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London booms as regions go bust

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As a wave of residential projects win planning, the gap between London and the regions has widened dramatically

Talk at the MIPIM property fair of the flourishing residential market in London was corroborated by a glut of planning approvals for housing schemes in the capital last week.

The continued growth was also backed up by figures released by estate agent Knight Frank, which claimed residential land values in London had risen more than 20 per cent during 2011.

Although there were reasonable showings at MIPIM from Birmingham, which was showcasing the Glenn Howells-designed Paradise Circus scheme, and Manchester, which was lauding its ‘graphene hub’, there was little to cheer in the regions. Despite developers such as Urban Splash battling to keep the regional markets alive, the majority of investors headed to the London pavilion, where announcements were being made about large-scale schemes such as Earl’s Court. Last week Careyjones Chapmantolcher closed its Leeds and Manchester offices.

Mark Farmer of consultants EC Harris said: ‘London’s residential market is booming, underpinned by international investors seeking a safe haven and exploiting sterling’s relative weakness. 

‘London is benefiting from global uncertainty, including Arab unrest and the Greek debt crisis.’

He added: ‘The wider regional UK residential market, however, remains at a crossroads.’

In the last few days alone, local authorities in the capital rubber-stamped Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners’ £42 million, 121-home redevelopment in Deptford; Cathedral Group’s 20 home Bromley South scheme (pictured); UNStudio’s 190-flat tower at City Road; and Ian Simpson’s 180-home Dollar Bay project.

Nigel Ostime of 3DReid said: ‘International investment is bolstering the London prime residential market, with more than 95 per cent of some developments being sold to foreign investors.

‘This is founded on the political stability of the UK and a corresponding instability in certain other parts of the world, alongside a weaker pound. Different grades of prime have developed and a super-prime market has emerged.

‘Meanwhile Nick Bentley, director of Liverpool-based architectural visualisers Uniform., said: ‘We can clearly see that the residential market in London is very buoyant. It’s promising from a London perspective but there just doesn’t seem to be the funding to generate those landmark schemes we saw in the regions five years ago.’

Ken Shuttleworth of Make added: ‘There is an unquenchable thirst for prime London residential. If property is ‘frozen money’, then it is considered rather like a secure piggy bank. There is a ripple effect from this, and eventually those ripples will reach beyond [the capital].’

However Martyn Evans of Cathedral Group had another theory about why so many schemes have recently been consented. ‘I suspect [the rush] is to do with councils and developers wanting to get consents prior to the community infrastructure levy, which might divert Section 106 contributions away from local authorities.’

View from the north by Nick Johnson of Urban Splash in Manchester

At the AJ roundtable on retrofit at MIPIM, the property conference held in Cannes last week, chair Paul Finch fired an ‘opener’ at each of the guests: ‘So how is it for you?’ It was an attempt to take the pulse of the world of architecture and property in the midst of ‘austerity Britain’. The guests laid out a barely recognisable picture, to non-Londoners, of life at the pulsing heart of a thriving international metropolis.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m a Londonphile. I recognise its international status, its appeal to those on the fickle and flighty international wealth circuit, the value of its stability to the recently displaced and, potentially, dispossessed international über-rich, and its cultural richness, diversity and quality of life – assuming that a life of quality is something you can afford.

Fuelled partly by frustration and partly to provoke, I spoke of the ‘arrogance’ of our capital city. An arrogance that stems from the fact that while the rest of the country bears a disproportionate burden of the tide of austerity, the built environment businesses that operate in the capital are doing rather well – thanks to a tight geography that defines an unpoppable polyp of prosperity, and business horizons that look south, east and west but in the current climate, rarely look north.

If you did look north, you could actually make a case that London should no longer be part of the UK, but devolved to the G8 or G20 international premier league of cities where, thanks to technology and transcontinental travel, we render geography irrelevant. And I suppose that’s my problem, the point when geography becomes irrelevant – and it’s not.

Geography used to define regional identity; it used to give the reason for the existence of ‘place’. Market towns served the growers and producers that made and grew things for sale; manufacturing towns made use of climate, minerals and waterways to do the same thing. That we have lost or are rapidly losing our regional identities is the greatest crime of globalisation. That we believe the costly and breathless pursuit of an increasingly uniform, and largely undistinguished, global identity suggests we are simply powerless puppets that ‘follow the money’.

So where does it take us? It’s all about balance. At the moment the country’s scales are tipped in London’s favour, and for how long we don’t know. That reliance on foreign funny money is no different to the funny money banks traded that got us into this mess the first time around. It’s just a curious reversal that global money happens to have a seemingly tight geography, for now.

The restoration of balance needs two things: it’s about being grown up, and recognising that England has an ‘other’ city (I’ll keep quiet on whether that’s Birmingham or Manchester, but it’s in the title of two teams at the top of the premiership), and that regionalism and the celebration of regional identity is the antidote to all that is bland, corporate and controlling in that self-serving idea(l) of global capital(s).

Nick Johnson is director of Urban Splash in Manchester

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Its been nearly a year now since Regional Development Agencies began their (nationally imposed) close down. Some may have seen advantages in that, but one thing they did do successfully was to advocate regional identity and distinctiveness in placemaking, and supporting local economies via a long term investment in quality place, which was achieved through stakeholders of that place. I believe it is a real pity that this programme wasn't allowed to run its full course. My belief is that it is much more difficult to replicate this either locally or nationally with the same impact and that is one reason why there is such a disparency between London and the regions currently.

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