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Ian Harrabin: 'Riding the perfect storm'

Ian Harrabin, managing director of Complex Development Projects, talks about what he wants from architects and describes the state of play with large urban regeneration schemes

What kind of schemes are you currently working on?
We are a bit odd – as the name suggests, we work on difficult urban regeneration schemes, usually in partnership with the public sector. However many mornings I wake up wishing we’d called the company Easy Development Projects.

We concentrate on projects where we can add value and that the mainstream avoid. The advantage is that there isn’t a lot of competition. The disadvantage is that projects can take years to deliver and often involve multiple public funding pots, which is hard work. 

We continually push for high design standards and are happy to try the ‘off the wall’ – the problem is that end users are generally pretty conservative and if it’s too wacky, we won’t be able to sell it. Most projects involve some existing buildings - we like this as it gives us a uniqueness of place that we can build upon.

We tend to work with architects that are pretty local to the project. This gives a better understanding of the site, its context and the community. There’s some good talent in the regions, the problem is that they rarely get the commissions that allow them to put this into practice.

There’s good talent in the regions but they rarely get the commissions

At the moment we’re working on quite a few new projects. Far Gosford St in Coventry is a run-down Conservation Area,  which we are turning into the city’s ‘bohemian quarter’.  This is part restoration (inc. listed timber framed) and part new build, filling in the gaps and providing an economic stimulus.  Public funding from Heritage Lottery, Advantage West Midlands, ERDF, HCA and now hopefully the LEP.  PCPT Architects in Birmingham did the masterplanning, much of the listed building work and new hotel and office developments. Bryant Priest Newman (BPN) is working on the creative village – a Brick Lane style marketplace.

We’re working with BPN on two other interesting projects. One in Stourbridge to convert the listed former Stuart Crystal factory into a ‘Museum of Glass‘ and loft apartments, the other could become huge initiative in Smethwick.  This is just outside Birmingham’s city limits and only six minutes by train into New St station, yet is totally unknown.  It’s a fantastic landscape with 3 canals in parallel and a great industrial legacy – the birthplace of steam.  The area is full of scrappies at the moment, but these places have huge potential and need reinventing if we’re not to keep ploughing up fields.

We’re also working on a great waterfront site in Bristol with Alec French Architects and have recently completed projects in Dunstable and Bedford with Glenn Howells and Burrell Foley Fischer, both of which I’d like to work with again.

In London we’re working on a few projects at early stages with Metropolitan Workshop. I like their approach and they have the great advantage of being just around the corner. 

How have the last few years been for you and what have been the biggest challenges?
Things have been tough for the whole regeneration industry.  We’ve had the perfect storm – not only have we been left with stock that we can’t sell or let, but the Government then applies empty rates just to make it worse.  The banks stop doing speculative projects and slash loan to value ratios trapping equity and cutting capacity. Then the Govt close down the RDA’s and at a stroke remove the main source of regeneration funding for new projects.  We’ve managed to continue with our smaller projects by being innovative.  The one thing we haven’t changed is our commitment to design.  If we start to build crap, we’ll lose our USP, but more importantly I wouldn’t want to go to work. 

How do you foresee the coming years both for yourselves and the construction industry?
I hate to tempt fate but things are slowly getting better. The mud is starting to clear over the Government’s new funding and we are progressing a number of projects towards delivery.  The time and energy taken to get through multiple funding applications is huge, but we do get there in the end.  There are a lot of projects out there held pending a change in the market.  We’ll see a considerable increase in activity in around a year’s time – subject to no more bad news.

The construction industry has been decimated, especially the mid-size regional companies

The construction industry has been decimated, especially the mid-size regional companies. Many of these had a development arm that has pulled them down.

The big contractors are doing well off the south-east and Govt contracts, but we are losing too many of the larger local contractors outside London.  These are the people with real local commitment, often long established and philanthropic.  Their demise is very worrying for the regeneration of the regions.

How has the developer landscape changed during the recession?
One good thing is that we have lost the real speculators that came in during the boom, when everyone was a ‘property developer’.

The bad thing is that we’ve lost a lot of good players, in both public and private sectors. We all have to be more cautious at the moment, but there’s far too much dithering and red tape that slows everything down.  Most of the investors are going for the safe option and this is very London centred.

There’s still a lot of private money around, but the problem at the moment is confidence. I can’t see things going down any further, so now is the best time to invest.  I’m seeing a willingness from smaller tenants and individuals to invest, which is very positive and suggests that this may be the beginning of the end of the recession.  Many people are just bored of the recession and have become immune to bad news.  They realise that the world hasn’t ended and there’s still money to be made if you are careful.

Are you currently looking for new talent and how do you find your architects?
We’re always open to using new talent and there’s no shortage of it out there.  Most of our first involvement with a new practice comes with a project attached.  Rarely do we have a project where we are looking for architects, although it does happen. 

I’m a fan of employing a number of smaller architects on large area-based schemes

I’m also a fan of employing a number of smaller architects on large area-based schemes.  This is where most of the unattached opportunities arise. 

What do you want from an architect?
Our projects can take a long time and our relationship with our architects is almost like a marriage.  We need an individual with whom we can bond.  But we also need them backed up by people that can design in detail.  There are those that are fantastic at detail and cost efficiency and those that are great at design concept.  A practice that has both is our ideal.  This is what most decent clients want, but I’m always suprised that so few practices can provide it.

What could architects do better – and what is the biggest mistake they make?
At the moment I’m looking for a practice in the northwest for a new build scheme but with a conservation lead approach. I want something sympathetic, modern but in keeping.  Too often architects want their buildings to stand out – the shiny metal ball and the triangular building.  I’m concerned that no one teaches the art of fitting in any more. 

I’m concerned that nobody teaches the art of ‘fitting in’ any more

The quality of most of our cities is about the overall townscape, not the one off. 

What do you think about the current government’s attempts to drive development?
They don’t really understand the regeneration industry.  Policy to date seems to be driven by ‘big industry’ and ‘major housebuilders’. It’s all about a quick fix on job numbers and housing unit starts. The ultimate political broad brush.  It had taken many years for the Regional Development Agencies to be truly effective, delivering on a local level and understanding local needs and constraints. 

This has all been swept away, important development sites that have taken years to put together are just being sold for the highest price without any strategic thought, and what little funding there is has been targeted to industry and major housebuilders. I do wonder whether most of the projects supported would have happened anyway. 

Electric Wharf by Bryant Priest Newman

Electric Wharf by Bryant Priest Newman

Things are starting to change as the LEPs are finding their feet, but in closing the RDA’s the Govt got rid of the people who managed the process.  The LEPs have no staff and the local authorities have all slashed their regeneration teams.  What’s been forgotten is that you need people and expertise to deliver regeneration - maybe the HCA will step into the void but they don’t have the cash at the moment.

Generally there are too many funding routes. It’s too complicated. There’s no flexibility with each having their own rules and far too much of the much depleted regeneration expertise is tied up in process rather than delivery. I see a growing role for the HCA – it would be great if they had a wider remit and flexible funding.

What would you most like the government to do for you?
I’d like them to concentrate public and private investment in the inner cities which is sustainable and makes best use of existing infrastructure.  So much is now out of town with free parking that it’s no wonder that much of our town centre retail is on its knees.  We need to get the middle classes back into the urban centres and this means high quality housing, offices, hospitals etc.  Too often the only thing left is the Council’s own offices.

We’ve a sequential test for supermarkets which could be applied to all major development.  Government intervention is needed to create the sites, due to the high cost and we need to speed up CPO to deliver.

The investment needed could be paid for in part by taxing out of town car parking spaces.  This would also help to level the playing field.

More and more funding streams are coming out as loans, which do nothing to fill the viability gap and believe it or not, you can still borrow from the banks.  There are far too many grant pots all with different rules and applications. Projects can require applications to five or six different sources, which is crazy - the whole project is at risk until the final piece of the jigsaw is in place.  The death of the ‘single pot’ has been the biggest mistake.

Which of your projects is your favourite and why?
Our projects are like our children, you don’t choose between them – you praise their good points and are aware of their shortcomings.  If we don’t love them how can we expect others to do so.

If we don’t love them how can we expect others to do so

Electric Wharf by BPN is very popular and shows that old industrial buildings can not only be reused but can provide a unique environment with added value above a new build scheme.

Far Gosford St is great because it combines restoration of timber framed buildings with some quirky new build.  It’s all about changing the place and we are now starting to get the coffee shop, vintage clothing and craft businesses taking over from the takeaway fried chicken.  This is regeneration at its widest.

I’m currently buzzing on Smethwick in part because it’s so bad and such a challenge and in part because it’s so huge with such potential – the impact could be massive.

Wild flowers growing on the canalside at Electric Wharf by Bryant Priest Newman

Electric Wharf by Bryant Priest Newman

Which regeneration scheme most inspires you and why?
I’m a fan of the fine grain and the variety of the waterfront schemes in Amsterdam and Scandinavia. We’re working on some self-build or self-design ideas and there are some great examples overseas.

I’ll probably be shot but I also like reproduction in its place. If we stopped calling it ‘pastiche’ (scorn) and called it ‘retro’ instead there’d be less resistance.  What is interesting is the influence of 50’s architecture in the designs of today which is cool retro, but anything traditional is pastiche. 

The best regeneration schemes are kick started but then happen naturally. What’s happened in the City’s eastern fringes and in Southwark is fantastic. What we have to do is to find out how to replicate this in our regional cities.

Who has given you the best advice and what was it?
The best advice I ever had was ‘you can be whatever you want to be’ from my dad.

What would you like to be known for?
Our industry has the unique advantage of leaving a legacy for generations to come.  Whilst I get a warm glow from saving historic buildings, the thing I’d really like to be known for is making a real change to our cities, reinventing places and reversing the decline.  People and businesses make our cities, we can make the canvass but it is the catalytic effect this has on the creativity and investment of others that makes it all worthwhile.

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