The keys to unlocking public land

Wednesday 19 September 2012

Up to 625 hectares of public land in London could be released for disposal or development by the end of Boris Johnson’s mayoral term in 2016 by the GLA, the capital’s largest public landowner.

That is according to Richard Blakeway, the GLA’s deputy mayor for housing, land and property, speaking at a special conference run by the NLA this morning which looked at the release of development land for the capital.

Blakeway said that it was “vital” to have an “outcome” – most likely through disposals and getting a development partner in place by 2016, and the GLA will also shortly be revealing “emerging and exciting plans” for the water it owns in London too, equivalent to the size of the Olympic Park.

To aid the process, Blakeway said that the GLA intends to publish a list of all its assets, along with its aims for those sites, adding transparency and to enable more developers to better approach it with particular ideas and schemes. The move will add “oxygen” to the process, and it would be “fantastic” if the system could be extended beyond the “GLA Group”, added Blakeway. The GLA also intends to set up a Single Property Unit to encompass the whole of the GLA Group to ensure its actions fit with mayoral commitments such as the establishment of Free Schools, for example, with another outcome being able to “connect up” portfolios. Lastly, it hopes to simplify and speed up procurement through the use of a London framework panel in place for the next financial year. “There is some fantastic work being done” said Blakeway. “London could really lead the way in what it does.”

The Government is another major public landowner – in fact the largest landlord and tenant in the country – with the MOD owning 1 per cent of all land and the value of government’s estate coming in at £370 billion. It owns just under 10 million square feet, said the Government Property Unit’s head of regional strategy Sherin Aminossehe, or the equivalent of “100 empty Shards placed next door to one another”. Aminossehe detailed the range of actions government is adopting to rationalise its estate, but emphasised that these are not just to save money but look at new ways of working. One such example was of an office building in Croydon which was used as one of 20 “hubs” dotted around outer London for civil servants during the Olympics. The fit-out was just £6,000 and it will be in operation until November.

The GPU’s director of London strategy, Judith Armitt, said London accounts for around 1 million sq ft, but that by 2020, the estate could be down to 50% of the 2010 level by area. Rationalising poorly performing buildings will help sustainability, but this programme was less about the buildings and more about what happens in those buildings and elsewhere, she said.

A majority of the boroughs are getting back into building, said London Councils’ head of housing and planning Nigel Minto, albeit at around 25-100 properties a year at the average borough rather than the large estates of the 1960s. An estimated 117,000 homes could be built on total public land but Minto said it was difficult to to get any precise information on where the land is – a central database will undoubtedly help.

The conference also heard from those with a key interest in making public/private partnerships work to release value from sites. They included Neil Webster of Cyclo Consulting, who said there was now more openness and accessibility about the Met Police’s estate, and LB Hackney Deputy Mayor Karen Alcock, who outlined her plans to meet the defining issue in the borough – housing. “We have taken a view we need to take advantage ourselves”, she said. “We can no longer just depend on our traditional partners”. Hackney has embarked on delivering private and affordable housing with schemes like Alexandra National House opposite Finsbury Park.

Bennetts Associates director Julian Lipscombe showed what can be done to “unlock the dilemma” faced by local authorities with ageing premises, creating new accommodation as part of a wider regeneration scheme, such as at the practice’s scheme at Bexley. And Martyn Evans, Creative director of Cathedral Group, showed what could be achieved on projects like Clapham One, with its library, surgery and leisure centre. Or at Sittingbourne, where the developer is again working to provide public facilities with little or no strain on the public purse. It all needs entrepreneurialism, more creative answers to the problems, and drawing on the expertise within local authorities.

Finally, One Housing Group director Kevin Beirne showed how similar principles could help unlock the NHS estate, which is valued at £6.6bn in London, on more than 2,000 sites, operated by 71 different NHS franchises. Beirne believe that the PropCo being set up in 2013 will speed up disposals, probably down the traditional route, but the key is having a less “rigid” approach to procurement. Through a JV approach, new homes could be unlocked for London with community-based health services, said Beirne. 

David Taylor, Editor, New London Quarterly

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