Unsupported browser

For a better experience please update your browser to its latest version.

Your browser appears to have cookies disabled. For the best experience of this website, please enable cookies in your browser

We'll assume we have your consent to use cookies, for example so you won't need to log in each time you visit our site.
Learn more

AJ roundtable: The future of regeneration

  • Comment

Is rock ’n’ roll a better catalyst for place-making than retail-led regeneration? Just one question raised at this year’s MIPIM, at a lunch hosted by the AJ in association with Austin-Smith:Lord

At this year’s MIPIM, the annual real-estate trade show in Cannes, several of the UK’s top developers, contractors and planning experts were invited to a lunch hosted by The Architects’ Journal in association with Austin-Smith:Lord. The main subject of debate was the future of regeneration, but several other topics came under the scrutiny of the assembled panel. What followed was a stimulating discussion on the difficulties of making places in urban Britain.

The wide-ranging debate offered up some important, hard-to-answer questions: Is the masterplan now a defunct form of community building? Does Section 106 unfairly penalise developers? And, surprisingly, is rock ’n’ roll, with sex and drugs thrown in, a better catalyst for place-making than retail-led regeneration?

Localism too, and whether it will really devolve power away from the centre, reared its head – just as the conversation began to wind down. Here we present the full transcript of the discussion:

Paul Finch:  What does regeneration mean today? In the British context, with new energy systems and big docklands, where are we?

Rodger Zogolovitch:  Thank you for dropping me in it, in that kind way you have.

What is interesting about the regeneration market is that it is going through a kind of maturity. We’ve been at it now for 20 years. When I started looking at regeneration projects like Liverpool I was very optimistic. That optimism brought about a sense of a compression of time. How do you handle politically the realities of the timescales required for the transformation?

We have these enormous legal issues about acquiring the land, working up a partnership agreements, lots of proposals and propositions, but the moment we sign the contract, the politicians ask: ‘Now, where is it?’

We have these elaborate processes that drive things on. We know the property market is cyclical. How then do you handle politically that debate that can take projects through a generation, 10 years or so? What do you deliver in the first stages? It makes people feel comfortable when something is physically happening, rather than a set of diagrams that show a lot of masterplanning, to which cynically some might ask, “How do we know that’s ever going to happen?”

I think, to me, we’ve over-weighted that. We need to find a new lightness to get some of that going. I’m particularly intrigued by the new temporary uses – the pavilion approach, and how you can engage with non-build movement, something that pushes things on.

PF: I was in Atlanta, talking to Mayor Shirley Franklin who was assistant to two previous mayors. The problem of urban regeneration, she said, was how in a political context you make decisions that mean you do certain things in the next three to five years that have actually got a 35-year outcome. A tough problem that she sorted out was water and sewage. Her observations were: one, even when times are hard people will make sacrifices – pay taxes – if they can clearly see a beneficial outcome; and two, any mayor has to do it in their first term. If they don’t do it in their first term, they will never do it. Because she was serving only one term, she was able to do things without having to court popularity.

Andy, from a local authority perspective, how do you deal with long term issues?

Andrew Donald:  What I’ve learned is, when times are good, the big scale projects work well, but when times are not so good, it is best to try and present projects to politicians in a more chunked-up way, where they can generate momentum. Once things have started and momentum builds up it is really difficult to stop it, for funders to walk away. So as local authorities we try and take more responsibility to get things started, which might mean acting as a developer, to take things through planning ourselves, which builds confidence.

I was talking to Clive Dutton about the Royals, about when he first took over at Newham. He was asked to approve a masterplan specification for the Royals, and when he looked at the appendix, there were 71 publically funded masterplan or planning type documents cited in the appendix related to the Royals. This would be the 72nd. As local authorities we’ve got to start realising and recommending to politicians. The focus should be on doing some delivery, generating the market for delivery, rather than diverting activity around producing big masterplans, often on big areas we don’t own, and trying to tell the market they must deliver this across this area over the next thirty years. Starting small and generating momentum seems to me to be the way to do it.

We want to try and remove some of the technical aspects of the process. If you ask planners what they want to do, it will be to draw a masterplan. But a masterplan won’t make the Thames Gateway happen or make a scheme the size of Wembley happen. More local authorities are realising this, realising we should instead be starting from the site upwards, or the plot upwards.

RZ: So that’s really threatening the masterplan? I think it is an interesting question. We had this system where the masterplan became the default. A masterplan is quite an easy document to produce, and there are enough of them already done, so the rest of it is about doing something incrementally, something that actually happens tomorrow. What can you build? What can you make?

Stephen Bowcott:  Large scale regeneration is a big risk to development.

RZ: Yes, a huge risk.

SB: If you look around British cities, there is quite a lot we have done. Let’s get together. We need to create mass to attract international investment outside the southeast. Sweating local assets is the regeneration of the future. This means taking old buildings or old pieces of land and making them work, sweating those assets, regenerating small pieces to build into the masterplan. I therefore think it works from the bottom up to create the masterplan, rather than where we were before: large scale regeneration. Let’s make it work from the top, but pick up those bits on the outside that were never quite finished and bring them back in.

SteveMcGuckin:  There is an interesting distinction between generation and regeneration, a huge difference. I’m working on the Shard, which is regeneration, and for London Bridge the benefits will be huge. But with generation, for example at Ebbsfleet, which I led for 18 months at Land Securities, it is very difficult to create any sense of identity.

I remember at a conference I met a Chinese delegate, and asked him what he did, to which he replied, ‘Oh, I create cities’. In China, that is what they do and it is a huge responsibility. He was designing three cities around China. There is a huge challenge in creating identity from nothing, so at Ebbsfleet the challenge is, how do you get that critical mass? It takes a lot of investment to make a place work and you have to take a long term view. The first five years will hurt, but ultimately it will work. At Ebbsfleet the problem is there is a huge cement quarry and somehow you have to create a community in a hundred of acres of brownfield site. Who is going to take the arrow? Who is going to be part of the early people in to take that risk?

Richard Powell:  There is a difference between outer and inner urban schemes I think. One of the expressions that I find quite helpful is ‘increasing the pace of change’. A lot of the areas we work on have had events, communities, industrial uses, all sorts of different uses, and regeneration in my mind is just increasing the pace of change. You don’t finish regeneration. You don’t finish Liverpool.

RZ: Absolutely. I think that is a really important point. All of the things we work on in regeneration are always a contribution. They are not organised, they are a catalogue of things I think that is why this idea of sweating out a local asset whatever it happens to be, or opening an art gallery, or opening a theatre, are all part of that tipping point, where suddenly that location becomes more popular. It’s in the head isn’t it? Ultimately the consumers have got to decide they want to go there.

RP: I was recently debating what actually characterises regeneration, as opposed to development, and one of the characteristics was public intervention via grants or other means, though I am not sure I agree with that. What became clear was that the real regenerative aspects that we are searching for are improving the life chances of the people who operate and live in an area, enhancing job opportunities and reducing levels of deprivation. The built form is the part we get excited about, but what it is really for is stimulating prosperity, a word awfully close to profit that we are a little bit afraid of it, but increasing prosperity is what we are trying to do, whatever that means in real terms. I do think these sessions are worthwhile to remind ourselves what it is we all do, as opposed to designing beautiful buildings, because the reality is all of us in this room have had a pretty good crack at that, but to actually prove that we have, over time, improved life chances, is much more difficult.

PF: Our Olympic bid was heavily based on the fact that the lower Lea Valley, and that part of London have high levels of deprivation. The Olympics are desperate to validate and justify this vast global shindig. Increasingly you can’t win a bid for the Olympics unless you are doing a massive regeneration that is about people and not buildings, providing schools, health facilities, etc. That is a rather expensive catalyst. Ten billion, for mostly long term infrastructure. Those things would probably have had to be done in time anyway, but would never have been done in this timeframe, yet they have been kaleidoscoped in. This is your point Richard, whether regeneration is development with a public grant. I think that is far too cynical, but actually isn’t that what it always turns out to be? Someone once asked, ‘What’s so special about Urban Splash?’ The answer was that they are all done with public grants. I think it is too cynical to say that regeneration must have public money.

SMG: Regeneration does have to have social infrastructure of some form in order to make a difference. Take Crossrail for example. The challenge is that one day in 2016, it will open. You can’t partially open Crossrail. You need twenty years investment. You need three governments to pay for the fourth government to take ownership.

Jennifer Dixon:  This is why it took so long to get off the ground.

PF: When a developer does regeneration, he gets loaded up with Section 106 requirements. When the public sector goes to regeneration, the money goes funnelling in.

SB: The interesting thing about the big sexy regeneration projects we all talk about is that below that level, for hundreds and hundreds of projects, generation and regeneration, the new model has to be mezzanine finance, created by the local authority. Because debt is there, equity is there. The trigger point is the mezzanine finance.

What we are looking for is for local authorities to put a tiny bit of money into these schemes, to show the confidence that they are worth doing. This flies in the face of the bigger schemes, which have the mass to drive them through. Below the line, the infill of the masterplanning is where the smaller towns and cities really need to make it work, because these parts are about the lives of the people we’re leaving behind.

RP: It’s the T-bone steak isn’t it? When the plate arrives you think, how am I going to eat that? Once you start cutting it into morsels you find it is very tasty and you eat the whole thing. I think you’re quite right. We draw these bloody big masterplans and they look intimidating. I wrestle with this concept of whether the Olympics is relevant to any other project we have. Sometimes I think it is a one off, and then I think, well, is it? Just down the road is a project called Shell Haven, an entirely privately financed, massive regeneration, creating 15,000 jobs at least, but no one really talks about it. It is a private led scheme that happens to be for industrial use rather than for homes. Think about Dubai Ports. There are projects that stimulate massive change that are not driven by public sector money. Is it public sector intervention?Maybe it is, in that a decision was made between it and Felixstowe. I think regeneration does require public intervention, but whether that is government with a big or small G, it depends.

RZ: The great legacy of the Olympics was that an authority, or that land, was assembled. Suddenly there is land assembled under one ownership. All these high voltage cables have been put underground and there is a very good landscape. They have generated a field of activity. The big question then, is what goes on it. I am fascinated by the idea of how you start to encourage the Lea Valley, into what seems to me to be an opportunity for a 21st century neighbourhood. Another big project you could compare it with is the power station site at Battersea. Is that going to live up to the process of a new neighbourhood? Certainly if you think about where it is located in London it has much more opportunity for a neighbourhood, but we have got ourselves into a stranger situation with that project. Where we have this lump of a building in the middle of the site, almost destroying the way in which that site could be operated as a set of streets, it is ending up with a mad-like response, where everything is shaped around it. At least with the Olympics, it is a tabula rasa. It could be a successful neighbourhood. Or it could not be.

RP: It is now. But take ourselves forward a hundred years.

Richard Jones:  The Olympics is the only regeneration project with a precise delivery date. The Olympics has a date. Battersea will be delivered, but only when market conditions are right.

SMG: Battersea will happen when they extend the Northern Line, which will be in about 20 years.

PF: Exactly. It is this point about money. The interesting thing is, for the Olympics, who is picking up the tag? Happily for Londoners, it is not London, but the nation. The treasury is picking it up. This is an interesting moment. They held their nose and decided to take a hit on behalf of the UK tax payer. If you flip it back to Battersea power station, it is still going to  come down to public money, because the scheme only really works properly if you get the spur on the Northern Line. I agree with Roger. The difference in regenerating the whole area, as opposed to saving a defunct relic, is a different thing. You could have still regenerated that site without the power station. It’s a 10-minute walk to Sloane Square.

RP: It would be finished by now, wouldn’t it?

SMG: This Irish guy, Broom, had it 30 years ago, and he tried to let it fall into ruin.

RZ: From redundancy to where we are now, which is still only a masterplan, is a run time of 35 years.

SMG: Kings Cross is another. Why do these schemes take so long?

RZ: Kings Cross is slightly different because in a way it has got this complicated issue of the infrastructure around it. Battersea doesn’t have that. It just has this stupid power station in the middle of it!

SMG: Is it a cultural thing? The French and their Grand Projets, they just say yeah, let’s do it.

RP: I think that’s historical now.

RZ: There is an interesting timeline. The date IM Pei was commissioned to do the Louvre was exactly the same date by coincidence of the first round of the carbuncle argument and the extension of the National Gallery. But because Mitterrand was driving the pyramid, it got built, whereas the London version got debated. Prince Charles got sweaty about it and we all kind of went into this turmoil. I remember asking someone who worked on the project how it went, and he said, ‘Actually we did it in a very French consultative way.

‘Over a weekend, they erected a crane in the middle of the courtyard of the Louvre, strung four chains from the centre of the crane, to mark out exactly the full-size template and then 350,00 thousand Parisians turned up and debated it. And then they built it.’ It’s wonderfully direct in a way that we can’t imagine in Britain.

SB: There is an exception to that: Manchester.

RZ: Yes.

SB: Fascinating to watch, regeneration on a big scale. Ten years on and it is still happening.

RZ: It’s leadership.

SB: They have created 55,000 new jobs in five years. It’s not just Manchester, it’s the nine conurbations around it. They have incredibly strong leadership, where each says, ‘we’ve just got to make this happen folks’.

JD:  What does Manchester have that Liverpool doesn’t? Strong leadership.

RZ:  With Howard Bernstein, it is a certain amount of attitude as well.

SB: He challenges central government.

PF: The other thing about Manchester for the government, and it’s an unpalatable truth that can hardly be endorsed, is that the truth is the reason why it is described on that hording outside the Palais, as Britain’s cultural heartbeat, is because of Factory Records. Sex and drugs and rock’n’roll are what made Manchester. Now, the bomb was a useful catalyst, to trigger physical regeneration. But the truth is that the number of students going to Manchester, the night-time economy of the city and the repopulation of the centre, were all based on rock music. When I went to the Manchester Stand for a chat with Sir Howard, the music was throbbing at quarter past 11. I said: ‘Oh hello Howard, I see the party’s started’. We had to go out onto the balcony to the get away from this nonsense. But it is absolutely brilliant. The government can’t say, we think rock music, and sex and the kind of drugs that are not heroin, could be useful, especially to get the younger population involved. They can’t say that! They have to say retail-led regeneration. But Manchester is still doing it.

Guess who their big regeneration consultant is? It’s not a surveyor, not an architect, or developer. It’s Peter Saville, the guy who designed all the factory record covers! The chain-smoking guru! And I think Manchester has positioned itself in a very interesting way. They know that they can’t be London, so they have instead positioned themselves in a completely different way.

PF: The difference between the French and the British is that while Paris was busy delivering the Charles de Gaulle airport, it took the same time for us to get the public inquiry for Terminal 5. Mitterrand was asked how this could be. He gave a very witty response. He said: ‘Very simple. In France, when we wish to drain the pond, we get rid of the frogs first’.

There is a sense that Britain is neither brutal nor generous enough. When we finally get CPOs, we’re never generous enough and we always make it nasty. We’re not brutal enough to say, we just don’t care, here’s twenty times worth the value, now just go away. Or we’ll arrest you!

AD: But we never know if we actually do want to drain the pond. And that’s the big issue. It comes back to leadership. It doesn’t matter what scale you’re working on. There are very few people I come across in the public sector who will nail their colours to mast and say: ‘This is what we want to see happening now’. To be confident enough to know that over the 30-year lifespan of that scheme it is going to involve, there should be more confidence to say: “This is what we want now, but in five years time, if we change our minds, it is okay, as long as we’ve done something in those five years”. That is critical.

RP: Do we think the new Tory planning paper will enhance regeneration?

RJ: It didn’t sound very radical to me.

RP: Third-party planning appeals are pretty radical.

RZ: It is not radical but it will do everything to slow everything up. It would almost stop planning. Effectively, it’s the opposite of leadership, it’s parish pump, it’s development by plebiscite, it’s non- development. It can’t work. In the UK any development has an impact on people adjacent. Nobody wants to see that, so it has no politics, and so the politics are to stop it. Not to want it.

RP: Rather than getting rid of the frogs before draining the pond we’re giving authority to the frogs!

SMG: We’re going to regulate ourselves into stagnation, aren’t we?

SB: Is that the plan? It may be that they want to delay public expenditure.

SMG: At Victoria interchange, we had a party where we appointed our 50th consultant and we still hadn’t submitted.

PF: This is a very serious point. When purely private sector tries to do regeneration, they always get stiffed. Land Securities are trying to do a proposal in Victoria and I think the figure that was come up with in order to let them go about doing their business was £220 million. That money was going to do everything, from sorting out the health and safety issues on the Victoria Line, to a whole load of stuff that had nothing to do with the development whatsoever. The consequences of loading that were of course that Land Securities were put in a position where they had to overdevelop the site. So as you came out of the station you were going to be confronted by this gigantic residential tower. Even Mr Polisano didn’t sound convincing when explaining why it was an improvement coming out of the station and seeing a lot of buses. The overdevelopment means it doesn’t get planning permission after £10m worth of fees and three years of work. Then what happens is that they do a reduced scheme, and none of the public development gets done. How do you reform the planning system? You have to deal with Section 106. I believe Section 106 is an enemy of regeneration by the private sector. By contrast if you’ve got £10 billion to play with, do whatever you want.

RP: As a developer, I believe early intervention to create some value and place-making is worth it. The thing that frustrates me is the demand for a level of profit share from the public sector. The real dichotomy at the moment is that you load up a Section 106 at the start, or you put in some sort of profit share at the back end. The trouble with this is that it is actually now getting to a stage at Brent Cross, Cricklewood where that is also encouraging. Spending more, creating more and marketing more is of no value to the developer, so the money goes to the mediocre.

RZ: There is a breakdown in trust between the public and private sector and I think that this is really where affordable housing is a complete anathema. Last year we only built 118,000 units. There are 24 million homes in the UK, so what we’re taxing those people who built 118,000 is a minute portion of the 24 million and you’re giving the 24 million a free tax ride because of the scarcity of supply on what is really an inflation on asset prices, without taxing that. It seems totally utterly insane. Whereas you could quite lightly tax all of those. What did any homeowner do to make double profit in five years? Nothing, apart from complain about planning and therefore further restrict development and enable their house prices to go up. The reality of it is that it is an insanity. You have got a supply shortage and that shortage from a manufacturing point of view is hit with a huge tax burden.

PF:  We heard this morning Simon Milton presenting LDA propositions that on the one hand London’s population over the next 25 years will grow by 650,000. I think it will be a lot more than that, but let’s assume that is the case. We then heard the LDA, Geoff Deal’s land disposals, and the pipeline which results from this is 12,000 homes. Is that it? The explanation was that the private market will cover it. No, it won’t, it couldn’t manage it in the good years so why now?

SB: But it is about getting the private and public to share the risk. The private sector has taken too much risk. This recession has caught a lot of the bigger boys out. The future has got to be, talking about mezzanine finance, that the local authority has the land and opportunity and that they share the rewards as well as the risk, because Section 106 just doesn’t work. Invariably, the local political scene has a responsibility whether the land is in private ownership or public. They can either influence the infrastructure or influence the plan if they get together and become part of a joint venture agreement. Strong leadership in local authorities will make it happen, weak leadership won’t make it happen.

RP: The concept of planning gain, for me, is a good concept. I am going to come in and intervene and change a place. To give shareholders value, the concept of saying ‘ok, well I’m going to give you consent to do that, but before that I want you to x, y and z’, that is a negotiation I can get my head around. The concept of Section 106, where it breaks down, is when that money is taken elsewhere. With the concept of planning gain related to the activity being promoted we’ll intervene, but yes, let’s put some educational facilities here, some heath facilities here, let’s work out what job opportunities there are, what class of job is missing from here, what type of jobs need to be created. We need to be more sophisticated about planning gain, and that’s where Section 106 started. The more its forces on planning gain, the more it is an appropriate way to negotiate with a local authority.

SB: What I’m saying is, in the project appraisal, that area is the development. So you’re saying, ‘look guys, what we need to do in this area is the adjacencies need to work and between us, instead of giving planning gain, we’re actually taking a risk on it as well. It becomes a homogenous design development creation you are part of and the money can’t be taken fifty miles down the road’.

AD: I really like the word ‘adjacencies’. There are very few developments that actually create a place. What the whole planning red line regime does is get you focused totally inwards rather than on a place. What I encourage my team to do is to forget the red line and say: ‘What would work in that place?’ Where I do agree is, if the local authority has assets in that area it ought to look more strategically at how those assets are used. So rather than just say, ‘within this red line we need a new school’, we might say, ‘well within a slightly bigger area we need a bigger school’, and look at that.

RP: The planning gain argument is the obelisk in the roundabout the other side of the borough that we’re arguing against. We all attack Section 106, but the reason it was created is worthwhile and relevant.

John Simkin:  A lot of developments are in the water now because they have a big Section 106 hanging over them. They are regeneration schemes in their own right. But it is not recognised that these schemes are regenerating the areas themselves. There should be a consideration for Section 106, because what people look at is how much you have contributed to their housing tariff, or to their highways and schools, rather than the development itself.

RP: It’s quite a strange place we’ve got ourselves into. When I buy a car I don’t say, show me the financial model so I know I’m not paying too much.

PF: It is because of the cyclical nature of development. Just about in living memory, local authorities welcomed development, because it was seen as a tribute. Now the truth is, Section 106 is used as a stick and instead of embracing development, and I’m thinking of Victoria here, they say, we’re going to screw you into the ground until you come back with an inappropriate development. What sort of attitude is that? It’s just time wasting. It’s petty and immoral.

RP: That is a little harsh, Paul. It’s not typical.

PF: I know that’s the extreme. But it’s not just the local authority, it’s Transport for London. Everyone wants their piece, and they all throw their hands up when the developer says, ‘I’m going to do 50 per cent more stuff on the site’. So you end up doing neither one nor the other. There must be a way to welcome development. You don’t punish people for doing substantial development. If it’s the ODA its welcomed. The bigger it gets, the more hype there is. If someone said to a Regional Development Agency: ‘We’ll create this scheme that creates 50,000 jobs and 25sq ft office but I tell you what, we want a load of extra this and that’, then what is the difference between an RDA and Land Securities?

SB: It is that there has to be a people benefit. And at the moment, people are not at the heart of planning decisions and we’ve got to get back to why we’re creating new environments. It is in the benefit of the people to keep the money in the local economy.

AD: It does come back to the difference between regeneration and development. I don’t see enough clarity from the public sector about what it plans to do. I totally agree that it is about people, but it is no good saying it’s about improving the quality of people’s lives. What does that mean? How does that relate to the Section 106 discussion? The public sector rarely has the skills to know how best to deliver. Developers round the table, how many have been asked by a local authority: ‘How might we solve our schools issue?’ The way it is set up is too adversarial. Does a local authority ever come to you and say: ‘We would like to build a new school’?

RP: No, we try and trigger those conversations. We try to promote cross departmental communication, which is very poor in local authorities. Sometimes a scheme can help with that.

SB: On the new local investment plans being driven by central government, they should drive things forward.

AD:  Very few developers would have that discussion with us.

RZ: We have got ourselves into a scale issue with these big scale projects that leap across different timelines, this partnership arrangement, ending up with components. I’m coming back to ordinary building, what you want to see. We have holes, gaps, and we are looking at how we can intensify. These are big projects and planning gain is about the impact of development.

Nick Johnson arrives…

RZ: Sometimes we forget how robust our townscapes are. What we really want to find in those townscapes are moments of better quality buildings which actually just encourage and improve and raise the level. This endless process of cutting into it, building the project up, taking it away, worrying about the bottom line, isn’t a good way to generate that fillip you get from simple projects happening at relatively small scale, but much more of them, within a loose fit masterplan.

RP: That is a tricky thing. Because some of the bigger masterplans are being interpreted so literally, there is no room for architecture. You’re building in blobs created at outline planning application stage. The shape of the buildings are based on polystyrene cut-out blocks from a model, because there is a fear that if you stray too far you’ll have to make a whole new application. A masterplan is a thirty year thing. We’re not sure how things are going to work out, but it will be roughly like this, that’s a masterplan.

PF: With a masterplan it is important to know more than just the massing, you want to know what the buildings might be like.

JD:  The detailed masterplan is at odds with Andy’s idea of chinking things up and delivering smaller parts, because if you are only delivering small parts of a detailed masterplan, all you are actually doing is phasing. And phasing is not what you’re talking about. But you have to be brave enough to do the small parts that have a range of unknown outcomes. Then the local authority has to embrace the fact that the outcome may not be as expected, and that’s where the detailed masterplan falls down, because it can stop the catalyst dead in its tracks.

SMG: There is a book called How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand. He analysed streets, and how they change over a century, and what he saying is that architects design a building and walk away, but buildings learn to adapt. It’s a great book because it makes you realise how irrelevant ‘day one’ is.

RZ: That reinforces the notion that townscape is robust.

Nick Johnson:  How many people round this table live in an area that was masterplanned? We are having this completely bizarre abstract debate about masterplans, but the reality is the places we choose to live in, that have coaxed us by their desirability, may not have even been planned. I have a real problem, and I make no bones about it. I think the town and country planning act should be ripped up, and we should start again. It is ill-equipped for the contemporary paradigm of development. The language needs to change, fundamentally. We need to start talking about places in terms of tone, in terms of flavour and not even uses. There are loads of places that look absolutely horrible, but work perfectly well because of the people that occupy those spaces and buildings. In the built environment there is a fundamental disconnection between how you orchestrate the uses of the spaces you facilitate and create. I think we deserve to be roundly spanked, thoroughly spanked for our behaviour and attitude towards bringing about new places and buildings, given what we now know. We are the first generation to be held responsible for our actions in their totality. we understand the environmental consequences of our actions, that we have to behave differently, but we are still hidebound by planning legislation that has its roots in post-war language. It is sedimentary. 

It’s like a spinach curry in this curry house in Manchester. We try and update it but it needs a radical overhaul. We have lost our spirit of development. If we have learned anything in the last two years, it is that nothing is certain and everything is fragile. We should be using language and imagination about what the future might hold.

PF: Do you fancy the conservative policy of ripping it up and starting again, forgetting the 3rd party agreement?

RP: It is trying to retire a lot of planning legislation.

AD: Fundamentally the planning sector doesn’t work for the public or private sector.

NJ: The story that rams it home for me is a scheme we did with Foster and Partners. It had 300 apartments, combined heat and power in the basement, operational five years ago, social housing provision, some green space available to the public, all of which were very progressive eight or more years ago when it was initiated, but we were still hit with the same Section 106 as the mass development scheme in front of it. It’s very poor quality. So the positive features we included were not credited against us. The sting in the tale is that when they did stick the 106 on us, I said: “We’ll pay the quarter million quid, but it has got to go into an account and we will decide jointly with you on how it is spent”. When it came to be released, the local politicians were aghast, and said it will never happen again. The system doesn’t have the latitude to credit good practice. Forget everything you know. We do need to say that there is a whole lot of new thinking around.

PF:  Roger, if you could wave a wand that would transform the planning system without throwing it in the bin…

RZ: It’s all about partial deregulation. We have got this daft situation of 21m, which is the distance between the backs of houses, which means that if you believe the market wants to have a house and a garden, and if you make it 21m between those properties, you’ll never have the density to make that happen with the scarcity of land that there is. That wall is then forcing you to build apartment blocks despite the demand. Nobody has looked at those simple consequences, not just on land use but on the pattern of land operation. 

So I think, be very clear about the technical deregulation. I have looked at the new permitted development rules which are supposed to be a deregulation. Are they hell? I mean they are just absurd.

JD: Unbelievable.

PZ: Whereas there could be actually a very comfortable deregulation about how you could extend your house.

PF: More, ‘as of right’.

JD: More Australian in that way.

SB: I don’t think that we are brave enough. I don’t think any government will be brave enough because they still think developers are making shed loads of money. The reality of life is, we’re not. I just don’t see any changes that are going to benefit the industry. I think it is going to be tough. For me, it is about sharing risk. The way you get proper planning is where the local authority shares the risk with you. You get a collegiate approach to it. We are not going to get massive change.

JD: SPGs are now taking a stranglehold. I have suffered in the sites in the A40. All those sites have been neutered. I would go back and revisit the SPGs, SPDs. They are an overlay of control that is making life difficult. It becomes a straightjacket.

JS: Aligning the competing voices when trying to get planning permission?

RP: It would cost a lot of money, but Nick Johnson for prime minister. I think there is something about partnerships. I think there is an emphasis on the customer that is missing. Organisations like ours are always trying to work out who the customer is and who we are creating for. Just like clothing manufacturers or car manufacturers, at the moment there is a system where you are unable design your product to meet your customer, because of a system in place of town planning consents and timescales and conditions attached to it, so the disconnect between product and customer is fundamentally wrong in the property industry. Somehow we need to reconnect that.

SMG: I think that there is a paradigm shift that we still don’t understand. There was growth for 14-17 years and all sorts of contributions going from developers in terms of the social programme, and then the carbon agenda, which we haven’t touched on today. The reality is we haven’t had a shift to recognise those contributions. I think there are some adjustments to make and until that happens you won’t get significant development. That underlying reversal needs to happen.

NJ: The summary execution of 97 per cent of planners? No. The summary execution of 100 per cent of chartered surveyors. Being far more deterministic about populating the buildings we create. We leave it to market forces, but we need to be more concerned about the kind of people we get, and try to unpick the development economics of corporate retailers who dominate our high streets and turn them into bland environments. We need to try to get strength and identity and play a far greater role in orchestrating the cultural role of a place, but not in a theme park way. Whether that is some form of cross subsidy for occupiers that are doing something genuinely challenging, there needs to be new ways of planning an area and its proposed economic life. We are all just setting a stage, because places change and change over a period of time. We can’t expect the places we create to be the same as they will be for our kids. Let us bring about that lost interest to counter the bland proposition that is increasingly there?

RJ:  Somehow the planning process has to be more collaborative and trustworthy so that, when a planner says something, you can rely on it, rather than have them reserve judgement for the great day. It has to be made more reliable. There was a situation when two councillors opposed a development, but for no good reason. The chair said: ‘Let us decide that we don’t want it, then decide why we don’t want it’. On the night you are rolling the dice.

AD: I would take out in one fell swoop all the requirements around environmental requirements and transport requirements. I think that their original purpose was quite worthy but now, frankly, it is a pile this big for even tiny application. Replace that with something to the point about what this development is going to make to local area, written in plain English. The decision makers are never going to read all that text. There is a massive disconnect between the decision makers and the officers. To release the development from the upfront cost of these, maybe we can be more collaborative here in saying what a scheme is going to bring to an area in terms of improvement, from the people side and commercial side as well. What does a scheme bring to a place? It is much more about whether a scheme makes a place better or not.

SB: A small way to go where Nick wants to go is the academy project. The government decided to put a barrier on the cost of a pupil. There are 1,200 of pupils in that school. They tell you exactly what you spend on furniture and the rest of it must be spent on the building, with total freedom on design. Therefore, in completion, it sits with the people who matter - the pupils, parents and teachers, who ask: ‘How are you going to run this establishment for the next 10 years?’ We now have schemes onsite and not one is the same because the mums and dads and kids have decided what they want, and some of the schemes are absolutely magnificent. Why can’t they do that in health?

NJ: We are increasingly dominated by the binary code. We are dominated by this black and white system. That is the real problem with the systems around it. They are no longer fit for purpose. It is box ticking yes or no. There is not a ‘yes, but’, or ‘no, but’. It is about responsibility. Perceived accountability means we would rather do nothing than something. It prevents us from moving away from ‘yes’ and ‘no’. We need to restore that responsibility to the individual.

RZ: We all deal with this every day. I am sympathetic with the way it has occurred. Each crisis comes up and there is another layer. In theory it is a civilised approach, but we have never come to the answer for where we set out to go. The real opportunities lie in individual leadership of a project. We are actually going to this business because we are sensible human beings. We know the market will not accept shoddy buildings, so why do we need a nanny state to interfere? Because every time it makes it worse. Where are the conservation areas in Central London? Can you name me a single one from stock after 1947 that exists? No. 

Therefore, that is telling me Conservation Areas existed before planning laws existed. So if our planning laws are so good, why don’t we have new Conservation Areas?

NJ: This goes back to my point on where we live. I am always going on about the application of rules and regulations. If they had been applied to those areas, would they exist? No.

RZ: We have ended up with this weird lowest common denominator, where we don’t have the authority to lead and make better places.

NJ: Many years ago I criticised Marketing Manchester, of which I am now chair of. It wasn’t bad, it was mediocre. You can’t excel at mediocre and we described it as mediocrity at its most mediocre, which is where we’re headed if we continue with the current planning system.

AD: We have lost sight of who were regulating for. There is an argument that says, if you are regulating for local communities you could go down the road of the current Green Paper. That is the tension in the system. If we were regulating for something else, what is it? It is the environment.

PF: But what neighbourhood would ever vote for a five-year construction site in their neighbourhood? One of the few things that unites the British public is the dislike of construction work anywhere near them.

SB: What really annoys me is that construction is nine percent of GDP. Manufacturing is 11 percent, and the voice they have compared to us. But why not support cap x as well?

SMG: The car manufacturers association has one voice. We wouldn’t be able to do that.

PF: When anybody says that the problem with the construction industry is its fragmentation, I always think of that as its strength. It does explain why you can get a back extension done, or the channel tunnel.

PF: I was delighted to hear the percentage of contracts awarded to British firms was around 95 percent, and some asked: ‘How can that be?’ It is that someone at a strategic level has thought, ‘Let’s get something for ourselves’. It was achieved by all the OJEU notices having a couple of requirements which had to do with health and safety policies and diversity policies, for which most countries would fall over at the first hurdle. Other countries don’t know any of this stuff. So our familiarity with rules and regulationss around all this nonsense has stood us in good stead, instead of taking us out of the game.

NJ: The reality is that we are programmed to join the queue.

RZ: We are just not prepared to watch those frogs boil!

NJ:We join the queue and tick the boxes. Get rid of cut and paste from computers, as that is what has led to documents jumping from 50 - 2,500 pages. The reality is that the people in the food chain have never done anything other than sift applications, never done anything real. Because they have never done anything, they don’t understand the reality of that sentence, of that judgement. They might have attended a seminar on it, but it is what happens in the real world which happens.

RZ: It is the biomass boiler syndrome. It is never going to be used, but it satisfies some liberal notion of what the right thing to do is.

RP: Fundamentally what we are trying to do is legislate for every possible outcome, which is of course impossible.

RZ: What provocation will it take for us to just say: ‘I’ve had enough!’ That moment when anarchy takes over and you just decide to extend your house then your neighbour does and so on. What are you going to do?

PF: You only need one local authority to come in and demolish and all such development will stop. Richard Rogers said: ‘All architecture is political. Why is it happening? Etc…’ You get the point. I am interested in this conversation, in that I sense that things cannot go on, and I suspect Oliver Letwin, or whoever is responsible for the Tory proposals, is tapping into a mood change.

RP:  There is this whole thing about localism which I don’t really understand at all. If you are a leader of a council you think you’re going to get more authority. Everyone thinks: ‘Oh God, I’m going to get more power’. No guys, that is not what it is about at all. I think there is something in there which says, let’s not let one big guy upstairs decide all of this. I think that there is something in that.

RP: There is momentum building around the idea of power shifting away from central government. If enough people think it is bullshit, maybe there is something in it. The theory of localism, of taking away the decision making from the big guy at the top, that is sound.

NJ: If you were to propose eBay as a business proposition, which it is entirely based on trust, the lender would say, ‘that’s never going to work’, but we are capable of self regulation.

PF: What the 1947 TCPA has done is morph us into a situation where you don’t have the right to build anything, and you have to jump through hoops.

  • Comment

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment

Please remember that the submission of any material is governed by our Terms and Conditions and by submitting material you confirm your agreement to these Terms and Conditions.

Links may be included in your comments but HTML is not permitted.