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Making the most of regeneration sites. Portraits by Robert Greshoff

bco conference

Why do they do it? Commercial developers, that is - and office developers in particular? By all accounts their business is a hard grind, and in comparison with other ways of making money distinctly unrewarding. The obstacles, they tell us, are mountainous, the pay-back period much too long, the chances during that time of hitting a bust rather than a boom in the property cycle discouragingly high. And now government is telling them they can only use brownfield sites, they must clean them up themselves, and they must also deliver large chunks of community gain. So why do they go on banging their heads against such an unyielding wall? Is it just because it feels so good when they've finished?

Judging by the words of two main protagonists at the British Council for Offices (bco) conference, there must be more than this. The theme this year was 'New development opportunities on previously used sites', and both Roger Madelin of Argent (develepor of Brindleyplace in Birmingham), and Stockley Park's Andrew Vander Meersch, looked happy with what they have achieved.

Their attitude may be summarised as, 'Yes, we have managed so far, against all odds, but we need more help, of certain specific kinds, from government.' Whether planning minister Nick Raynsford's tour d'horizon keynote speech made them any happier on that score must be open to doubt.

Profiting through design

Opening the conference at Church House, Westminster, bco president Hugh Stebbing (of Lloyds tsb) explained why such conferences are needed. Developers and investors must be on the leading edge of workspace design and use. They need to keep in touch with the latest thinking over the broad property market, including such issues as mixed use. 'We must understand all the threats and opportunities and challenges,' he said. The Urban Task Force report spelled change for the industry; government policy was still in flux, but the property industry has to respond. Stebbing paid tribute to conference chairman Tim Battle for his role in making bco conferences happen.

The first session, presided over by Battle, focused on profit and sustainability - or as the conference programme catchily put it, 'Does maximising the profit element sit comfortably with sustainable design and procurement strategies?' The broad answer was, 'No, but sometimes you can coax, cajole or even force them to work together.' Jackie Sadek of the Paddington Regeneration Partnership was, in the light of recent events there, understandably upbeat. Development was not only going ahead, but going ahead in what the Government Office for London calls 'a mixed-use context', and - thanks to its good public transport links - 'as a virtually car-free development'.

The combat to 'change the mindset' to encourage mixed-use development had, she believed, been won. Decision-makers have belatedly realised that creating ghettos is a poor investment - 'Rich people need poor people to service their lifestyles' - and Paddington Basin will have 25 per cent social housing. It will also have unified public realm design standards and signage.

What, after so many decades of inactivity, triggered off all the development? The Heathrow Express and a new private hospital were factors, but there had also been 'metaphysical triggers'. Not that hard-bitten property folk had suffered any Road-to-Damascus conversion or wished to join the chattering classes. Rather they had seen that their bottom line depends on doing things differently. Developers are realising that 'if you don't wake up and respond, you won't get the sites'.

There was much talk about housing in this session. Mike Cohen, Guinness Trust chief executive and a former banker, wanted to ban the word sustainability ('Nobody knows what it means'). He prefers talking about building communities that stand the test of time. This requires partnerships with other developers but, he says, has to be about more than just buildings. Many developers now talk about mixed use and sustainability; 'hardly any of them do it'.

Housing associations had made the mistake of getting rid of architects and relying on package dealers. Good design, Cohen argued, is even more important to social housing, because tenants will have to live in it longer, will have less spare space, and as non-owners they may treat their homes 'a bit more roughly'. But you couldn't generalise, 'I've lived next to owner-occupiers who made my life hell.'

Housing associations always seek to minimise revenues so as to keep rents down for their tenants who are often poor, but have to pay the going rate to their professionals. Paradoxically, he said 'this makes us more sensitive to profit. We have to behave more commercially.'

Improving city living

Nick Raynsford, minister of state for housing and planning, appeared in euphoric and sometimes almost Panglossian mood. He had plenty to say about housing too. ppg3 on housing was about 'housing growth as an opportunity not a threat' because high-quality housing development can serve to revitalise towns and cities. 'The notion that urban living is second best needs to be overturned,' he said. 'We want to make our towns and cities places that people choose to live.' Recent press coverage 'has demonstrated how disillusioned people are with little boxes ... and with unimaginative layouts.'

The forthcoming revised ppg3 will be about creating better designed places where people will want to live. 'When applying for planning permission, housebuilders will have to demonstrate how they have taken the need for good design into account.' And he pledged that the government will support on appeal authorities who refused schemes on grounds of poor design. Design will have to include provision for transport. As he noted, up to 40 per cent of development is taken up by road space, hard standing for cars and turning spaces. And more than half of new development is built at less than 20 dwellings per hectare - much like Los Angeles: 'In a small and densely populated island, we simply cannot afford such profligate use of land.' This sounded as though it might be a plea to the office industry to think about housing - and perhaps it will in developments like the proposed mega-scheme at Elephant and Castle.

In his overview of the planning scene, Raynsford made a point of attacking the 'myth' of a north-south divide. Not only does the press ignore the Midlands, but he said, it misses the fact that disparities within regions are at least as great as those between them. In Yorkshire and Humberside, gdp per head in York is 30 per cent above the national average, in Barnsley 35 per cent below it. In the south east, Berkshire's gdp is 38 per cent above national average but East Sussex 26 per cent below. Moreover for every 100 people who left England's three northern regions, 95 moved in. Net loss is only 10,000 a year, and of those who make the much-hyped north- south leap, many are retiring to the south coast.

Moving on to the retail market, the minister claimed the sequential approach to retail development, as expressed in ppg6, has been a great success. It has been tested in the market-place and 'come out with flying colours. It is one of the most popular planning policies in years - with strong cross-party and public support'. Its basic tenet, that town centres are the right place for retail and 'other commercial functions', was hard to fault. The policies must be there to support the town centre and reduce the need to travel.

He said that regional planning guidance (rpg), the ground rules of which will shortly be published in ppg11, are an essential framework for the activities of the new regional development authorities. rpgs will have a broader spatial role and incorporate transport strategies as a context for local transport plans. The government's aim is to promote 'the most co-ordinated, thoughtful and realistic approach to planning and regeneration for many decades'. Some initiatives will take time to bite - 'a supertanker takes time to turn round' - but together he believed they will provide a sound framework for sustainable development.

Brindleyplace - mixed use

Understandably the minister declined to speculate on the chances of tax incentives being used to encourage brownfield development in cities, as urged the Urban Task Force report. That of course is a matter for the chancellor to decide. But if he needed examples of how public and private participation could indeed produce the sort of regeneration the government would like, it came in the next session, on Brindleyplace, chaired by Andrew Murdoch of Fitzroy Robinson. Battle described Brindleyplace as 'one of the most successful mixed use developments of the last decade'. Argent Group's Roger Madelin was not quarrelling with that verdict, but complained that it had taken the London-obsessed media a long time to discover a Birmingham success - and criticised the Rogers group for just having ignored it.

Keys to its success included having 6.8ha in single ownership. But he added, 'Brindleyplace happened because Rosehaugh (the previous owner and site assembler) went bust,' and because Birmingham city council, having received £26 million from Rosehaugh, did not exact a further huge premium from Argent, to which it would have been entitled. 'That's a very important lesson for any local authority.'

It also helped that the scheme's housebuilder Berkeley Homes 'believed that living in cities was a good idea'. Events justified that belief: Berkeley sold half its units off plan, and the value of those homes has since increased two and a half times. One early piece of Argent development - the waterside area with bars and restaurants - was clearly a loss leader: the company spent £450,000 on it to produce real estate worth only £200,000. But it was essential, said Madelin, to 'get life and activity in'.

One lesson he drew from Brindleyplace: it isn't enough just to have good architects, you also need a responsive client. The promoters of the National Sealife Centre assured Argent they would employ a top-rank architect; they commissioned Foster & Partners. But the relationship did not work (and, he might have added, the design build job showed that procurement method at its least useful). 'It's widely recognised as the worst Foster building,' claimed Madelin, adding that Sir Norman hated it so much he wouldn't visit it. Discussions are apparently under way with Ken Shuttleworth at Fosters as to how the roof might be improved.

An unusual success is Brindleyplace's car park, where almost no expense was spared - 'cctv 24 hours a day and innovative things like public toilets and glass lifts,' noted Madelin, plus convenience retail outlets and a baguette shop. Argent 'broke the rules' by providing more lifts and more exits than recommended in standard engineering advice on how to do a car park. Insistence on a quality parking environment reflected the fact that for most business users, this is the first impression of Brindleyplace. The car park is already full with Brindleyplace only two thirds completed. 'People who don't work there will be got out in due course,' warned Madelin. Walking through Brindleyplace is no hardship and it has public transport nearby.

The mixed-use nature of the overall scheme is also reflected in individual buildings, said Madelin. No 8, for example, has been designed as mixed- use, with a corporate restaurant, flexible office space ranging from hot- desking to conventional short leases, five storeys of serviced apartments for lease, and the ability to convert office space to residential if needed. If evidence of office developer interest in retail was required, here it was.

Part of the objective of having a mixed-use development is to create a place that is a destination in itself. But also with many employers competing to attract and keep talent, an attractive environment is essential, reasoned Madelin. So developers taking account of feng shui is not entirely fanciful. An attractive, clean environment does affect behaviour, said Madelin, who also has 37 full-time security officers.

Architect Tim Stonor of the Space Syntax Laboratory revisited Brindleyplace to check the predictions of pedestrian throughput he made when advising Terry Farrell on the masterplanning for the Rosehaugh scheme. Most routes, he found, performed in line with, or better than, forecast. He regretted that one axis was deadened by the forbiddingly private nature of the housing element although the main waterside route was attracting more people than forecast. Public spaces and links between them were crucial to commercial success: people take a short cut, spend money, and return. Some links had too little pedestrian capacity; some buildings were not friendly to the public spaces they adjoined, notably the long-frontage bt building in the main square (though this was stoutly defended by Madelin, since security required a solid ground floor, and the tenants were delighted with what had been provided inside).

Jack Pringle of Pringle Brandon presented a brief critique of three buildings: Porphyrios Associates' ('a landmark for Birmingham'); Stanton Williams', ('A real beauty ... but doesn't work so well as a machine to work in'); and Sidell Gibson's BT building of which he was critical of the positioning of columns and circulation. Madelin vigorously defended the office layout grids against all criticism, and convinced the architects present that he would be a terrific, if tough, client. Where fainter hearts might have accepted the Pringle analysis without demur, Madelin came out fighting. If the positioning of a staircase looked odd, it was because it made it easier to split the floor on several levels, ditto pinch points on plan. He did agree that the early waterside element of the scheme could be redeveloped to a higher density, but doubted if Birmingham could absorb much more office space. Lessons for developers? Design is absolutely key to mixed use; you can't ignore the market; and 'local authorities can't be trusted - they're elected ... if they get lots of money, they may want to spend it on school roofs'.

Liability on used sites

The afternoon began with 'Key Factors for developing previously used sites', chaired by Phil Kirby of British Gas' property division. It produced a fine crop of exotic terminology. To Jackie Sadek's 'disincentivise' in the first morning session it added 'downside financial risk', 'retro liability', and - from lawyer David Taylor of Berwin Leighton - 'pie- crust contract', concerning liability for what is on the surface of land rather than what is below it. (Incidentally, new rules mean that soon land used for car parking will not have to be cleaned to the same extent as land for housing - so don't let kids eat dirt in the local car park.) kpmg's Charlie Fulford wants flexibility to pay more compensation to land owners in order to avoid the delays of compulsory purchase; and argued that a recent eu ruling means that the public sector will have to play a more direct role by cleaning up sites and then selling to developers.

Johann Meeke of Aon Risk Consultants explained the ways in which companies could limit liability for later emergence of pollution; while Taylor warned of the importance of keeping accurate records of who has what liability. 'Liability can come back and bite you 15 or 20 years after,' he said. The cost of storage means that solicitors now throw away records much earlier. Malcolm Smith, Newham's director of environment, said that in order to keep up development control throughput, many councils had got rid of their design professionals. They now realised this was a mistake and were recruiting again.

Smith believed some densities in London borough Unitary Development Plans (udps) were absurdly low. Speed in development control should not be obtained at the cost of getting the answer wrong, but plan-making must be speeded up. When he arrived at Newham the udp had taken four and a half years. 'It was immediately out of date,' he said. The new plan was completed in nine months, and included the concept of maximum opportunity zones to deal with difficult sites. He was not impressed by Raynsford's speech: 'It was at best flimflam and waffle, at worst ... well, worse!'

Stockley Park - time is money

aj publishing director Paul Finch chaired the penultimate session on Stockley Park, in which masterplanner Mike Lowe of Arup Associates confessed that a contaminated site was 'much more fun'. This scheme, now in its third phase, had been 'a great opportunity. You can move things around and do what you wouldn't otherwise'. At Stockley Park they started with 12m of rubbish over 64ha and no B1 use. Consequently the developers were required by the authority to keep the expected light industrial buildings away from existing housing.

This was acheived by pushing all the rubbish to the north and landscaping a golf course on top of it, then putting in lakes and tree-lined boulevards and zones of differently-sized buildings. As successive phases developed, the buildings had evolved and the development become denser.

There was a sense of nostalgia for the days when Stuart Lipton was closely involved with the scheme. 'Stuart taught us a lot in the early days,' said Lowe, 'and gave us a hard time as well'. Similarly Andrew Vander Meersch of the current owner, Stockley Park Consortium, recalled Lipton's vision. Vander Meersch is proud of 'the largest park created in London this century'; of an improving modal split which has seen a reduction of 400 commuter cars over the last year, with users relying on improved public transport; of the sheer quality of the buildings; of the relaxed feel of the place; and of the clarity of landscape plan ('unlike Cambridge Science Park, where you don't know where you are').

He was less happy with the long time-scales involved (four years of spending money without immediate return) and the defectiveness of developers' crystal balls ('We've only just got back to the rent levels of the late 80s'). He finds it difficult to see how such a process can be sustained in future, and believes the government has to play a greater role. The market is growing more and more competitive, he said. Originally, 'Americans came here because we spoke English. They're now going straight into Europe. We have to fight if we want to keep them.'

Quantity surveyor Paul Morrell of Davis Langdon Everest provided an excellent short guide to the realities of contamination and remediation. He recalled investigating contamination in Surrey Docks - there was so much gas that the drill core caught fire. Of the £400 million annual cost of treating contaminated land, only £50 million is direct public subsidy. Britain needs 180,000ha for new housing; there is 200,000ha of contaminated land. Unfortunately the two figures don't quite line up. Methods of remediating land have developed remarkably, with bio-remediation and use of funguses and steam enabling land at Consett to be cleaned up in 36 weeks compared to what would have been years using conventional methods. But outside London many sites simply don't repay remediation costs - and he noted that one of the biggest polluters of land today was the construction industry.

So was Stockley Park all worth it? Finch asked Vander Meersch. Yes, came the answer, but there were problems. Among other things, negotiations with planning authority and local community need to be faster. Time is money, developers' time is big money.

Taking the initiative

The final session, 'A New Agenda', chaired by Financial Times public policy correspondent Alan Pike, was kicked off by Sir Peter Hall - not, Pike assured us, the thespian knight, but Bartlett planning professor, Town and Country Planning Association chairman, and Urban Task Force member. This Peter Hall believes the new London mayor is going to have a great impact, with his responsibility for producing spatial, economic and transport strategies. He will, said Sir Peter, have some money to use for stimulating regeneration, and will take control of the tube.

But here is the rub. It isn't, Hall believes, on the tube that the investment should go. He has identified half a dozen key regeneration sites on Railtrack land, at points where 'trains pass like ships in the night', where there ought to be interchange hubs and lots of high density development - sites like Shoreditch in east London and Old Oak in the west. So who will take the lead? If Railtrack can't, he hopes Sir Alastair Morton's Strategic Rail Authority will.

This provoked a cautionary note from Railtrack's property director John O'Brien. In principle, yes, it ought to act as developer. But Railtrack's first duty is to keep trains running. Demand for rail services is expanding and it may need more land. His message: sort out rail needs first, don't be too hasty about development.

Then enter Dickon Robinson, Peabody's development director. He believes London, even with present shortcomings, is such a wonderful place that its population is bound to go on booming. To catch the tide, London needs new consortia and new building methods - faster, cheaper - and the mayor working with new partners. Moreover, rather than wait for planning authorities to dream up community gains, developers should, he suggests, talk to the community and come up with packages of benefits to put to the planners.

The ensuing panel discussion raised worries about the kind of architectural competition which leaves winners out in the cold and someone else producing a watered down scheme; and why good design and sustainable features do not sell houses or attract housebuyers to pay a little more. Hall said the Urban Task Force had been told repeatedly that the Compulsory Purchase Order procedure was 'virtually dead', and though London's housing need might be largely met on brownfield sites, it would be a miracle if 'ROSE' (Rest of South-East) achieved anything like that.

However in the end the overall tone was remarkably upbeat. Finch noted signs of buoyancy in the projects that the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment was seeing. It has looked recently at three big regeneration schemes - Paddington Basin, Battersea Power Station and the kpf tower in the City. But not everything could happen at the same time, he said. In Docklands while the Jubilee Line Extension and Limehouse Link were being built, other schemes had to wait. Paddington Basin was happening; two other big brownfield rail sites - Bishopsgate and Kings Cross - might. Would they catch the development cycle? No guarantee. 'But,' he asked, 'if they don't, is that really such a problem?'

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