The taskforce, you may recall, devoted a lot of thought to that problem. Among its 105 recommendations, many were devoted to finding a solution. These included:
- designated urban priority areas where local authorities and private partners could apply for special powers and incentives
- "arm's length" urban regeneration companies where local authorities, social landlords and regional development agencies would team up to get assets at less than market value and use them to raise private finance
- housing regeneration companies to undertake regeneration in areas with badly deteriorated and vacant housing stock
- taxing vacant land, while not penalising genuine developers
- strengthening local authority powers for foreclosure and enforced sale of abandoned and dilapidated land and buildings
- equalising VAT on new build and regeneration, 10% "sweeteners" for compulsory purchase, and "disturbance" payments
- no need to show specific and viable schemes when making compulsory purchase orders
- a total clean-up of all contaminated land by 2030
- national public–private investment funds to attract a minimum of £1bn private investment over 30 years for schemes with a 50% residential content
- combining existing single regeneration budget and English Partnerships funds and channelling them into a single funding pot for regional regeneration.
Quite a list. Even reciting it makes you breathless. To its credit, the government did take some of them on board. We now have the single pot RDA funding, a promise of 12 urban regeneration companies on top of the three already established (in Liverpool, Manchester and Sheffield) and a partial relaxation of VAT rules. But how big a difference will it make in relation to the size of the problem?
Just consider: the urban white paper, in effect, doubles the recommended time to clean up contaminated land, stretching the end date to 2060 - a date when today's babies will be looking forward to their pensions. And then apply this to a regeneration site you know.
One I know is Barking Reach, centrepiece of Thames Gateway London. It has appeared in every statement about the Thames Gateway strategy since that it was launched, just over 10 years ago. A huge stretch of brownfield–greenfield, never developed because it was so contaminated, and compromised by overhead power lines, it has been the subject of at least two masterplans by top planning consultants and a third is now on the drawing board.
Bellway Homes, a company with a distinguished track record in urban regeneration, took on the job of implementation. It has managed to complete the first stage and is in the middle of the second. Its new homes are commendably affordable. But they still sit directly under the power lines because nobody has found the money to put the cables underground.
UDCs proved phenomenally capable of getting on with the job – which has failed to happen subsequently
There is still no proper transport because the long discussed train station has never materialised, and Railtrack appears less capable every day of paying for it. Bellway is chafing at the bit: it wants to complete the job but feels hamstrung at every turn.
There's a real case study here of what can go wrong. Everyone you talk to, including the developers and the borough council, complains. But it's not clear at the end who is responsible. The chosen villain was English Partnerships, which failed to come up with funding. But most of its money has now gone to the RDAs.
And it's not clear if the London Development Agency can pick up the tab, as funds are limited and the claims on it are huge. And a further problem: many of these claims are coming from Thames Gateway, administered through a partnership where the partners are, in practice, jealously guarding their local authority interests.
At the end, it's a question of priorities. Barking Reach (Borough of Barking and Dagenham) is competing with Stratford (Borough of Newham) and with Rainham Marshes (Borough of Havering). The need, surely, is to say: first we'll do this one and then that one. Because Barking is easiest (strictly speaking, least difficult, although difficult enough), it should have been prioritised and finished by now. Then Stratford could be tackled – essential, because next month the tunnellers will start work on the international station, which is at the centre of a huge potential development area.
There's still time, just, to do Barking and then turn to Stratford. But whose responsibility is this? The DTI, which has now taken responsibility for the RDAs from the DTLR? The Greater London Authority? The LDA, which, after all, reports to the GLA? The Thames Gateway Partnership?
The lesson of recent years might well be this: that whether you loved the urban development corporations – set up in the mid-1980s by then environment minister Michael Heseltine – or hated them, or quite possibly a mixture of the two, they proved phenomenally capable of getting on with the job. And this has conspicuously failed to happen in too many cases subsequently.
Sir Peter Hall is professor of planning at University College London.