Housing Regeneration and the Private Finance Initiative in England: Unstitching the Neoliberal Urban Straitjacket



Abstract:  This paper responds to recent debates in human geography about ideal-type versus contingent neoliberalism, or what Gibson-Graham conceptualises as “strong” vs “weak” theory, by offering some reflections from an in-depth study of the private finance initiative (PFI) in England. It first introduces the history and purpose of the PFI as the Labour government's flagship public–private partnership (PPP) approach to public infrastructure modernisation. It then critically analyses its use in inner-city regeneration through a case study of a PFI housing scheme in the northern English city of Leeds. The paper argues that, when seen through the lens of “strong theory”, a PFI appears to be a consciously designed “neoliberal straitjacket” intended to lock-in gentrification-based regeneration at the neighbourhood level, guarantee long-term profits to (finance) capital, and create powerful privatising and marketising pressures across the local public sphere. However, it is equally possible to construct a preliminary “weak theory” of the PFI that unhides its inherent contradictions and shows how everyday activism by local community actors can successfully influence and contest how neoliberalism is rolled out on the ground.