Urban regeneration may create slums of future, says Rogers

Cahal Milmo
Saturday 29 March 2008 01:00 GMT

To the cheerleaders of urban renewal, the rapid march of glass and steel monoliths and asymmetric housing blocks across Britain's skyscape represents a shiny future. For Lord Rogers, one of the world's foremost architects, they are part of an ill-conceived building boom that is in danger of creating "the slums of tomorrow".

The 74-year-old peer, whose pioneering buildings range from the Pompidou Centre in Paris to the Millennium Dome, has issued a blistering attack on what he considers the slow and "shoddy" progress in the rejuvenation of towns and cities with estates that would look the same "in Beijing or Buenos Aires" mushrooming across the country.

He also criticised the cumbersome planning process, choosing the untimely example of Heathrow's ill-fated Terminal 5, which he began designing nearly 20 years ago, as a case where long delays (of a bureaucratic rather than baggage-handling variety) were unnecessary.

But it was for urban regeneration projects such as the Thames Gateway, the swathe of east London and the Thames estuary earmarked for 160,000 new homes by 2016 at a cost of £9bn that the architect saved his most biting analysis. He pointed out that the proliferation of "toy-town houses and Dan Dare glass towers" was evidence of the way in which the laudable aim of the Government to encourage people back into cities has resulted in a plague of mediocre architecture.

In 1998, Lord Rogers was asked by John Prescott, then the Labour Party's deputy leader, to lead the Urban Task Force, a commission of architects, planners and engineers which produced a blueprint for inner-city renewal that focused on design-led buildings and reform of the planning system to allow greater involvement of residents.

But in a speech to the House of Lords, he said: "There is something wrong when nine years after the Urban Task Force published its report we still have no examples of regenerated neighbourhoods and cities in the UK to compare with the best in the world. There is also something seriously wrong when the Thames Gateway – Europe's major urban regeneration project – is still peppering the banks of the beautiful river Thames with shoddy, toy-town houses and Dan Dare glass towers.

"There is also something seriously wrong when new houses across the country form rootless estates and could just as well be in Beijing, Buenos Aires or Belfast. These are developments which have no regard for a community's sense of place, belonging or identity. I fear we are building the slums of the tomorrow but it shouldn't be. Britain has some of the best architects in the world."

Under government plans, some three million new homes will be built across England by 2020 to meet burgeoning demand among groups including first-time buyers and key workers. In order to reach the target, developers and local authorities have pledged to build 240,000 new homes a year until 2016.

Lord Rogers received support for his concerns from the Royal Institute of British Architects, which is backing plans to create "design review panels" – advisory committees which will be able to steer local authority planners on the aesthetics of housing development or retail space.

The peer said he was frustrated that when a clear vision was established for major infrastructure or the shape of Britain's cities, it was eroded by the planning process. He said: "It takes at least 15 years and strong leadership for urban visions to become urban realities. In Britain, every policy is watered down through negotiation with countless agencies and every proposal bogged down in endless processes.

"The first planes have landed and taken off from Heathrow's Terminal 5. When my firm started to design this building, I was a much younger man. It was 19 years ago. We have to speed up the decision-making."

The Department for Communities and Local Government insisted that it was "committed to good design" and said it was unfair to criticise the Thames Gateway, where "the best design standards possible" were being sought. But the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, which advises the Government on architecture, agreed that there was a case for speeding up the planning system. A spokesman said: "We need to speed up the passage of well-designed and well-considered development through the planning system. But that should not be at the expense of proper controls – the planning system is the best defence we have against the kind of shoddy development Lord Rogers rightly bemoans."

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