The Urban Task Force and the UK’s urban renaissance agenda
As Tony Blair’s ‘New Labour’ gained national political control in 1997, they quickly set about reconstituting the Conservative’s urban policy framework by implementing an urban strategy with a spatial focus on deteriorating city centres. Such political imperatives were supported by an Urban Task Force chaired by internationally renowned architect Lord Richard Rogers. The Task Force published the landmark document Towards an Urban Renaissance in 1999, which proposed over 100 recommendations to improve the future sustainability of urban spaces, and thus enhance quality of life.
Whilst many of the Task Force’s recommendations are yet to see the light of day, their ‘quality counts’ stance espoused through design-led regeneration has had a noticeable impact on the design and production of UK cities and city spaces, including:
- ‘brownfield’ site redevelopments and urban densification
- public realm and streetscape enhancements
- provision of new urban public spaces
- repopulating city centres with residents, tourists and consumers
- public transport and infrastructure investment
- leveraging greater amounts of private capital
- iconic development and mixed-use schemes
Many Northern UK – former industrial – cities provide tangible ‘evidence’ of such an urban renaissance, or at least in the case of their public-facing city centres, gateway sites and other choice places. Notable examples include Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle.
Renaissance of Newcastle’s Quayside
Yet such renaissance has taken place in the ‘good times’, riding on the cusp of urban prosperity and macroeconomic stability. During the good times, developers, investors and speculators cherry-picked the best sites to regenerate, which are now hailed as beacons that an urban renaissance was delivered.
From renaissance to recession
Since late 2007 – with what began as a local phenomenon in the US sub-prime mortgage market – the credit crunch has impacted the real economy on a global scale. The UK has been in the grips of its worst recession since 1921, resulting in a whole host of socioeconomic ramifications, including rising unemployment and homelessness, fueling poverty and significant business closures.
As it now stands, the good times of urban renaissance are a distant memory. The pre-1997 highly-geared regeneration model has been shattered – with development viability called into question. Consequently, risks are now higher and returns reduced. This is impacting on the ability to complete current projects, to realise projects in the pipeline, and to bring forward new schemes.
Mothballed housing development scheme
With many renaissance project now ‘mothballed’ for the foreseeable future, and those presently being brought forward looking to cut costs wherever possible, there is an impending danger that the ‘quality counts’ mantra – which recognises the value of design – is replaced by a short-term view that equates lower costs with higher profits.
Maintaining urban quality
Despite raising the design bar over the past decade, and the steady progress made in educating different communities of practice that urban quality and good design makes commercial sense, the prevailing outlook in recessionary times risks undoing such progress. As built-environment consultants and public sector officials alike face redundancies – together with the complete dismantling of regeneration bodies and departments in the most extreme circumstances – there is a distinct possibility that design skills lost now will not be replaced once the good times return. The loss of skills refined over many years of practice could have severe repercussions for the design of cities over the next decade. I therefore end with the clarion call that, while urban quality is not easily counted or quantified, it surely counts.