Transport  restrictions  may benefit office parks

Copyright: David Lawson- first published Property Week  1999

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It is hard to hear yourself think nowadays for the noise of business parks taking a hammering. Bang -  planning directives demand that sites closer to town centres are eliminated before moving outwards. Bang -  a transport White Paper clamps down on traffic generation. Bang - a suggestion to tax parking, the magnet for most business park occupiers.

 And between  each big shock  comes the chatter of a thousand taps from  local planners, beating down the number of parking spaces they will allow for each new building. It all sounds suspiciously  like nails being driven into the coffin of what was once the brightest hope for property development in the new millennium.

  Yet no-one  scurrying around beneath this onslaught seems to believe that death is imminent. In fact most appear to be rolling quite comfortably with the blows. 'One fact everyone seems to be overlooking is that parking restrictions are being proposed at even stricter levels in town centres,' says Mike Rolls of the Prudential, who has just started building Green Park in the Thames Valley. 'We may actually benefit from the new planning regime.'

  He is in a privileged position, however. Outline permission for 2.5m sq ft was granted at a time when one car was allowed per 25 sq metres of space. Today, that is more likely to be somewhere above 1:30 sq metres. In future, who knows?

  No one, says Stuart Robinson of CB Hillier Parker. It is too early for hard regulations or planning appeal decisions. Nothing has yet been turned down purely on parking grounds, although evidence is accumulating of tougher controls.

 In Bath Road, Slough, for instance, levels of 1:39 sq metres have been set compared with earlier schemes at 1:25 sq metres.  Stockley Park, was planned at 1:25 but now faces a maximum of 1:35 as the standard set by local planning authority Hillingdon for the final phase. 'We can only tell which way the wind is blowing and advise clients it is not worth asking for high-parking developments on a greenfield site.'

   But few would be dense enough to do that anyway. It is taken as read that any new scheme must be linked to public transport. 'It does not need to be on the doorstep - just within easy access,' says Rolls, who is looking at the possibility of a new rail station to complement the buses planned for his scheme.

  This furore over the transition from greenfield to green is all somewhat bemusing for the industry's pioneers. Arlington's Patrick Deigman points out that Globe Park, which vies with Stockley as the first true business park, was a mixed development. He also saw the way the planning wind was blowing long ago, and most of his big developments are tied into light rail links.

  Andrew Vander Meersch, Stockley's chief executive, has already persuaded  10% of the park's workers to use buses and is ready to spend a couple of million helping integrate a new station on the nearby Heathrow Express line. Rouse Kent's Kings Hill on the other side of London has already won new bus and  fast train services with an integrated transport policy that preceded New Labour.

  'It was obvious under the previous government that things had to change,' says Vander Meersch. And what was once a sop to political pressure is now a commercial imperative. Today's occupiers demand both private and public transport, he says.

  But are they right? Guy Marsden, who has spent more than a decade producing almost 3m sq ft of business space for Highbridge Properties thinks developers should not take such demands as gospel. His massive Cobalt Park development in Newcastle, for instance, has brought call centre operators running. They look for parking of around 1:17.5 sq metres to cater for an overlap of shifts.

  'Part of our our job is persuading them they don't need this sort of level,' he says. This means developing  a knowledge of occupiers' business and bringing  them to the table with public transport  operators  to show what is available.

  There is a general feeling that development is easier in the provinces,  as economic regeneration takes precedence over planning restraint. Conflicts between the DTI, with its remit to create jobs, and the DETR's drive to cut traffic and greenfield development are rumoured to have reached Cabinet level. Things are not quite that simple, however.

  'We don't get the same problems as with retail,' says Omar Elmi, a director of Miller Developments. 'But it is not a north-south divide. Every big city has the same issues as in the south-east.' Marsden also insists that planners are no easier in the North than elsewhere.

 Of course, it helps to find an area designated for development, such as Miller's  proposed 72m pound Great Park scheme in Darlington. But Elmi will still be contributing to traffic reduction by helping pay for a link between the A1(M) and A66.

  Pressure for development outside the south-east could begin to even out inequalities over the next decade. Andy King, who has spent more than a decade charting the rise, fall and revival of business parks, sees the latest planning constraints as a seachange which could finally push occupiers out of the crowded south.

 Research for his online database leaves him with a feeling that planners [ITALIC]are[ENDITALIC] more 'flexible' in the Midlands and North. 'This could lead to decentralisation not seen since the Eighties,' he says.

  The South will not let firms go lightly. More than half the 3.3m sq ft of space now under construction - generally with relatively high parking provision - is in the South-east. These could benefit from tightening controls, drawing in expanding occupiers which have not yet gained permission.

  'The owner-occupier market could disappear as firms refuse to go through the expense and delay of drawn-out planning battles,' he says. Smith-Kline Beecham has already proved that by switching attention from Stockley to a site in west London which has poorer parking provision but can be occupied more quickly.

  He believes this will boost rents and yields on existing parks. Chris Hiatt of Jones Lang Wootton is not yet convinced that  higher parking levels will automatically command a premium. But they  will let more easily.

  Tiers rather than tears will be the new order. 'Different market levels will evolve, with businesses that need parking for staff coming and going all day gravitating to parks with better ratios. Those with sedate staff at their desks all day will settle for lower parking levels - as long as they are well served by public transport,' he says.

 The are inherent dangers in this optimism, however. The government may tighten restrictions further. 'Business parks have a future as long as parking is cut by 10%,' says Alistair Elliott of Knight Frank.

 'If it reaches 50% and   a parking tax comes in, there could be problems.'  Unless rules are easier in the North, occupiers may skip the country altogether  to mainland Europe, says Elliott.

   One safety valve could be the next generation of parks like Kings Hill and Development Securities' Cambourne, near Cambridge. These are work-home communities, designed to minimise traffic generation. 'They may be the only sustainable business park model for the 21st century,'  says King.