Now the government has launched its grand plan to reinvigorate local, government-backed developments. On 1 April, it set up eight regional development agencies covering the whole of England. These replace the bitty regional promotion offered by previous regeneration bodies, and are modelled on the Welsh and Scottish development agencies that drove the successful regenerations of Cardiff Bay, Wales' silicon valley and Scotland's silicon glen.
Deputy prime minister John Prescott says he is looking to RDAs to "deliver more effective, integrated, regeneration programmes", and the agencies, which have £800m to pump into prime projects in their first year, offer a single point of contact for development teams bidding for Single Regeneration Budget cash and other publicly available development funds. They have taken over the regeneration functions of English Partnerships and the Rural Development Commission, and are headed by 12-strong boards whose members are said to have greater commercial awareness than their predecessors.
Although there is scepticism about the new agencies, the construction industry is willing them to work. Housebuilder Crest Nicholson's Ian Cawley, project director of the Bristol Harbourside urban regeneration scheme, is one of many in the industry eager to see what the agencies will accomplish. "Things have been pretty bogged down recently, particularly on the planning side. RDAs are there to spice things up a bit, and if they don't perform they'll get criticised, and rightly so. We are looking to them to provide some real entrepreneurial vigour," says Cawley.
"I believe our RDA is going to be very good news for us and the area," he says. "It should bring together a number of disparate initiatives, and if you can go through a single door to access regeneration finance, RDAs should speed things up quite a bit."
He stresses that speed is one of the key criteria that developers will judge RDAs on. "There is nothing worse than delay," he says. "We are a breed that likes to get in and get out. A five-year delay on a project kills it. With development, there is often just a brief window of opportunity, which local authorities don't always appreciate and which a more commercially minded RDA might."
He adds: "I hope RDAs will be able to exert pressure – push a bit, perhaps, behind the scenes. With sufficient government weight behind them, they should be placed at the right regional level to encourage local authorities to move on key planning decisions."
Planners are expected to consider the views of RDAs, but the agencies have not been given the power to make planning decisions. Some in the industry believe this authority should have been transferred to the agencies, and both the RICS and the British Urban Regeneration Association have suggested that the planning role of RDAs has been inadequately defined.
Alan Cherry, chairman of housebuilder Countryside Developments, and a member of the Eastern RDA board, does not agree. He says: "I have never believed that RDAs should have planning powers. Planning ultimately has to be the responsibility of democratically elected bodies.
"The government has made it clear that it expects the views of RDAs to be considered by regional planning conferences, and I'm confident that this will happen."
Cherry is also a member of the government-sponsored urban taskforce, which is looking at whether changes to legislation could benefit regeneration. The taskforce has yet to report, but Cherry says RDAs should not be criticised for failing to address areas that the taskforce is tackling. In short, if the planning system is changed to enable more rapid land assembly, it will be up to RDAs to help manage that change, rather than acting as the vehicle to bring it about.
RDAs should promote themselves. They need to state what they can and cannot do
Ken Dytor, chief executive, Urban Catalyst
Planning is not the only difficulty the agencies face. Just as important is the issue of funding and the types of financial sweeteners RDAs will be able to offer potential investors. The agencies have £800m a year but the RICS has criticised their limited ability to give long-term rental guarantees, and there has been some confusion over limits on their ability to borrow.
Ken Dytor, chief executive of developer Urban Catalyst, wants RDAs to clarify their role. He says: "One of the first things RDAs should do is promote themselves. The discussions over funding and planning have confused people. They need to state more clearly what they can and cannot do." Dytor raises another issue: "RDA performances will probably vary considerably across the regions, depending on the ability of the boards. I am concerned that some may not be commercially minded enough, which they have to be to succeed. Having said that, my initial contacts have been very promising."
The membership of boards has been the subject of much wrangling. The problem has been how to give sufficient representation to bodies such as trade unions and environmental organisations, without diluting the boards' entrepreneurial spirit.
The general feeling seems to be that board appointments could have been worse. Colin Mitchell, south-east business development manager for contractor Lovell, says: "There has been a genuine attempt to start with a clean sheet and give a voice to a range of interests. That gives them the capacity to achieve better results, as developments need broad community backing to be successful."
He adds: "Central government, inevitably, is sometimes insensitive to the detail in local issues. With local representation and a local focus, RDAs should find it easier to understand." So, will development look any different under RDAs? Most builders think not. Mitchell says: "There may well be more regeneration under the RDAs, but it is not the grant regime or scoring system that changes projects, it's changing needs and the quality of the solutions."
The biggest change for contractors is that the agencies will set up funding and contracts, instead of contractors trying to interest a local authority in a scheme and then scraping around for funding themselves.
Jim Hedges, head of regional funding for the South-east RDA, backs up this point, saying agencies may also be more proactive. "In the past, developers have been looking to, say, English Partnerships to see what help they can get. I think there's going to be a change of emphasis, where we look at potential projects and ask the private sector what it can do for us.
"The successful companies will be the innovative ones with funding ideas of their own, the right expertise and the ability to provide value for money." That sounds like the kind of approach that most of the building industry would be happy to live with.
Cherry also says RDAs will not change the character of schemes, although he adds: "Builders may have to learn to present schemes in a wider economic context."