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No regeneration without engineers

News analysis - Government regeneration plans are doomed unless transport infrastructure is pushed higher up the agenda. Mark Hansford reports from MIPIM in Cannes.

IN THE past, British consultants and civil engineering contractors would have been very much on the fringes at France's MIPIM property fair in Cannes.

Traditionally the event has been dominated by architects, property developers and housebuilders drawn to a show built around drawing investment to cities and regions around the world. But the show is changing.

This year it was marked by a growing realisation that for urban regeneration to succeed, it must be accompanied by new transport infrastructure.

Big hitters Atkins and Arup moored sleek executive yachts alongside the exhibition halls;

Capita Symonds hosted parties in a classy hillside villa. The Association of Consultancy & Engineering took a stand inside the main exhibition area for the first time ever, with FaberMaunsell a key backer.

Other big players like Mace and Halcrow were present on city and regional development agency stands.

All brought out their transport planners to advise and influence the development agencies and public-private partnerships striving to attract development cash.

And there was immense frustration at the British government's seeming obsession with building new homes now and worrying about transport later.

Deputy prime minister John Prescott, speaking on the Regeneration UK stand, insisted that transport was central to his plans. He said Britain would use its presidency of the European Union later this year to develop a European standard for developing sustainable communities, and transport would be a part.

'The code will talk about education, jobs and transport, ' he said.

But there was concern that growth plans are being forced on areas where the transport infrastructure is insufficiently developed and where future commitments remain vague.

As a result regional assemblies continue to block Prescott's plans to build 1.1M houses in east and south east England.

Leeds and Manchester both insist tram schemes are central to their growth and regeneration plans. Both are struggling to win DfT approval. Only last week rail minister Tony McNulty refused to give the Leeds Supertram project his outright backing and asked for more clarification on some financial aspects. This is despite the fact that Leeds has already answered 70 requests for additional information since it submitted its latest bid for support to the government in November.

Leeds City Council development director Jean Dent summed up the mood: 'We really need the tram so we can deliver growth. The lines go through some of the most deprived areas. Cities and towns outside Leeds are already benefiting. We have other options, but this really is our option A.' East Midlands Development Agency cited Corby, where the population is expected to double over the next 25 years. It is important to develop transport links, said EMDA director of regeneration Alison Simpson:

'To make this a sustainable community you have to look at infrastructure that is provided first.' Prescott insisted that transport was central to his plans.

'Strategic transport is central to growth. When Labour came to power the Channel Tunnel Rail Link was in crisis. Now it is absolutely right that the first to benefit will be those in the biggest growth area, ' he said.

But the industry is unconvinced. 'The emphasis in the south east is on housing, but how that is supported by infrastructure is crucial, ' said Llewelyn Davies director Patrick Clarke.

'We haven't yet come close to producing infrastructure-led development, which is what local authorities want to see.' The Treasury has plans to merge the budgets for transport, regeneration and housing and devolve responsibility for prioritisation to regional bodies.

But there are doubts that budgets will be enough.

'We need to find new mechanisms. In Germany infrastructure companies will put in power, water and other utilities and then also provide and run public transport for a 25 year concession. We need to do this because if you are waiting for government money you are going to wait a long time, ' Clarke said.

PFI might be needed to make up government spending shortfalls. 'I can't see where else the money will come from, ' said Atkins head of rail property Brendan Conlon.

Among the few UK regions not bemoaning the government were those semi-autonomous from central government.

Speaking at a separate MIPIM presentation, London mayor Ken Livingstone talked up the positive impact which schemes like the East London Line extension and Crossrail will have on regenerating east London.

'All previous schemes for Crossrail failed because they were replicating the Central Line. The spur to the Isle of Dogs and Woolwich and out into Thamesmead will dramatically raise the value of land in London's most deprived areas, ' he said.

'In 2020 there will be a new city in east London with half a million people.' Wales has also recognised transport as a vital stimulator of growth, a fact confirmed by the Welsh Assembly's £8bn, 15 year programme of transport improvements (NCE 9 December 2004). With this cash, Newport is completely revamping bus routes around its city centre - allowing demolition of the existing bus station so the land can be regenerated.

This year more than 16,500 paid to attend the main MIPIM show. Thousands more would have sneaked aboard yachts and into parties without paying.

Participants from 71 countries wandered around 1,970 exhibitor stands with 3,240 participating companies.

During MIPIM week, delegates thronged the Café Roma on the main 'croisette' late into the night. Elsewhere, on yachts and in bars, restaurants and hotels, deals were hammered out and alliances forged.

Amid the networking frenzy, civil engineering was becoming a focal point. The ACE believes it has picked up more than 50 leads from developers and agencies working on projects around the world and in need of engineering advice. The message was clear: developers and politicians need engineers more now than ever.

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