Going public – capitalizing on land for regeneration

Wednesday 16 December 2015

Public bodies are working hard to maximise the development potential of their land as the quest for housing and regeneration intensifies, spearheaded by moves made by central government and its own estate.

This was the NLA’s latest event, sponsored by GL Hearn, held as part of its season-long examination of housing last week, intended to consider how the city can take a more long-term approach to creating places in which to live.

Claire Bennie introduced the conference by noting that it was difficult to find good data on ‘the mysterious portfolio’ of what London’s public land holdings are.

But Sherin Aminossehe, Chief Operating Officer, Government Property Unit said her department is looking to change all that by recreating what was effectively the first register of land – the Domesday Book – in terms of the public sector asset base today. ‘Without decent data, you can’t have decent strategies’, she said. ‘You can’t really know what you’re trying to get rid of.’ The whole of public property is worth around £360 billion but that also includes housing estates and nuclear bunkers as well as much of what one sees in Whitehall. The office portfolio alone costs some £1.3m to run every year and government owns 2% of land in this country, said Aminossehe. ‘We have, however, generated nearly £2 billion by releasing a lot of public land and buildings and assets and have released over 2 million square metres.’ Government has looked at where it is likely to be over the next 5, 10 and 15 years and is working with departments about where they will need to be located, rethinking ‘Whitehall-centricity’. Today’s 63 offices in its Whitehall estate will be down to 25 in five years’ time, said Aminossehe. And it is looking at its courts and prison portfolio too, especially since housing one prisoner per year costs around £50,000 – more than sending a child to Eton. Property and the built environment has been a bit of a ‘Cinderella profession, waiting in the wings’, she said, but the subject got over 50 mentions in the autumn statement. ‘That means we have actually arrived as a profession.’

In London, the mayor in 2012 inherited 670ha of land including from the Homes and Communities Agency and LDA, but 99% of that land is now in the development pipeline, said Simon Powell, Assistant Director, Strategic Projects and Property, GLA. In total, the land and interests in joint ventures has the capacity for 50,000 homes, 60,000 direct jobs and 120,000 construction jobs. The Royal Docks is the mayor’s largest land holding at 275ha, with a scale of opportunity that is ‘vast’ and a core part of the mayor’s City in the East project, with an emphasis on Silvertown Quays and Royal Albert Dock. There are also 113 schemes across the 20 Housing Zones in London too, said Powell, with 10 more Housing Zones to be announced early next year.

The conference also heard from ‘landowners unlocking land’ including Transport for London’s commercial development director Graeme Craig, who said that it has a programme that will generate £3.4 billion over the next 10 years, of which a third will come from property activity - now seen as a core part of what TfL does. And Stuart Kirkwood, Development Director, Network Rail said it had been given a target of 19,000 homes to create from released land, with a thrust toward regeneration of the sort seen at King’s Cross.

Before a final element looking at European exemplars, a second session on regeneration heard from speakers including Argent partner Robert Evans on Kings Cross and other direct partnerships with local authorities. The extensive work at King’s Cross put in ‘to get the outline planning right’ is paying off, as is a ‘giant’ Section 106 agreement that they tried to view as a positive aspect of development, said Evans. The big challenge, though, for any public land is how you keep paying for it beyond the development phase, said Evans. Argent has put in place a long-term regime around estate management with a common charging system for all land uses across all plots. But private and public sectors will have to be more innovative in working together to keep delivering enough affordable homes, and retain the confidence of the industry and the public, added Evans. ‘This is the biggest issue we all face’, he said, although the hardest area had been working with the NHS. 

By David Taylor, Editor, NLQ.

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