Economic boomtimes brought with them a wave of regeneration schemes across the country. But now the party is over – and with the public coffers empty, many are asking what happens next
The Corby Cube opened its doors for the first time at summer’s end last year. A symbol in an ambitious 30-year plan to reverse the town’s fortunes, which plummeted after the steel industry finally gave up the ghost there in 1981 with the closure of the British Steel plant in the town. Designed by Hawkins/Brown, the Cube’s gleaming bar-coded facade and precise form encapsulated both the aspirations of a town and perhaps the method of regeneration. Housing a theatre, library, one-stop shop for council services and the council chambers, the Cube is aimed at restoring a sense of civic pride battered by years of unemployment and social problems. It is the jewel in the crown of an extensive physical programme that included Foster + Partners’ £30m Corby Business Academy, a £20m Olympic-sized Corby East Midlands Swimming Pool and, most crucially, a train station. Undoubtedly, these developments were seen as vital to Corby’s future. They are central to the drive to attract a new wave of incomers to the town – this time white-collar professionals from London rather than Glaswegian steelworkers of a generation ago. They would bring with them the diversity, both economic and social, it was felt the town needed.
This process began in 2003 following extensive public consultation. Simon Evans, the chief executive of North Northants Development Company (NNDC) – formerly Catalyst Corby – was involved from the start. “The regeneration strategy has a lot of strands built into it that were not just about physical,” he says. “Corby was a fairly one-dimensional blue-collar steel town. But the case for regeneration has always been built around economic diversification built on a well-trained and well skilled workforce.”
Education would play a central role in the long-term aims, and off the back of the Foster-built academy, funding was secured for a new college at Tresham that is currently under construction. “All these buildings are really well designed,” continues Evans. “I supposed a few years ago you would have probably called them iconic.” Icons, once de rigeur for any urban regeneration, are unfashionable in the austerity age. But can new buildings, however well-designed really help to regenerate a town?
Evans certainly believes so. For him the Cube was a statement of the town’s commitment to change. Regeneration is all about confidence and the confidence to invest, he reckons. “Once the private sector could see this building was going to be in the town square they responded to this.” Next up was a £30m investment from developer Land Securities to build a new shopping centre – a massive boost for the town.
Until now, this has been the classic regeneration method. Public money comes via a Regional Development Agency (RDA) providing the impetus for certain key developments and then, providing all goes according to plan, private sector dough follows. But with the coalition’s sweeping public sector cuts government grants are rarer than dodo eggs, and it appears the model needs rethinking. “It is going to be a very painful period for many places in the UK. Gone are those days where you could be reliant on your policies in anticipation of a grant in aid or loans or whatever it might be,” says Clive Dutton, the regeneration, planning and property executive director at Newham Council. And given that Dutton is a large cog in the grandest regeneration scheme of them all, Stratford Metropolitan, these are sobering words. “I think the one potential saving grace is that it will focus attention on the scale of public assets in terms of land and property across the country,” he continues. “Because whether it is land or property that is owned by central, local or agencies of the government the value of the public estate is incalculable.” Dutton points out he is not advocating a bonanza sell-off of what he calls “the family silver” but believes councils need to squeeze maximum mileage from their assets.
It’s an approach that Staffordshire Borough Council employed to revitalise the ailing Stafford town centre. Under the guidance of commercial architects 3D Reid, the council’s workforce – who were strewn across 18 offices – moved to just two, one a £23m flagship council HQ. 3D Reid’s Shazad Azam explains that an extra 2,000 people were drawn into the town centre – bringing with them an estimated £3-4m in spending power. Azam is now advising other local authorities in the county how to repeat the formula.
But not every local authority has the luxury of a dozen half-filled premises knocking about in their portfolio. Moreover, it is hard to fathom how land values in the hinterlands outside cities in the North and the Midlands will provide a big enough return for developers to be interested. There are avenues still open to local authorities who retain the raw material. LABVs, or Local Asset-Backed Vehicles, (regeneration is heavy on the acronyms) are a kind of shopping basket in which local authorities can gather up all their land. The onus is on the private sector coming forward with regeneration proposals for these, often rather disparate, plots. Two timely examples are architects Studio Egret West’s plan for Sittingbourne in Kent, with developers Cathedral Group, Essential Land and Altyon, and their athletic-sounding Surrey Canal: London’s Sporting Village, which was devised with developer Renewal in a series of workshops with LB Lewisham. In Sittingbourne, Swale Borough Council stockpiled what practice co-founder David West calls about “half-a-dozen car parks and other slithers of land” and brought the lot to market.
Studio Egret West was appointed development partner as onoffice went to press and the Spirit of Sittingbournce plan promises a new cultural quarter and civic hub including public space and new council offices, housing and health centre with a hotel, multiplex cinema and theatre. In return numerous sites were allocated for new housing and retail.
“We managed to pull the ingredients together into a coherent plan. It had to wash its face,” says West, using the developer vernacular. “That is, make financial sense.” West expects to see more local councils playing an enabling role, throwing down the gauntlet to the private sector instead of employing consultants to draw up visionary plans. The danger is, of course, that developers may simply ignore sites that may be in dire need of assistance simply because the numbers fail to add up. This could put local authorities in the unenviable position of having to choose between a poorly designed masterplan or no masterplan at all.
However, West is optimistic. “Strangely, I think the difficulty of financing projects has cooled the boots of both developers and designers. They are thinking more carefully in terms of how and why they are doing it, which I hope takes us to a better decade of design than the last one. As long as the local authority goes about it in the right way, they can get some surprisingly good projects.”
Chris Brown, the executive director of Igloo, the investment fund behind, among other things, Bermondsey Square’s salubrious award-winning revamp, is more damning. For Brown, high-quality design is critical to the success of any regeneration project – and the planning system, for the most part, has failed to deliver. “Developers impose rubbish on communities via the current planning system in a very uncaring and unengaged way,” he says. “For me, regeneration requires public support, public funding – otherwise it is just property development. I am hopeful that communities take control of the planning system through neighbourhood plans. They are much more demanding in terms of design quality and sustainability.” Although good design is critical, true regeneration can only happen when local people can benefit directly, says Brown. “If you build a sleek office block for lawyers in the middle of a regeneration area it has probably close to zero impact on the community,” he says.
Cabe has been the design champion during the boom times, but the organisation also addressed issues intrinsic to regeneration: from marketing a development to sustaining a community. Recent manoeuvres have seen the organisation shrink to from around 100 staff to 20 and become absorbed into the Design Council. There is a feeling, however, the new leaner version could be more effective than its bloated antecedent – at least in design terms. “In some ways the bigger you get, the less effective you can be as an organisation,” says Brown. “You could have a league table for developers based on the quality of their schemes. That would be very powerful and the kind of thing a slimmed down Cabe could do.”
While some government bodies have been trimmed down others have been demolished faster than a 1960s housing estate. The RDAs that were instrumental in the Corby regeneration and countless other schemes are a high-profile casualty of the government’s swinging axe. They were not without their faults, but the RDAs bridged the gap between central and local government. In Corby, the East Midlands Development Agency stumped up £6.5m to build the Corby Enterprise Centre. £1.1m of this came from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), a pool of European money to stimulate and grow businesses managed regionally by the RDAs. Local Enterprise Partnerships are set to take this on – but for now momentum seems to have been lost. The RDAs have been swept aside in favour of localism, the much heralded and, it has to be said, slightly nebulous government policy. Localism is still in its early stages but opinion is divided on how it will pan out over coming months and what influence it will have concerning regeneration. Some opine it has the ring of a village green preservation society, a gilded invite to a Nimbys’ Ball, but for others it’s a dynamic way of devolving power to the people. Subscribing to the former view is 3D Reid’s head of regeneration, Paul Warner. He says: “Localism is divide and rule by this government. You only need three or four people to form a local group so there will be hundreds of them. Nothing will get done and the government will have more central power because localism is chaos.”
But localism as a concept shares much of its DNA with the consultative process underpinning regeneration. It is perhaps significant that one key exponent of more bottom-up development is Urban Initiatives, which also oversees the Stratford Metropolitan project. Hugely ambitious in its scope, the project aims to transform Stratford into London’s third city after Westminister and the City – creating 46,000 jobs, 1,800 workplaces, 20,000 homes along with myriad educational facilities and retail outlets. But the plan’s dimensions belie the nature of its delivery, according to managing director of Urban Initiatives, Kelvin Campbell. “When we did the Stratford Metropolitan masterplan, we said: ‘Whatever we do must be able to be chopped into smaller bite sized chunks.’ Everything we have done we have brought down to a 50 metre-wide plot,” he says. “Everything is interchangeable, everything is independent. There isn’t a single bit of infrastructure there that requires something else to happen first.” Campbell believes there are problems inherent in large-scale regeneration plans. Conceived in what he labels an age of bravery, the sheer size and complexity of these schemes makes them undeliverable from the beginning. Citing Elephant & Castle as example, Campbell continues: “The bigger you get, the more risk-averse you get, and the more demands you get on the public sector for grants to give you all the goodies. And it is all done of the basis of de-risking. But actually the biggest risk for the people of Southwark is that Elephant & Castle does not happen.” The idea is to encourage incremental development carried out according to demand – market forces-driven localism where local investors and contractors have a chance to get involved. He says: “The private sector cannot solve things of this scale. The battle to finally get a masterplan going on Kings Cross has taken 17 years – it has been 15 years at Elephant & Castle. The reality is, if they had parcelled it up into 20-30 projects it would have been delivered 10 times over.” The planning system is not currently geared up to tackle the forces unleashed by localism, according to Campbell, who calls the model “fundamentally broken”. He says: “You can’t not have top-down in a bottom-up world because otherwise it is chaos. So you need a different form of top-down. It is an interesting challenge and the debate has not started yet. We are dismantling at the moment rather than working out how to put it together.”
Campbell suggests that planning departments could simplify through pattern-book design, chiming with the current debate raging over standardised schools. He adds: “We have been in a era of architectural euphoria. But after 15 years of design at the forefront, what has it really delivered? I’m not denying we’ve had some good schemes, but we’ve had what I call Starbucks urbanism.” Pattern book sounds eerily like the sort of thing housebuilders have been doing for years, but Campbell is thinking more Georgian/Victorian engineering than post-war pre-fab.
And it extends beyond just housing. “Most Georgian, Victorian stuff has a wide variety of different uses: magazine offices, doctors’ surgeries. If you are moving much more towards universal space then frankly it could take any use.”
Meanwhile, as Stratford Metropolitan is primed, Corby is reeling from overall budget cuts over the next two years. There is good news, however. Crime rates and unemployment benefit claimants have fallen by around 20 per cent and the hope is the economic downturn won’t take the town back to square one. “It is interesting to look at regen initiatives in terms of economic cycle. We have achieved enough in the bullrun to sustain the town through to the next pick-up in the market,” says an optimistic Evans. Inevitably, there will be another bullrun. But towns and cities hoping to benefit from a subsequent loosening of the harness on public sector spending could face a long, long wait.