UK leads way on business park parking clampdown

Copyright: David Lawson - version appeared in Financial Times Dec 2000

The slanging match between European environment ministers  after last month’s Hague summit was watched with bitter amusement by the real estate industry. John Prescott, the UK deputy premier, came under attack for compromising EU ideals by bending to the gas-guzzling US. Yet he  is as the hammer of  developers after imposing such tough limits on car use  that the whole future of business parks is being questioned.  

Other European countries make  all the right noises about protecting the environment but are so ‘flexible’ that the car remains king.  ‘I have never come across a situation where parking controls are  an issue,’ says Trevor Silver, managing director of Akeler, a subsidiary of US holding company Security Capital which is seeking business  sites across the Continent.

France appears to have a strict regime based on its Plan d’Occupation du Sol and Plan de Deplacement Urbain regulations but these dissolve in the face of economic reality. ‘If socio-economic arguments are dominant – which is usually the case – generous parking is built into schemes,’ says Ahmed Bouariche, an associate with Arup Transport Planning.  In other words, jobs come first, second and last, with the local mayor making decisions rather than following central government or  EU dictat.

 Other European countries are little different. In Germany there is little or no incentive outside city centres to reduce parking, says Bouariche. In Portugal, where Akeler’s  business park has enabled leading international firms escape traffic-choked Lisbon,   the pressure is to create as much parking as possible, says Silver.

   John Burrows is  assessing sites across Europe for a chain of Heron City leisure parks,  and agrees that jobs come before climate almost everywhere but the UK and Scandinavia. One Heron scheme outside Valencia sailed through local planning procedures with barely a dent on proposals for 3,000 car spaces.

   Dozens of US communities are proudly held up by the Urban Land Institute for practicing ‘smart growth’, which   protects open land and  clusters development around mass transit nodes. The federal Environmental Protection Agency has also issued directives in half a dozen or so cities to improve air quality. But neither are representative of the general love affair with the automobile.

 The ERA has little impact at local levels, says Bill Maher, research director for Jones Lang LaSalle.  The most that might happen is in an area like Washington DC, where shuttle buses are introduced  between business parks and mass transit stations. And Bouariche says most large developments are still planned on the basis of one car space per person – or even more, to allow for visitors.

  The UK could not be more different. For almost five years developers have seen parking controls become increasingly draconian,  particularly  in the prime areas west of London. Planners who demanded one place for every 20 sq metres of building have shifted to 1 place per 35 sq metres – approximately one for every two staff. This  anticipates the new standard expected to be announced this month by the government in PPG13, its revamped  planning policy guidance.

   But even in the UK such rules can dissolve in the face of pragmatism. Away from the south-east, developers can face a situation remarkably similar to any French community. There is general acceptance that restrictions vary directly with unemployment levels, says Silver.   

    This is still far from the laisse faire  attitudes elsewhere in the world.  Central government is not averse to imposing its will: Prescott recently  rejected a major new business park near East Midlands airport despite support from local authorities. Local authorities are  also no pushover, pushing developers hard towards  fringe regeneration sites. There are also innovative schemes  involving bus and light rail services to act as carrots. But they are still rarely rare, and developers are expected to help foot the bill.  Few would bother to approach planners today without having negotiated new – often subsidised - bus links  with local operators.

   Moving car-oriented tenants off the roads is not easy. This is, after all, a major reason why they choose to locate on motorway-based business parks. An investigation by the leading industry journal Property Week last month showed tenants willing to sacrifice the other main attraction – a pleasant environment – by cramming cars onto every inch of space, including pavements and landscaping.  This may not be illegal but makes a fiction of parking ratios.

  The transition is not impossible, however, particularly as developers put more energy into innovations  after accepting that an inevitable hardening of attitudes to cars.  At Stockley Park, near Heathrow,  a battery of techniques such as automated bus stops and an intranet car pooling scheme has raised the proportion of staff using public transport from virtually nil two years ago to 12 per cent this year. Bouariche says this could reach 20 per cent in five years.

.    The whole nature of development is changing as tenants are forced back into towns. ‘The reason they left was to attract staff with easy access and a pleasant environment, ‘ he says. Urban business parks will be the patterns for the new century, agrees Silver. Companies are chasing staff who increasingly opt to live in city centres but existing offices lack the large floors demanded by modern businesses.

   Pioneers are emerging such as Akeler’s redevelopment at Central Quay, Glasgow, and the wholesale redevelopment by Guinness of its headquarters at Park Royal, London, with London & Regional Properties. Public transport is even more crucial on central sites where parking is about to be hit with extra taxes. The 1.25m sq ft Guinness scheme involves a £30m spend on a new Tube interchange and bus station as well as improved road access. Most of this will come from the developers’ pockets.

  But throwing money at  infrastructure is not enough, says  Jim McAllister, chairman of  The Rutland Group, which has spent more than a decade assembling the Bedfont Lakes business park    a mile south of Heathrow. He is heavily involved in a partnership with local planners, businesses and residents reorganising the whole pattern of transport around the area.

 ‘Parking controls are a blunt instrument imposed by central government which does not then contribute to the wider picture,’  he says. Nor does  transport control merely involve buses and parking. The massive development draws staff from as far away as Oxford and the south coast because only 6 per cent of  the local population has higher education qualifications. That has led Rutland and its big international tenants into helping solve problems such as schools and poor housing.

 ‘Developers have to take a long-term view and work closely with communities, otherwise tenants will move away and there will be no regeneration,’ he says.

  The fear of losing jobs is a powerful force even here in the prosperous south-east. UK planners have to balance stricter car controls with greater investment in wider issues, says Silver. If not, plenty of other countries will open their roads to footloose international tenants no matter how much noise they make in public about upholding environmental standards.