Tuesday, 15 March 2011

New Enterprise Zones - Canary Wharf or Merry Hill?

The Government has signalled a return to the Enterprise Zones of the 1980s. The aim is to encourage development by freeing up planning rules and offering tax incentives. This is just one more approach to 'regeneration', i.e. public sector measures to secure development where no one wants to develop (private sector development that claims to be 'regeneration' is now ubiquitous, but is in fact just 'development' - no shame in that).

Last time around, we had Enterprise Zones, which were cheap, passive measures, but also Urban Development Corporations (UDC's), which were costlier, but active in facilitating development, for instance by assembling sites and providing infrastructure; and they, rather than local authorities, had development control powers in their areas. Both (the measures were not mutually exclusive) had mixed results, with more failures than successes. In some places, a great deal of public money was spent, and nothing of consequence was built; in others, nothing that was any good. The successes tended to be where one might have expected, such as London Docklands, as well as some less obvious outliers such as the Quayside in Newcastle.

The recent announcement was accompanied by the usual muddle of mixed messages. The Government says that the Labour administration focussed growth too much in the south-east, but they also say that the new zones will be focussed on areas of high growth potential - that sounds like the south-east to me (although perhaps they mean that we are going to start making things again, rather than relying on the thin air of the financial services sector).

See this recent article in Prospect magazine for a more honest take on all this. We should be encouraging development Cambridge, where there are plenty of people who would like to build things, not Sunderland, where there aren't. A Government that claims to be pro-growth but shows no appetite for (and has no cash for) Heseltine-style interventionism may need to think a bit harder about where and how significant development is to happen.

All this points to the need for some tough choices and unpopular decisions. By far the most successful of the UDC's last time around, the London Docklands Development Corporation - invented by the Tories - is a model they might find it useful to study. Not everything they did was terrific, but most of it wasn't too bad, and a great deal got built where nothing had happened for decades. The most notable triumph of the non-UDC Enterprise Zones appears to be Merry Hill shopping centre, which offers rather less to be proud of. The evidence suggests that active intervention (UDC's) produces better quality (and therefore more enduring and therefore more sustainable) results than pure Enterprise Zones. If there's no public money this time, what about offering the opportunity for the private sector to invest in UDC's, with the prospect of benefitting from the uplift in land value that will accrue when they grant themselves planning permission?

One of the most interesting aspects of the LDDC, from the point of view of architecture, was that in a deregulated planning environment, those who ran it were, at least for part of the LDDC's life, able to insist on higher design standards than prevailed outside the zone. This was achieved by a combination of carrots and sticks, including some design-led selection processes for disposal sites, and with the help of some dedicated architects on the staff, supported by an authoritative design panel. Between them they were prepared to demand high standards and had the respect of those coming to the LDDC with projects. I was one of the latter, and remember thinking that the standard of design discussion at the LDDC was in a different league from that which pertained in the average local authority planning department (which hasn't got much better since, and is about to get worse as the design-qualified staff are made redundant).

An important aspect of achieving good quality schemes in Docklands was where the LDDC was the landowner. As history shows, landowners as patrons of design are better than planning authorities as proxy patrons.

Free up planning by all means, but in any new system, the Government should insist on high standards of design even when all the other rules have lapsed. Folk memory in public administration tends to be non-existent, but there are people who know how this was done last time.

People fear new development because so much of it is so bad. Allowing developers to throw up any old rubbish will exacerbate nimbyism and add to the list of things for voters to hold against the Government. Beautiful cities are not the answer to all our problems, but they can't do any harm.

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