had the reputation of being like an Al Pacino movie, where people ran through abandoned buildings with guns, he recalls.

The district was perceived as suffering from a high crime rate, despite the fact that police statistics showed that there was more chance of being mugged in Time Square or Wall Street. "The retailers' perceptions may not be correct. But if they are the reason that businesses are not investing then they are the issues you have to tackle."

Boler was destined to become involved in community issues. His mother Ruth Richardson was a community activist and it wasn't until he was a teenager that he realised that not everyone's mum took them to board meetings.

The FBI even tapped the family's phone when Richardson was trying to persuade civil rights movement the Black Panthers not to pull black children out of school. "She was a social worker and was very committed to youth at risk. I happily accept being called a momma's boy professionally," he laughs.


Age 49

Family: Married

Education: BA in architecture, Yale University, 1980; MA in city and regional planning, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University

Interests: Tennis, music, especially Prince

2003: Director of under-served markets, Business in the Community

1998: Vice-president for community investment, Business for Social Responsibility

1993: Executive director, Greater Harlem Housing Development Corporation

1991: Deputy commissioner, New York City department of business services.

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