The odd couple
Developer Tony Pidgley and Terry Farrell's three courtyard homes near Richmond are just one element of their shared interest in the advancement of housing Terry Farrell and Tony Pidgley are something of a mutual admiration society. Different personalities certainly. But both are committed to changing housing provision and to getting things done. Pidgley (left) was in a particularly good mood when we met; his Berkeley Group (and the local authority) having just received English Partnership's award of best UK Partnership in Regeneration for Gunwharf Quays in Portsmouth. With 316 homes, 19,500m 2of shopping and a similar area for leisure, it has become a visitor destination alongside the city's historic ships.
(Pidgley is happily isolated from the Spinnaker Tower project, though it sits on the Gunwharf harbour-mouth site. ) Gunwharf is more typical of Berkeley today than the Petersham project near Richmond(see pages 26-33), though Pidgley would have another go at the latter if the right site came up. Petersham is at least on a recycled site, as are more than 90 per cent of the units Berkeley is developing. The Berkeley Group is no longer heavily dependent on detached properties in the Home Counties and large apartments in central London. It now includes St George (which describes itself as 'London's leading mixed-use residential developer') and Berkeley Community Villages ('established to create new sustainable settlements'). Change, and thus opportunity, are in the air.
As for Terry Farrell & Partners, the big buildings for a time shifted the practice's focus from housing, but the growth of masterplanning work and the increasingly mixed use of schemes in general have brought it back. From the mid-1990s the practice has been re-establishing a housing interest. The practice's mode of working is not just to develop a particular scheme but to use the research that goes into that as an occasion for exploring wider issues. So the layout of the three Petersham houses is not only a use of courtyard planning to get three very large (600m 2) houses on relatively modest-sized plots. It has also awakened an interest in courtyard housing more generally, both the domestic experience of an intensive relationship between indoors and contained outdoor space, and as a housing type that can potentially contribute to the densification of housing. Pidgley, too, is interested in this potential: independently Berkeley has been replanning a number of its sites to increase densities (though not yet with courtyard housing).
In an apparent warm architect-developer afterglow following Petersham's completion, Pidgley and Farrell will go together - just the two of them - to look critically at what they have built and what they can learn. Pidgley wants to work with Farrell again. He asserts that he is 'a great believer that architecture has to move forward', and is looking to the architect 'to create something that is different'; for the practice to be 'visionary'. By that he means having ideas that move housing on rather than the creation of signature buildings. But he also needs attention to detail; for the architect to care about 'storage in the bathroom'.
Part of Pidgley's warming to the architect, more than do some developers, is because he sees that in future 'regeneration is the name of the game'. As Farrell says, 'urban housing has always been more design-led'.
Pidgley is also aware of a greater expectation and openness among potential residents, based on travel, on experiences of more imaginative new architecture as workplaces and public buildings, and on consumer purchases more generally such as cars. 'People are ready for change. People want exciting architecture', he says.
One of the difficulties of such a brownfield-site future is making these sites attractive as destinations, as locales where people want to live. Pidgley feels he can see the opportunities in sites but needs the architect to realise the vision. For example, Berkeley has bought the Royal Arsenal site at Woolwich, with many existing buildings, several listed.More than half of the 1,200 new housing units will be in refurbished buildings.
Housing 'must be exciting and different', he says. 'We have got to be much more into it as developers.' But he also wants to get more out - Pidgley notes unsentimentally that 'we play with the design to get more value out of it [the site]'.
He will not to be drawn on the issue of affordability (though his schemes, of course, have quotas of affordable housing). He does not see affordability as a big issue in this country, not worse than 30 years ago, rather that expectations have risen. But Farrell chips in that one problem is the small size of the private rented sector in Britain, very different from say Hong Kong, something that could be changed. In some ways Berkeley is active here: in the 2003 financial year some 45 per cent of reservations (pre-sales) of units were to 'investors' - defined as ranging from households purchasing a second home, to one-off buy-to-let and to institutional investors. The flakiness of equity-based investments may have a silver lining.
There is agreement between Pidgley and Farrell that planning is the villain of the piece. It is not just the experience of delays (Pidgley finds it can take in excess of two years to get planning permissions), but planning more generally - as Farrell points out, release 1 per cent extra land in London and you could build one million extra homes.
The infrastructure is already there. In principle, space is not hard to find. Farrell cites the research done for his scheme to revitalise Euston Road, which showed that north of the road between Euston and Edgware is some of the lowest-density housing in central London. In this case it is mostly local authority housing and, as he notes, 'local authorities are frightened of density'. But Farrell argues that making sites available has to be recognised for the national issue it is and organised that way. Administering the process on a local basis is just an invitation to Nimbyism. Where is the democracy in a housing development for 1,000 people being blocked by 10 site-neighbours?
Whether it is the more entrepreneurial Pidgley frustrated on current projects, or Farrell, more focused on the general limitations of what he sees as a development control rather then planning process, the feeling that the 'system' is not just a source of delay but is inhibiting imaginative change is a shared one.