Prescott’s regeneration policy is two years old – and next week it will take its first big test at the urban summit. So what have the flagship brownfield schemes taught the government so far?
No wonder construction companies prefer to build on greenfield land. Compared to developing a brownfield site, it’s a trouble-free undertaking. In recent years, attempts to develop urban sites have been dogged by planning rows, funding shortfalls, and legal disputes – and this is despite the government’s commitment to urban regeneration and the publication of its urban white paper two years ago.

Next week, an urban summit in Birmingham will assess the success of the government’s development policy. The urban white paper was intended to kick-start an urban renaissance, and one of its key measures was to establish public-private urban regeneration companies all over the UK. To give them a boost, substantial funds have made available for public services in towns and cities – £33bn a year by 2003. The government also tweaked planning policy to encourage high-quality, high-density building in areas of urban renewal.

One project affected by the white paper has been Greenwich Millennium Village, one of the government’s blueprint sites for urban development. Its short but chequered history highlights some of the problems faced by private firms working with public partners in trying to deliver large mixed-use schemes.

The project was delayed for 18 months because of arguments over planning gain with Greenwich council, and partners underestimated the complexity of developing such a large mixed-use scheme, which caused long delays in the signing of formal agreements. There was also a falling-out between the architect HTA and the developers Countryside and Taylor Woodrow when HTA accused the developers of watering down its competition-winning design.

The future success of Labour’s development policy will depend on whether it learns from these past problems. At Greenwich there are some encouraging signs. In June this year, Prescott set up an advisory panel headed by Lord Richard Rogers and Sir Stuart Lipton to monitor Greenwich and other millennium villages. Countryside Properties chairman Alan Cherry has also learned valuable lessons, and says that planning gain and legal issues must be resolved before projects go out to tender.

For Cherry, the urban white paper is actually working in his company’s favour at Greenwich. The government’s demand for higher density housing has reached the notice of local authority planning departments and as a result Cherry expects to increase the density at Greenwich for the next two phases.

Another large-scale development where the changes in planning guidance have smoothed the relationship between developer and local authority councils is at King’s Cross. The high-density, mixed-use scheme proposed by joint-venture developer Argent St George is in accordance with the white paper and Lord Rogers’ influential report Towards an Urban Renaissance.

Argent chief executive Roger Madelin is delighted and says that his company is putting forward its proposals into a “ very benign policy environment”. In return for allowing high-density housing, local authorities are also getting something from a developer that they wouldn’t have thought possible a few years ago – an agreement that 50% of housing will be affordable.