Unlocking Public Sector Land

Thursday 19 June 2014

Much of London’s ripest land is already under development and solutions were put forward on how to unlock the hard-to-get-at remainder at the Unlocking Public Sector Land half-day conference at the NLA on June 18.

Richard Blakeway, Deputy Mayor for Housing Land and Property at the GLA, promised better results as a result of 670 ha of land being transferred to the GLA, making it the largest public landowner in London. He promised that all inherited land will be under development or in development strategy by 2016. To that end, the GLA has made £200 million available to unlock public land and the Government has put in another £200 million. It is hoped that 50,000 homes will be built through this fighting fund in the next ten years. ‘We want the boroughs to bid for this cash and drive these schemes forward,’ said David Lunts, Executive Director of Housing and Land at the GLA. ‘Many of the boroughs have new-build housing programmes for the first time in two decades.’ Lunts pointed to the example of Ealing, which has set up its own development company to regenerate places such as Copley Close. ‘A lot of borough-led schemes were started last year, but more could be done,’ added Lunts. ‘There is a compelling argument for amending borrowing caps for boroughs, given the scale of the housing need.’

Other innovative funding mechanisms are being put in place, such as allowing developers to defer payment to public bodies and make tricky sites viable. Kevin Cowan, a director of Mace Group, said that it had benefited from the deferred payment model to develop an old hospital site at Greenwich Square with 645 homes and an impressive 50 per cent affordable housing.  ‘The deferred payment land disposal model worked really well here and made the investment negotiation with the banks far easier,’ he said.

Meanwhile, the GLA is encouraging developers by publishing a public land property database on its website – ‘a digitised Domesday Book for London’. And it is facilitating meet-ups between boroughs and developers with a ‘speed-dating service, to discuss land that is for sale’. This has led to a number of deals and the idea is now being rolled out nationally.

Sherin Aminossehe
, Head of Government Estate Strategy and Delivery at the Government Property Unit, added that the Government is also putting details of nearly all its land assets in London online.  ‘We want the public to know what we own and we are encouraging people to put forward a Right to Contest bid if they think we are not using the land in the best way and can do it better.’ She told the GLA: ‘The offer is there if you wish to join databases.’

Lunts claimed that London is getting ‘more mature’ about regeneration and pointed to the rapid transformation of vast sink estates such as Heygate and Aylesbury in Southwark. And there are encouraging signs on the ground that the sort of Nimbyism that has held back development of public land is being replaced by a more realistic attitude. Stephen McDonald, Director of Place, RE (Regional Enterprise) – a regeneration joint venture between Barnet council and Capita – said: ‘We are seeing evidence that conservative residents are increasingly receptive to housing developments in their area because they realise it might be the only way that family members can live there.’

Perhaps the biggest scheme coming forward, and the most challenging, is the regeneration of the Royal Docks, for which development partners are expected to be appointed in July. Jonathan Turner, Director of Development Consulting at DTZ, warned that the site may not reach its development potential because the market had not fully realised the benefit of its Enterprise Zone status. 

‘Enterprise Zones present the most powerful income stream mechanism for decades, but that’s not the position the market has taken,’ he said. ‘However, they missed the real point and that’s the ability to utilize business rates. In the Royal Docks, where there is more than 7 million ft2 of development, there is the ability to lever hundreds of millions of pounds of infrastructure investment on the rates.’ However, good modelling is needed to make the case and that is not happening. ‘We have found a lack of robust evidence base on what that accommodation is going to be; one plc looking at Royal Docks didn’t even know it could retain business rates.’

As more schemes come forward, said Duncan Salmon, Head of Regeneration at the law firm Speechly Bircham, developers and public bodies needed to think more carefully about ‘balance of control’ to unlock difficult sites.  ‘Think carefully about who is controlling what and when?’ he said. ‘Think about delivery of objectives, transfer of land interest and payments and how the proceeds are divided.’

Mahmood Faruqi, Director of Planning at RTKL, ended the event by urging London’s planners and developers to learn from other cities in a bid to stimulate development in the Central London core. He held up the example of the 15-year-old L.A Live entertainment complex in central Los Angeles. The “entertainment and lifestyle” development on public land was built around a 20,000 seat arena and has catalysed the building of 3,000 houses. “If the city authorities had just said ‘let’s build housing here’, no one would have touched it.”

There is much to do, but Rick Blakeway promised results: ‘The GLA is getting into delivery and rolling up its sleeves to regenerate London’.

Damian Arnold

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Unlocking London’s public sector land


This NLA half-day conference will focus on public sector land in the capital, examining how central government, the mayor, local authorities and public bodies are working to maximise the development potential of their assets and release much-needed land for housing, regeneration and development.

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