Urban regeneration and the economic downturn

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 One of our annual highlights yesterday was the Royal Designers for Industry dinner. The winner of our Bicentenary Medal and keynote speaker was Tom Bloxham of Urban Splash. When we told Tom he had been given the award we asked him to speak on how urban regeneration might be affected by the economic downturn. That was last July when things seemed difficult but not nearly as bad as they look now.

The RSA gives Tom Bloxham the Bicentenary Medal

Tom didn’t hide how tough things are now in the property sector. But he expressed the hope that in times of austerity good design would be seen as an even more important virtue.

Let’s hope he‘s right but, in fact, as I intimated in my earlier blog on Virgin Trains, the recession could drive producers and consumers in two directions. On the low road, sellers will try to screw every penny out of us as they seek to keep their head above water, while consumers will go for the cheapest option. On the high road, sellers will do everything they can to retain the loyalty of customers while buyers will be much more discerning, making sure that they spend their limited money on quality products made to last. The outcomes will in large part reflect the nature of different markets and sets of consumers. Those with a monopoly will try to screw people (as in Virgin Trains), poorer customers will have little choice but to go downmarket.

Our actions as individual consumers will have unwanted collective outcomes. As Anne Ashworth comments in the Times today, we may not think now we will bemoan the loss of Woolworths but we will feel differently when our run down high streets are full of boarded-up shops. In some villages – for example Blockley in Gloucestershire - the combination of an imaginative business strategy and a commitment by residents has seen the local shop not just saved but turned into a thriving social business.

Tom says that fewer people can buy his flats but more people want to rent them. In this way he can continue to design and build great homes. Many businesses will need to look to fundamental changes in their business model to survive. In doing this, there is a case for producers and consumers to work together to get through the bad times. We need to create the spaces for communities to talk over the tough choices we face over the next few years.

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  • Prior to PPG3 few developers other than RSLs and pioneers like Tom Bloxham were interested in Urban Regeneration. The last decade has seen an expansion of interest from more mainstream funders and developers.

    Whereas the message coming out of key departments like the ODPM through papers such as Lord Rogers 2000 report, was on exactly the right lines, what has happened on the ground has often been a poorly conceived dash for growth fuelled by structural changes in debt finance, given credence in Government circles by the, rather tangential, Barker Report. Too much of the wrong product of the wrong standard addressing the wrong issues has been delivered.

    Public sector intervention is as important now as it was following the economic restructuring of the 1980s. This time, there is a foundation to build upon through the RSAs and the HCA. I would hope that holistic regeneration, including an emphasis on quality of environment and product, can once again be a driver of regeneration. There are still, however, very few developers in the market who have the skills to deliver this.

    Building for rent is an interesting development and we could learn a lot from the continent on this.

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