The art of placemaking

As part of the London Festival of Architecture (1st – 30th June) I went along this week to the site of Riverlight, a new residential development by St James (part of the Berkeley Group) in Nine Elms beside the Thames. I was especially interested because I used to live across the river and played in Battersea Park in the early ‘60s.

It’s a challenging site in a neglected area. The new buildings will sit between a pumping station, a cement works and a waste transfer station – that’s a tough sell to prospective purchasers. Change is on the horizon though, with the transformation of the iconic Battersea Power Station to the west finally set to commence this year and the new US Embassy due to open down the road in 2017.

Riverlight comprises six buildings, stepping up west to east from 12 to 20 storeys, set perpendicular to the river and providing 806 apartments, 106 of them affordable. On the lower level there’ll be commercial uses, including a health club. The footprint of the buildings is just 25% of the site, 75% is open space, with 60% of that accessible by the public. It will all be fairly exclusive but this is not meant to be a gated community.

As the design team of architects Rogers Stirk Harbour and landscape architects Gillespies took visitors through the thinking behind the project, I was struck just how much care goes into some developments. From orientation to materials, from the history of the site to the involvement of artists (check out advisors Future City) this is an attempt to make a new piece of urban fabric, a place, rather than simply exploit river views for the benefit of a few.

Of course it’s not entirely altruistic – the developers need to make a return and quality sells. But the challenge of the location and site, a former FedEx depot, seems to have inspired the designers to look beyond the predictable.

Two thoughts – for a new community to work, you need people. If the apartments go to investors who rarely use them, then Riverlight may not have the vibrancy of the CGI images shown in the marketing suite. See recent comments from Simon Hughes MP.

London has too often turned its back on the river (although access and design are improving bit by bit) and this stretch of the embankment is pretty uninspiring.  Creating new open, public areas alongside the river is to be applauded but the key will be maintenance and management. The designs we saw on Tuesday evening were captivating – a pocket park, streams and ponds, weirs and a “beach”. But a few yards away is the harsh reality of Nine Elms Lane – a busy and unforgiving main road.

Riverlight could offer sanctuary and inspiration and not just to its residents. I hope it works and doesn’t become just another privatised space in the city. I look forward to returning.

Renovation nation

The consensus on the Budget appears to be that the Chancellor had very few options. With growth forecasts downgraded yet again, borrowing up and the deficit essentially unchanged, he has little room for manoeuvre.

After an £11bn departmental “underspend” in 2012/13, public sector spending is set to be even more tightly controlled, with £11.5bn worth of savings (or cuts, depending on your politics) to be found in the June spending review.

Measures for growth amounted to a stimulus for the housing market by underwriting some mortgage lending, a cut in corporation tax (but not for two years) and an increase in spending on infrastructure, also from 2015.

“Infrastructure” was the budget buzzword. It appears 57 times in the Treasury’s Budget Report, compared with construction, which is mentioned just three times. Of course infrastructure investment usually involves some construction but the key issue is timing.

Research by The Guardian shows that less than a quarter of the Government’s projects will be completed during this parliament. The regularly updated “pipeline” of more than 500 infrastructure projects lacks start dates for many schemes. As the paper puts it, the national infrastructure plan includes “dozens if not hundreds of schemes that will not start buying equipment and materials or employing labour until long after the next general election.”

The UK certainly needs long-term investment in infrastructure but the economy, and in particular the construction sector, needs a stimulus now.

It’s instructive to read reactions to the budget from some of the organisations involved in the sector.

Here’s the RICS on infrastructure:

“The £3bn a year announced by the Chancellor is welcome but will not come on stream until 2015-16 – far too late for many businesses that are struggling now. Our members have told us repeatedly that the success of infrastructure projects are about delivery on the ground. RICS believe Government should spend more time and resource in supporting business to gain access to these public sector projects.

“The Government has largely failed to realise that infrastructure projects don’t need to be big to be effective in creating growth. In fact small might very well be beautiful. Across the regions and the  nations it’s the smaller repair, maintenance and upgrade projects which can be picked up by medium and small construction businesses. Rail maintenance and school refurbishment are just  two areas where a small amount of capital investment would quickly deliver great benefits.”

… and the Federation of Master Builders on housing:

“The FMB worries that the measures announced today may not go far enough to allow smaller builders to deliver the energy-efficent new homes Britain needs. Britain’s SME builders are in need of relief after years of shrinking workloads and rising costs. More than three-quarters of our members recently told us that the most important thing the Government could do to revitalise the home repair, maintenance and energy-efficiency markets would be to cut VAT. This would also provide a level playing field when competing with builders who choose to avoid charging VAT.”

In austere times, maintenance and repair always suffer. While new, large-scale projects are being proposed and (eventually) funded, the everyday infrastructure on which we all rely is being neglected – from roads to rail, from houses to hospitals.

Put this together with the need to make buildings of all types more energy efficient and you have a once in a generation opportunity to tackle the maintenance backlog, to upgrade and to improve performance. Surely that’s worth investing in?

Move into maintenance?

On Tuesday the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement set out the scale of the challenge facing the British economy over the next decade. Growth forecasts have been downgraded, the budget will not be balanced by the time of the next election, we face at least six more years of big spending cuts and as if that isn’t bad enough, further deterioration in the Eurozone would threaten any recovery.

Exactly a week before George Osborne stood up in the House of Commons, I was sitting in the Building Centre, off Tottenham Court Road, at the Construction Industry Council’s regular Economic and Policy Forum.

We heard from the Bank of England on the macro-economic situation and from the Construction Products Association (CPA) on the sectoral impact of the recession and the outlook for the next five years – it wasn’t a fun-filled few hours.

The Bank’s most recent analysis showed that, although pre-recession growth was actually better than previously calculated, the lowest point of the trough was comparable to the situation in the 1930s.

Even before the OBR’s forecast of another 200,000 job cuts, the public sector employment trend has not been following its projection of a gradual decline to around 5.3m by 2016 but has tracked sharply down. Half a million private sector jobs have been added since the depths of the recession but there is a long way to go.

There was not much in the Autumn Statement to cheer those in the construction and FM sectors. Government investment in infrastructure made for a few headlines but £5bn over three years is less than 0.1% of GDP per annum. The pension funds may respond but will need some persuading.

The missed opportunity is investment in the green economy and some recent decisions, on feed in tariffs and planning for example, suggest that the Government is stepping back from its commitment to protect the environment. The flagship Green Deal has been met with scepticism, particularly as it might apply to the commercial sector.

According to the CPA, the 73,000 houses started in 2009, represent the lowest figure (excluding the war) since 1923. Public housing appears to be off the agenda, set to fall from 30,000 starts in 2010 to just over 19,000 in 2013. With 267,000 new households created each year, we have a housing gap of well over half a million in 2011-15.

So, is there a glimmer of hope anywhere? Well, maybe if you run a maintenance business.

The theme running through the CPA’s presentation was that the pressure on capital programmes and a backlog of work should boost maintenance across schools, hospitals, roads and even public housing.

Capital expenditure on education is set to fall from £7.3bn in 2010/11 to £3.3bn in 2013/14. The focus will be on finishing off projects under the Building Schools for the Future programme and Academies. But, says the CPA, don’t underestimate the maintenance workload as schools put off work in anticipation of BSF funding.

From 2013 onwards the CPA suggests that DCLG will need to increase funding to deal with the maintenance backlog in public housing.

It’s a similar picture in healthcare – as we come to the end of a period of investment in major hospitals, the emphasis will be on medium-sized hospitals, GP clinics, IT and … maintenance.

Even so, with confidence in short supply, it might take a leap of faith for companies to invest in the systems, training and infrastructure required to meet this anticipated demand.

Much has been written about the different attitudes of the British and our continental European cousins to home ownership. But with higher deposits demanded from first time buyers and house price deflation perhaps people will start to view the roof over their head differently.

During an interesting discussion at the CIC Forum, there was just a hint that we could see a market develop for well-built and importantly, well-managed residential property to let.