In my Opinion: Prosperous people need to be encouraged to live in the areas of regeneration

Chartered Management Institute Companion George Iacobescu, Canary Wharf Group CEO, looks at the challenges in creating new communities.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

The Government plans to create in the Thames Gateway 'a destination of choice for living and working ...', but it remains to be seen precisely how this will be achieved. Without clarity and certainty on key issues for the Government such as transport, utilities and social infrastructure, and unless delivery structures are apparent, the objectives to create 'sustainable communities' will not be achieved.

Many of the areas of east and south-east London in which sustainable communities are proposed were a focus for major social housing development in the 1950s, '60s and '70s, which led to poor-quality housing and a degraded environment. The Government's current ambition to promote excellence in architecture and urban design, including the use of innovative construction methods, is what politicians, architects and planners promised for East London in the 1950s. In the scramble to accommodate growth, similar mistakes must be avoided.

A single comprehensible strategy is essential, one that brings clarity on delivery structures and makes apparent the relationships between public organisations with interest in regeneration. The relevant public agencies must be given the authority and responsibility to deliver the strategy within their designated areas: there can be too many advisory boards and expert panels.

Implementation of the Government's regeneration programmes to create sustainable and dynamic communities will rely on both public and private-sector provision. It will be crucial, therefore, to ensure that the private sector - house-builders, developers, investing institutions and business organisations - are engaged with public agencies at the earliest stage.

Without major investment in infrastructure, including Crossrail and the river crossings, the only people who will live in areas such as the Thames Gateway will be those that cannot afford to live elsewhere. This will perpetuate social exclusion and result in long-term public-sector intervention on a massive scale: in social services, income support, housing benefit, etc. It's not a cheap option to avoid past mistakes, but in the long term it will be more expensive if critical issues of access are not addressed.

Prosperous people need to be encouraged to live in the areas of regeneration, as they are essential ingredients of sustainable communities, necessary to boost the local economy and to contribute their skills and energy to support the social infrastructure.

A mix of housing is therefore crucial. The Mayor of London's target for social housing must be flexibly applied and relate both to the economics of particular projects and the existing balance of tenures in the area.

The need might be for more private housing in certain areas to provide balance and ensure sustainability.

Business will not relocate to these areas unless there is adequate infrastructure and a reservoir of skilled people who can be recruited locally. Such people will not move to these emerging areas, or stay if they are already local, unless they have good access to employment. Only then will companies be attracted to these new sustainable communities in the knowledge that there is a skilled workforce that can be recruited locally. Consequentially, long-distance commuting can be reduced in the medium to long term.

Delivering what have been called 'restructured modern industrial areas in key locations' will be a particular challenge. The close participation of London's premier academic institutions will be crucial, and the Government's strategy should put forward specific proposals.

One can be too analytical in assessing the employment skills that will be needed. The crucial step will be to make sure that all school-leavers are literate, numerate and conscientious. This will enable them to begin rewarding careers or develop their skills in further and higher education.

These key skills can most efficiently be gained at primary school. Furthermore, until we can create confidence in primary and secondary school standards, the new development areas will remain unattractive to families with school-age children who can choose where they live.

The risk of not optimising the development potential of areas such as the Thames Gateway is that the vacant sites will gradually fill up, creating vast suburbs of relatively cheap housing. Those without cars will be isolated and the prosperous will stay away, preferring west London, the Home Counties and the Green Belt, as they do at present.

What problems are likely to arise without clear and decisive action?

Poor public transport and an increased reliance on cars, limited local employment opportunities, unplanned population growth and consequential lack of infrastructure and amenities, 'problem' estates, street crime, overburdened and ineffective local services, the school run, nimby planning policies that inhibit optimisation of land use, and so on.

To facilitate the leadership required to create successful sustainable communities, Government must set out the next steps in the process towards implementation, ensure that the public sector is adequately resourced and be clear what it expects from the private sector.

- CV: George Iacobescu joined CWG in 1987 to oversee the procurement and construction of Canary Wharf's first phase. He was appointed executive director of Canary Wharf Holdings in 1994, and became deputy chief executive in 1996 and CEO in 1997. Previous roles include vice-president of development and construction at the World Financial Center in New York, and the Olympia Center and the Neiman Marcus Buildings in Chicago.

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