Doubts over pushing development back into towns

Copyright: David Lawson/Financial Times 1996

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It is hard to argue against plans to save the world. Perhaps that is why John Gummer has had such a long and trouble-free time while  radically changing UK planning policies in the last couple of years, demonising the car and associated developments like greenfield shopping centres.  New 'advice'  that development should  be squeezed back into town centres and  linked to public transport has raised little more than a muted groan from the property industry. 'You can't make  too much fuss against moves to cut global warming and protect little lambsies gambolling in green fields,' says one leading developer.

  But there is deep disquiet that the rules conceal fundamental inconsistencies. 'It is pointless insisting that development should be pushed into towns which do not want it,' says Tony Thompson, of consultants Drivers Jonas.  Many of London's Tube stations, for instance, appear to  fit the Gummer Guide to Friendly Development Sites. They are in town, centred on public transport and potential keys to wider urban regeneration. But constraints can be as severe as those applied to  Britain's disappearing pastures.

   London Transport has put forward schemes such as  around 2million sq ft on  one Tube station in Kensington & Chelsea. Councillors  welcome  economic activity but  prefer  it in  northern parts of the borough, where there is plenty of land, rather than around the congestion of Kensington High Street.   Similar contradictions dog other Tube sites. Many are buried in conservation areas, so local planners are left balancing the loss of their own environment against the national demand for protection of the countryside.

  Controlling cars is also a double-edged sword. Mr Thompson points out that occupiers will not move into town centres unless they can expect enough parking spaces for staff and visitors. Local authorities are rarely so generous. In fact, they can rub salt into this wound by allowing fewer spaces than their own planning policies suggest and then charging up to 8,000 pounds for each nonexistent car bay. The money is meant to pay for improvements to public transport or public parking. 'But they don't even guarantee reduced rates for an occupier in the nearest municipal car park,' he says.

  The point  is not that the car should be unfettered, but that restrictions are self-defeating when the balancing factor of public transport is hamstrung by deregulation, privatisation and lack of government commitment.  This can drive occupiers out of town, putting more pressure on the countryside. Sun Life recently deserted central Bristol, where commuters are said to rise before the milkman to claim parking spaces. In many towns, the environment of residential areas is being destroyed by such space hunters, who steadily pump CO2 into the atmosphere during their rambles.  Nor is there much evidence that occupiers are adjusting their mode of transport to match government wishes. Public transport is irrelevant to most decision-makers who still seek business parks with good road access and parking, says Thompson.

 Tony Fisher of Chesterton can think of only a single move dependent on  public transport - the move by London Electricity to Doxford Park on Tyneside, which is near the East coast rail line.  The idea that distributors will switch to rail is also a chimera, says his colleague Nick Redwood, as  distribution is uneconomic within the UK except for bulk goods. 'Rail-connected sites will appeal to a very narrow market unless they are also in an inherently strategic location with links to roads,' he says.

  The figures make more sense for international  distribution,  and the Channel Tunnel has generated a flurry of interest in potential feeder  sites, where road links to rail. Abcott Estates is offering a potential 4 million sq ft on the West Coast main line while AMEC and Wakefield District Council have hopes for  3.5 million sq ft at their Europort.  Kent is also revelling in a transition from economic backwater to a strategic international hub. Ian Fields, the county's inward investment manager, picks out the US company Computer Crafts which chose Ashford rather alternatives further north for its European headquarters, while software manufacturer Syncsort moved from the Thames Valley to King's Hill in West Malling. Ironically, most of this adjustment is geared to roads. Kent's new motorways are as important an influence as the European rail link.

  But developers are not blind to a future which must inevitably see less private transport. As fuel taxes rise, drivers will be  driven off roads by costs rather than problems about where they can park. They are also keeping a close eye on the trickle-down affect of new rules on strategic planning. This could have a significant impact on a county like Bedfordshire, which is considering  expansion corridors along rail routes, with new development focused  on existing and new stations.  

 Even parking restrictions could have a positive role in town centres, according to Mr Thompson. An underlying irony about the pressure to protect the countryside is  that  there is plenty going begging within towns. Unfortunately, it is the wrong sort of space. One of the industry's biggest problems is an overhang of obsolete offices put up as recently as the Sixties.  This is deeply unattractive to occupiers who need to accommodate both new technology and the demands from staff for better working conditions.

 Owners are reluctant to redevelop when rents are still low, so this blocks the supply of new buildings. But these older premises have  one great advantage; parking restrictions were much more generous when they were built, and as the screw tightens on new space they will gain a new lustre.  Developers are already working on renovations which give tenants better  working spaces but retain  the extra parking.   Planning restrictions were always thus: like a balloon, you squeeze one area and the pressure pushes up another.