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The Regenerators #2: Michael Lyons

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Michael Lyons, chairman of the English Cities Fund, talks to Richard Vaughan about ‘changing the nature of places’.

Formed in 2001 as a result of the findings of Richard Rogers’ Urban Task Force, the English Cities Fund (ECF) is a partnership between Legal & General, English Partnerships (EP) and Muse Developments that aims to attract institutional investment into long-term urban regeneration.

Is the ECF involved in schemes that EP should be working on anyway?
We do not use public money. We’re there to show that you can get market value by changing the nature of places and demonstrating a track record that institutional investors will feel confident to buy into.

Why then does EP need to be involved? Couldn’t the private sector do this off its own back?
Richard Rogers and his Urban Task Force identified that there wasn’t institutional investment for urban regeneration. So it is absolutely right for organisations like ours to see whether more can be done. The difference between us and a council which just tries to bring in investment is that we do the hardest part – we put in the first tranche of risk money. Secondly – and the St Paul’s Square scheme in Liverpool (see box, facing page) is a perfect example – everyone looked at us and said, ‘Why did you need EP to come and do this? It’s a no-brainer isn’t it?’ Well, it is a no-brainer now, but back in 2001 when we first discussed this, nobody believed you could build, rent and sell A-grade office accommodation in that area.

Is there a danger that this could be seen as EP working in disguise?
Let me acknowledge, and let’s be very clear: EP went out, advertised for partners, and put its money in at risk. I don’t want to knock that at all, and this wouldn’t have been possible if EP hadn’t done so. I’m also clear that EP shouldn’t replace private money with public money – that’s a good rule to follow.

Which architects do you admire?
We are in a very interesting age for quality architecture. But two that stand out for me are Daniel Libeskind and Frank Gehry. I think Libeskind’s Imperial War Museum North in Salford is a great defining building. And Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao is the kind that can change the way you think about a place.

What is the ECF’s projected lifespan?
Well, we are not actively searching for sites. We have a portfolio, which is as much as we are likely to deliver in our lifespan. We have an agreed end date of 2011 and it is for the partners to agree if we can go beyond that.

Richard Rogers has been critical of the way the Thames Gateway is being developed. What are your thoughts?
Everyone recognises the importance of the Thames Gateway. But at the moment it is too fragmented and there are too many voices. That is something we witnessed with Canning Town in East London. It is about trying to get the number of units needed as well as the quality. The real challenge is for the Thames Gateway to offer unequivocal improvement to the quality of people’s lives in East London. It’s not just about getting a load of houses down there.

Are you concerned about the current market conditions?
The ECF is conservatively steered. Should we carry on past our lifespan, we will be able to refinance our loan with the banks. We will remain conservative and we’ll watch developments very carefully. We owe it to those that invest in us – if we’re reckless then we let down a lot of people.

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