Yes, money is tight, yes, the challenges are many, but local authorities that work with others and use their assets creatively can still build great places to live
A little over a year ago I spoke at the Mipim property show in France about how the global recession would force UK cities and their European counterparts to rethink totally their approach to development.
It was obvious then, a couple of months before the general election, that if development was to continue and we were create our cities as great places to live, work and play, then things had to be different. That change has been forced by economics. If local authorities are passive and expect things to carry on as they were, then they will fall behind and fail.
We have to take a longer-term view of development, forgoing short-term revenues and thinking about the end game. There is no cash to put on the table, so we have to use our assets and use them well. In Coventry in the last 12 months in particular, we have started to bring forward development in that way.
Three years ago we underwent a masterplanning exercise with The Jerde Partnership to look at some of the priorities for the city centre and to spark debate and discussion with local people. From that we identified that the southern quarter of our city centre was not only a major priority but also a development possibility that really had potential even in these times.
Cushman & Wakefield assessed the economic viability of a scheme that could create 650,000ft2 of space, and gave it the green light. That really allowed us to talk to the major landowners in that area and we have now completed a collaboration agreement with Aviva aimed at bringing forward a development.
We have employed Drivers Jonas Deloitte as consultants to scope a viable scheme and advise us on all aspects of a development with the aim of obtaining outline permission. We hope that will be done inside a year and by working together we can prepare a great deal of ground before we go out to developers, which will make the opportunity more attractive and bring a degree of certainty. That sort of hands-on, proactive approach is essential from local authorities because the current market is not enough for private sector developers always to force the pace.
Another development in the last year or so has been the formation of local enterprise partnerships (LEPs). I know many feel they are not the way forward but they are the only game in town. If authorities kick against them, they will not work and the level of collaboration with the private sector, which is necessary to move things forward in this climate, simply will not happen.
Coventry and Warwickshire is one of the smallest LEPs in the country. We have a population of less than a million but, crucially, about 85% of people who work in our area, also live in the area. We are a natural - rather than constructed - economic geography.
There is a limit to how much you can achieve without any funding, but there is also a great deal that can be done. In our area local authorities have shown that they are prepared to work with the private sector and that is happening with the LEP. Already we have made moves to improve access to finance for our local companies; our planning group is working towards uniformity of approach across the whole of our area when it comes to applying for planning consents.
We have just submitted our bid for an enterprise zone in our area with the potential to provide 14,000 jobs for the region as well as provide a solution to a major long-term traffic problem. There have also been strides made in tourism, high-tech manufacturing, low carbon and new media.
We have started with real momentum and there will, in the coming months, be times when it is not possible to maintain that at its current rate. But if organisations really commit to work closely together, to forget the traditional territorial lines and to challenge the accepted way of doing things, then they will be part of an exciting future.
Martin Reeves is chief executive of Coventry council