A blueprint for the rich

Deborah Orr
Monday 28 June 1999 23:02

IT IS difficult, judging from the leaks so far, to work out why today's 300-page blueprint for the revival of Britain's cities is being labelled controversial.

Launched by the architect Richard Rogers and the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, the Urban Task Force's report will endeavour to stem the tide of greenfield home building in favour of brownfield, rationalise VAT so that new house builders face the same penalties as restorers of old ones, and generally grip the elbow of the building industry to guide it in the direction of towns and cities rather than virgin land.

All perfectly sensible, if we are to provide 4 million new homes by 2016, discourage people from moving out of our cities at the rate of 1,700 a week, and halt the incursion into the countryside that has characterised new home building for years. To achieve these aims, says Rogers, we must persuade middle-class families to move back into the city, and make sure that the centres of Britain's cities are no longer ghettos inhabited only by the poor. Instead, inner city communities must be mixed, and since the greatest pressure for new homes is in the south-east, this means London.

Sounds nice doesn't it? Except that I live in a part of London which I know that Rogers and Prescott would agree is a perfect example of an area ripe for regeneration, and indeed the area does have a partnership body funded by a government grant dedicated to doing just this.

The Vauxhall Cross Capital Challenge exists to transform this area of inner London, just by the river on the south side, at the foot of Vauxhall Bridge. The transformation has already begun. But while Vauxhall is a mixed area, with social housing next door to large Victorian town houses, every indication suggests that the partnership's ambition is to turn Vauxhall into a rich area, and one with less provision for families instead of more.

The main focus of attention has of course been the land on the waterfront. For years development was deterred by the planning hurdles erected by Ted Knight's corrupt and unmourned Lambeth Council, as well as the large amounts of public housing behind it.

The transformation began some years ago with the building of Peninsula Heights, now well known as the building where Jeffrey Archer has his penthouse with a view of the Houses of Parliament. Last year there was a flurry of excitement when it was revealed that Lambeth wanted to house the new London Local Authority building at Vauxhall Cross.

The bid was lost to Southwark, not far up the river on the same side. This area, already home to the redeveloped Tate Gallery Bankside, has seen land prices shoot up since the announcement.

Southwark council has been accused of "cultural engineering" whereby poor Londoners are forced out of their homes to make way for private or luxury developments. Rumours that three estates have been earmarked for demolition in the area have been rejected by the council. But a statement from Southwark's head of regeneration, Fred Manson, is far from reassuring. "Because social housing generates people on low incomes coming in and that generates poor school performances, middle-class people stay away."

But while Vauxhall missed out on that redevelopment prize, the trend towards attracting wealthy residents at the expense of poor ones is already evident anyway. On the "Effra" site, across the bridge from MI6 a building called St George's Wharf is presently being erected. This 17-storey building is not of course a wharf but a mixed development of luxury apartments, hotel, offices and leisure facilities.

So far so good. Of course the rich will continue to live on the waterfront, and of course they will want certain facilities nearby. Enter the redevelopment of Spring Street Gardens across the road, a calm little hinterland along the side of the railway which boasts not only one of the few areas of safe green space for children to play on, but also Vauxhall City Farm, earmarked for closure to make way for a shopping mall and multiplex cinema.

There's an interesting range of people standing in opposition to this proposal, which the council is giving every support to, including a group of nuns who have a convent there, a gay lobby which is campaigning for a local pub, the Vauxhall Tavern, to be left standing, and of course the local parents who have precious little space to bring up their kids and don't relish the loss of the gardens and the city farm. It is here that one starts to see what the community stands to lose from redevelopment. Surely there is too much emphasis here on the affluent and not enough on the mixed?

Indeed a further look at plans for the area confirms this view. Part of the plan to attract wealthy new residents includes tackling the council estates which sit cheek by jowl with all this activity. To that end, Lambeth has made a deal with Wimpey for the redevelopment of two large estates in Vauxhall. There are plans for 1,500 private and only 500 affordable homes.

Instead, Lambeth is being cautious about quite different things. Our little local library, with its admirable children's section, is earmarked for closure despite support from the local MP Kate Hoey, local boy-made- good, the chief executive of British Airways, Bob Ayling, the actress Jenny Agutter and many local families, including my own. The children's adventure playground lies derelict and dangerous, its bright but fading colours a taunt to local children who have few places to play. The children's nature reserve, too, has been closed for years,.

These sites, like Spring Street Gardens and the city farm, will soon be worth a great deal of money if the plans to regenerate this neighbourhood are successful. But as amenities for local children, they are worth nothing at all. Will the influx of wealthier residents lead to their renaissance, or will they be sold off to developers when the price is right?

It's an interesting question, and one that lies at the heart of all this talk about attracting families back into cities. There are already plenty of families living in this area, and they are far from well catered to. While their plight becomes worse, the urban regenerators are keen to attract wealthier families instead. They will want larger houses, with larger green areas, private gardens instead of communal spaces.

Surely this regeneration will mean providing accommodation for fewer people, not more, people who will not have such a need of city farms, or adventure playgrounds or nature reserves, for they will be in a position to take their children to the real countryside at the weekend, which is one good reason why the real greenfield sites must remain protected.

Richard Rogers, or to give him his New Labour name, Lord Rogers of Riverside, must see this pattern emerging in London's regeneration. Indeed he has admitted that the reliance on private developers to do the regenerating is not compatible with the creation of mixed housing. As has already been pointed out, his own new housing development, Montevetro, again on the south side of the river, this time in Battersea, is entirely made up of luxury flats.

It is perfectly possible that a regenerated riverside will eventually stretch from Battersea, through Vauxhall Cross, past the redeveloped South Bank Centre, right up to the new London Government building at Tower Bridge.

While this will immeasurably improve an area which has always been neglected as London expands, it will certainly be an area for the elite, and not for the broad range of people that the Urban Task Force claims to act for.

While Richard Rogers is sincere in his vision for cities, the reality of the changes will be quite different. No life peer has been more appositely named. Lord Rogers of Riverside, despite his dream of an integrated city, is instead creating a riverside that will be open only to the lordly.

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