What is the most frustrating thing about trying to do regeneration? What is holding us back? What are the mistakes that are being made right now? How can the whole process be made to work better? To answer these questions, Building assembled an architect, a developer, a planning expert, a consultant and a communications expert into a think tank. Here they talked candidly about the issues we must address; Phil Clark was in the chair.
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Who are they?
Peter Cleary is head of retail development at Land Securities.
The company has undertaken schemes such as the Bullring in Birmingham and has plans to regenerate Exeter and York.
Michael Whitwell is joint managing director of White Young Green, a multidisciplinary consultant that is working on schemes in Hull, Kidderminster in Worcestershire and Bexleyheath in Kent.
John Forsyth is a partner in Roger Tym & Partners, which works on economic project and programme development for regeneration schemes. He has 30 years’ experience in town planning.
Martin Winch, a partner in M&N Associates, is a trained architect. He specialises in communications for regeneration schemes such as the £900m Western Riverside in Bath.
Gordon Carey is chairman of architect Carey Jones, a practice he co-founded in 1987, and which has spread from its northern base to become a major player in schemes in Leeds, Newcastle, Doncaster, Stevenage in Hertfordshire and Wandsworth in London.
This is the area where the panel felt the deepest frustration. Ironically, the problem is lack of movement. Good transport links are necessary for successful regeneration but there has been a scandalous lack of activity, co-ordination and funding from central government. You could say they felt quite strongly on this point.
- Carey There is a big difference between the words said by the government and councils, and the level of actual funding. This is a big problem with the Northern Way initiative [the “development corridor” connecting Hull, Newcastle and Liverpool, proposed by deputy prime minister John Prescott in October last year].
- Whitwell It takes such a long time to get major bits of infrastructure completed. The Jubilee Line took 20 years before we achieved something. Now it is a key plank in the regeneration of the Olympic area.
- Cleary We have to elevate ourselves beyond rhetoric because rhetoric’s all we have. It’s just so obvious that by getting people out of cars and creating good public transport links you will change places. Birmingham has been trying for a long time to get the next line on Midlands Metropolitan rail link. That would completely change things but it’s everybody’s responsibility, so it’s nobody’s.
- Carey Should transport be self-funding? In most European countries it’s not, even in the USA. A return trip by rail from London to Leeds is £130 – what a ridiculous amount of money for a four-hour return journey. It should be subsidised.
- Forsyth There is a major problem of fragmentation in the process of allocating Treasury resources through the Department of Transport to local schemes. The difficult questions and appraisal in that process leads ultimately to nothing happening.
- Cleary The most frightening thing is the money and time spent on feasibility studies and consultation exercises. It’s all abortive.
- Forsyth The problem when bidding for transport schemes is the uncertain future. You can’t quantify future returns with certainty.
- Whitwell The privatisation of train and bus operators has made it difficult, as the operators have a business horizon of few months.
- Carey You can’t get them together. You can’t get alignment within one organisation such as Network Rail. How can you get it with any more? Long-termism doesn’t seem to exist in this country at the moment.
- Forsyth You can’t look at Land Securities and expect it to finance transport.
- Cleary It has to be funded out of public purse. Where urban regeneration is successful it generates enormous economic upsides as well huge civic pride. Look at Glasgow and Dublin today. We have to try and get a spread of activity. It’s already happened in Exeter with the Meteorological Office relocating there.
A return trip by rail from London to Leeds is £130 – what a ridiculous amount
Gordon Carey, Carey jones
The feeling was that there are too many groups with an interest in new schemes, and too many regulations to meet. More red tape is on the way in the form of rules on environmental sustainability.
- Forsyth The need for joined-up thinking is critically important. It is getting very difficult. Let me give an example. We are working in Devonport, one of most messed up bits of Plymouth. In the middle of it is some Ministry of Defence land. There is also need for a LIFT healthcare project and a new secondary school. There are issues of current housing provision and a need for new housing. We have to work with the regional development agency, EP, the city council and Devon Regeneration Company – I’ve got their pen here with me. We are trying to get community direction for this scheme but it is horrendously complicated to try and tie all strands together.
Considered a mess, despite good work from some planning officers.
- Forsyth How will the new system of local development frameworks work out? I have no problem with the theory, but the transition into reality will be very hard. There are a lot of authorities finishing off structure plans and some are struggling to see how they can integrate the two.
- Winch “Struggling” is being kind. Some don’t understand the impact of new legislation or are burying their heads in the sand. Also the resource problem at planning officer level is horrendous.
- Forsyth A lot of areas do not provide a comprehensive set of documents for future development plans as required, which does not give enough certainty and direction to the process.
- Cleary The rules of engagement are changing but that’s nothing new. The key thing is strong leadership and effective officers who are competent and confident. It tends not to happen when people are out of depth, overworked, stretched and not focused.
- Carey There are great people in planning authorities but they are overstretched. And the actual decisions are getting better. It’s true that the product is getting better. The problem is the timeframe of the whole process from getting a site to completion, not just planning approvals. It’s about 10 years.
- Cleary Public money is too centralised; we’ve got to get back to local authorities having sovereignty over what happens.
I remember a recent white paper that proposed that local authorities keep half of increased business rates from major schemes. If they can see money coming from major projects, they can realign and reprogramme their budgets. It would create sense of urgency. At the moment there is no direct gain for councils.
There were differences of opinion over whether there is a skills crisis among regeneration practitioners …
- Cleary I’m not sure there is a skills crisis. There are a lot of people, it’s how they are managed and let. There’s a lot expertise, it’s about putting it together.
- Forsyth A lot of regeneration practitioners in the public sector don’t understand how private-sector investment decisions are made. It’s not necessarily that complicated.
- Whitwell A crisis is going too far. We do have a problem with technology operators, though. We have to manipulate more and more powerful technology. The number of university courses has decreased substantially in the past 10 years. We are not producing enough people to use this technology. It could be a real problem.
- Winch Another skills shortage is transport planning. There’s a huge shortage. I’ve seen the figures, it’s horrendous.
- Carey We’re still suffering from the loss of skills at the end of the 1980s and early 1990s. You still struggle now to get people with those skills. And we’re in a more complex environment, and we still have the same fees.
- Winch My son is doing civic pride at school, so at least at a young age we are teaching the right values.
- Cleary I took my son and friends to Birmingham to explain what we did there and they all got it. They all want to be chartered surveyors [laughter]. I think there needs to be specific education in regeneration. Most people stumble into it.
TownsA huge amount of work needs to be done on urban centres across the UK. But how should the government prioritise it? The panel were in agreement that ignoring market towns would be disastrous.
Public money is too centralised. We’ve got to give councils sovereignty
Peter Cleary, Land Securities
- Cleary There is a growing sense that as the metropolitan areas are sorted out there is migration of activity away from medium and small towns. You don’t have as strong a leadership there. I see those towns as the next point of activity.
- Forsyth There’s a big debate in the South-west on this. The pressure through the government is to focus on urban settlements, but the region is still mostly rural. There’s a feeling that the urban renaissance is all very well in itself but don’t forget the rest.
The panel was not convinced that regeneration inspired by Prince Charles’ notion of English heritage was a good idea.
- Winch What’s the average age of a resident? About 72?
- Carey It’s hardly created the right economy. The problem with it is that there is a misunderstanding that you can change the social agenda through architectural interpretation.
- Winch Employment opportunities have to be created; that should be the driver.
- Cleary I suspect it’s not authentic.
- Winch It’s chocolate box. It’s got this mythical status because of its royal approval. It’s pretty but that’s all it is.
It is okay to set affordable housing quotas for developers, but not to change them.
- Carey If you’re not going to change the fundamental way affordable housing is provided you have to make it certain. If you change a quota, it takes out the certainty out of funding arrangements and development appraisals. Affordable housing should be set and agreed so you can set land values. If there is variable of 50% or 25% social housing you can blow a scheme.
- Forsyth Most housebuilders are in there for the long term and are land bankers. I have no problem with housebuilders getting a sensible return. It’s how you structure that process properly to get housebuilders to invest. The strange cycle of financing affordable housing on that back of private development, I’m not sure that’s effective.
- Forsyth There has been a lot of positive movement over the past five to 10 years in term of practice and schemes coming to fulfilment. The RDAs have been a very strong influence, particularly in the South-west, and helped lot of projects to move forward.
- Cleary REITs (Real Estate Investment Trusts) will make regeneration projects more accessible and liquid and widen the investment base. They could create a sense of ownership and fiscal links to schemes. We are seeing gathering sense of momentum in respect of government to address issues.
- Carey I’m 54 and a lot of people my age have moved back in the city centre. Making use of the public realm and street life is easier in the UK than a lot of people think. Take Amsterdam or Copenhagen. People are in those cities spend more time outside and it’s colder than the UK.
The view from- the developer
The principal thing that has happened is that there is total awareness that sustainable communities are a prerequisite for success throughout the country. Sustainability is not just about energy, it is about returning to the village – the need for jobs and civic amenities to be grouped together. What we must not do is fall in love with something mechanistic: a set of rules. This is about creative ideas, the highest common denominator of quality, not the lowest denominator of cost
Sir Stuart Lipton chairman, Stanhope