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Can we really blame private sector developers for testing the limits of a city without a plan?

In 2012 Berkeley set out details of an incentive plan under which its six directors would share a windfall, then estimated at £290m, writes Will Hurst

Will

The leading housebuilder Berkeley Group has a slogan: ‘Designed for Life’.

The words - oddly reminiscent of a mid-90s single by the Manic Street Preachers and proudly displayed on countless high-end hoardings in London and the South-East - are 90 per cent meaningless puff and 10 per cent indicative of what Berkeley would like you to think about it as a brand.

What the slogan suggests is that this is a volume housebuilder which is unusually concerned with architectural quality and with meeting the exacting needs of the customers who will live in its homes.

The claim has some merit. Berkeley does produce a better-designed product than most of its competitors. It regularly wins awards for its work, voluntarily meets minimum space standards set out in the London Housing Design Guide in all its homes and - through brands such as St James - appoints the likes of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners, Fletcher Priest Architects and Foster + Partners for its schemes.

But Berkeley is also a FTSE 250 company, which in 2012 set out details of a ‘long-term incentive plan’ under which its six directors would share a windfall - then estimated at £290 million - if demanding performance targets, including returning a cool £1.7 billion to shareholders, were hit by 2021.

Consider that little nugget together with this developer’s increasing penchant for skyscrapers and a question emerges that seems central to our ongoing Skyline campaign: are Berkeley and its architects aiming high in the capital in the interests of Londoners and of place-making, or in the interests of the developer’s own shareholders?

At Kidbrooke Village, where Berkeley proposes a 31-storey Studio Egret West-designed tower should stand in splendid isolation in a low-rise and suburban part of south-east London, formerly home to the Ferrier Estate (pictured), local MP Clive Efford is in no doubt, accusing the housebuider of ‘naked greed’ in pursuing the plan.

But if you happened to be one of Berkeley’s shareholders, greed would surely be one of the attributes you would most like the firm to possess.

In other words, can we really blame the private sector developer for testing the limits of building tall in a city with booming demand for homes, no spatial plan and only vague guidance from an ultra-capitalist mayor over where and how to build a skyscraper?

New garden cities

This week’s AJ also presents a proposal for a very different type of urban development, 50 miles north-west of London at Calvert in Buckinghamshire.

The theoretical project, put forward by 5th Studio, is an intriguing challenge to the Wolfson Economics Prize competition for a new garden city. It questions whether a garden city is what we need and the assumption - implicit in the brief - that the state should stay out of such matters.

Holbrook’s proposal chimes with ideas set out in A Clockwork Jerusalem, the UK’s show at the Venice Biennale, and comments made last week by legendary planner Peter Hall, that argue for the return of long-term visionary planning in the UK. Momentum is building, so watch this space. will.hurst@emap.com

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