If housebuilders had to present a warts-and-all picture of urban living in their sales literature, would anybody buy the product? Fortunately, the Property Misdescriptions Act does not require developers to go quite that far.
Lord Rogers' urban taskforce presented a vision of an urban renaissance in which our downtrodden towns would be so reshaped in the image of Barcelona that it seemed as if even the weather might be improved. Three years later, with rising crime and overburdened public transport systems, our urban environments are actually becoming more dangerous, dirty and difficult to get around in, and altogether less desirable to inhabit.
It is developers that have to turn these ever-increasing negatives into the positives of commercial success. Pressured to build on urban brownfield sites, they have to overcome the constraints and devise a product that a public which aspires to a detached house in the country will buy at a price that produces a decent profit margin.
Cash, or the lack of it, is at the root of urban decay. The government cannot inject sufficient sums to upgrade police forces, hospitals, bus services and homes. The solution now being sought by both central government with its planning policy, and London Mayor Ken Livingstone with his demand that 50% of units on new-build residential sites should be affordable housing, is to get developers to dig deeper into their pockets.
The government has promoted its planning green paper as a reform of the system to the benefit of developers, but some see an ulterior motive in the proposal to replace the section 106 payments made by housebuilders with tariffs that will be imposed on all developers. "The hidden agenda is that the government wants to look at private funding for regeneration, to fund the infrastructure of roads, schools and of course affordable housing," says Peter Bingle, managing director of Bell Pottinger Public Affairs, which last month hosted a seminar for developers on the green paper. "The tariff system goes beyond what housebuilders are doing already. Its potential for urban regeneration is profound."
Developers have warned that such approaches could backfire, greeting Livingstone's affordable housing demand with the chorus "50% of nothing is nothing".
The world is changing. You can either shut it out, have dogs and gates, or make it obvious deterrents are there
Paul Vallone, operations director, berkeley homes
"If there is too much risk, it will push developers away," says Tony Carey, managing director of London developer St George, which has calculated that a 50% affordable housing requirement across all its sites would equate to a land tax of 85%. "The only real way of achieving the urban renaissance is to encourage developers and their shareholders to show more enthusiasm for urban development with all its risks and challenges," he says.
Because of crime and the poor quality of basic public services, new urban homes are generally targeted at, and bought by, young singles or empty nesters, rather than families. "The system is chicken and egg," says Nick Rudlin, northern director of urban regeneration consultant URBED. "Local authorities get frustrated because schools or buses can't be provided until there's demand for them, but people won't live in the cities until they are there." URBED is researching these issues and will be publishing its report on towns and cities in October. "It is not necessarily that the authorities need more money. It is a matter of simple things like changing the rules on education and transport," says Rudlin.
"Very often an individual developer can't make improvements to public transport," says Alastair Gaskin, project director with regeneration developer Urban Catalyst. At its Bermondsey Square mixed-use scheme in London's Borough district, the developer has worked with the local authority to establish a German-style car pool rental system to compensate for the lack of car parking at its scheme of 40 apartments, restaurants, hotel and office space. "It's very important to work with the local authority and local community, and not to walk away from a project when it's finished. It is important that the public realm is looked after," says Gaskin.
Crime is the most prominent issue, with murders, muggings and carjackings perhaps being a potent deterrent to city living. Berkeley Homes has just launched its flagship 600-apartment Chelsea Bridge Wharf scheme in Battersea, west London, not far from where estate agent Tim Robinson was murdered. It says buyers have not been put off by the recent high-profile crime, and it has not felt the need to augment the security measures in the scheme to increase buyer comfort. "The world is changing and you can either shut it out, have dogs and gates, or you can take a more intellectual approach to security and make it obvious that deterrents are in place," says Paul Vallone, operations director with Berkeley Homes (Chelsea Bridge Wharf).
The development is relying on creating a secure environment through good lighting, the presence of maintenance staff, and CCTV. The landscaping even incorporates what Vallone calls "an urban moat", a waterway running in front of apartment blocks providing a barrier between public and private areas.