In this venture Madelin follows in the footsteps of Sir Stuart Lipton at Broadgate and Elliott Bernerd at Paddington Basin, not to mention the Reichmann brothers at Canary Wharf in Docklands. But Madelin, a straight-talking
42-year-old, takes a much more historic perspective on his scheme. "When was the last 58.5 acre chunk of central London to be developed by one hand? You have to go back to the feudal estates developed in the early 1800s, if you want to be dramatic about it."
Certainly, the scale of the project is vast: development could amount to 800,000 m2, including 1100 homes, and the construction cost could be as high as £1.5bn. The project will be a test of a private developer's ability to deliver an ambitious urban regeneration scheme: London Regeneration with Foster and Partners failed in an attempt on the same site back in 1992. The project will also be a chance to demonstrate that current government-backed policies of high-density, mixed-use inner-city regeneration, of which Madelin is an ardent devotee, will result in better cities.
There was, therefore, a great deal of interest in the consultation document on the scheme, published this week by Argent St George, the joint-venture developer. This is the third such document published since Argent St George won the contract in March 2001, but the first to present urban design concepts for the site.
These designs show a distinct family resemblance to Brindleyplace, Argent's award-winning, mainly commercial development in central Birmingham. Instead of a mini-Manhattan of skyscrapers, as at Canary Wharf or Paddington Basin, we have groundscrapers rising from seven to 12 storeys in height on traditional tight-knit British street grids. And instead of Foster's monoculture of office buildings, we have a mixed development of offices, housing, leisure and retail. And in place of Foster's expansive new Regent's Park we have paved, pedestrianised public arenas encircled by new and historic buildings.
The high-density, mixed-use design concept goes with today's political grain. It accords with principles enunciated by Lord Rogers in his Towards an Urban Renaissance report, which were adopted by the government in its urban white paper of November 2000, passed down to regional and local authorities, and will be reviewed in John Prescott's urban summit later this month. The result is that, as Madelin puts it: "The policies of central government, regional government, with the Greater London Authority, and local government, with Camden and Islington councils, all appear to be almost entirely in line with each other. We are putting forward our proposals into a very benign policy environment."
It goes without saying that there will still be a struggle over the final plan: Camden council has welcomed the framework document as "a basis for discussion", though its environment director, Peter Bishop, says: "There are still fundamental issues for us to resolve." The good news is that the two things that property developers get most worked up about have already been resolved. Camden wanted 50% of all housing to be affordable, in line with the housing policy of the GLA. This was accepted in September by the government's planning inspector without objection by Argent St George. The same went for the provision of car-free housing "possibly up to about the 75% level".
Bishop's "fundamental issues" include the type of affordable housing provided – the council favours family homes, which would eat up more of the developer's land than one- and two-bedroom flats. Other issues are the ability of the transport infrastructure to cope with a large influx of residents and office workers, and the question of how to physically and socially integrate the development into central London.
We’ve had some fantastic conversations with local residents who say this has just got to be of international significance
Roger Madelin, Argent St George
Consultation with local residents, many of them belonging to deprived communities including asylum seekers, is one of the most sensitive aspects of the planning process at King's Cross. In the words of Michael Edwards, planning lecturer at the Bartlett School of Architecture and Planning at University College, London: "Residents are extremely nervous about developers' intentions 10 years after London Regeneration and Foster proposed 1 million ft2 of offices and hardly any housing or community facilities."
Far from barricading himself in his Piccadilly offices, Madelin embraces consultation. "Of course there are suspicions, and we can't pretend that we're going to be able to passify or change them, but what I've said since the minute we were selected is that I'm the chief executive of Argent, and I will go and see anyone at anytime and answer their questions to the best of my ability.
"We have always been conscious that consultation fatigue may be very prevalent out there, but the reality this time is that people can see out of their windows that the Channel Tunnel Rail Link is emerging. We tell them that it's a fantastic opportunity that's going to happen around them, so why not get excited about it? We'll teach you where you want to be taught, and we'll learn from you where we need to, and let's enjoy it."
As well as attending meetings ranging in size from "one person in a cafe" to open debates with 150 people, Argent has published a series of three consultation documents distributed to local residents. Madelin does not expect to submit outline planning application until next summer, after which statutory consultation by the local authority will formally begin.
Argent's measured process of planning and consultation wins praise from Bob West, head of the King's Cross planning team at Camden council. "It's steady, reasonably transparent and responsive so far," he says.
Developers and architects often fear that consultation will entangle their ambitious schemes in petty local issues. Not so Madelin. "We've had some fantastic conversations with local residents, who say this has just got to be of international significance. They say they want this scheme to provide opportunities for everyone who lives there now and their kids. In fact, some of the ethnic minorities have the grandest visions. They say, why can't this be like Hong Kong? Why can't we have thousands of people working there in international companies? Well, yes we agree with them. But I think they're also saying, let's try and shake off some of the stuffiness of London.
"I'm sure that they feel this will provide more opportunities over more years than taking a more traditional approach with low-density development like Surbiton or the back streets of Camden."
Argent St George
Ian Simpson Architects
Consulting structural engineer
Alan Conisbee and Associates
BDSP Partnership For more info see www.theurbanjungle.org
The urban summit takes place on 31 October and 1 November in Birmingham.
Developer Argent St George Architects and urban designers Allies and Morrison, Porphyrios Associates, EDAW Landscape architect Townshend Landscape Architects