COMMENT Regeneration, properly done, does not happen quickly. It takes an incredible amount of patience, tenacity, creativity, hard work, a strong vision and teamwork.
It can also be something of a thankless task. Developers don’t have a great reputation in the public’s eye and, as we all know, trust and goodwill is limited, if not entirely absent. So why bother at all? Why not just take the easy route, choosing a site without obstacles, challenges and complexities. Deliver what convention says can deliver the highest reward for the least risk.
But that’s not what U+I is about – and that’s not what I joined this industry to do. Our passion lies in uncovering potential and transforming places. That’s where the real rewards lie – beyond those measured on the balance sheet.
And if there’s one thing I have learnt in leading the development of the Old Vinyl Factory – U+I’s large-scale regeneration project in Hayes, west London – it’s that although a major programme of development may at times seem a long road, it’s certainly not a lonely one.
Building strong relationships
In fact, it can’t be achieved alone. Building strong relationships with a wide range of partners, including the local authority, the surrounding community, business, education and other social providers, and sustaining them over a long programme of development is critical to creating a successful project that enhances a local area.
The story of the Old Vinyl Factory is a complex one. It started out with a planning policy that required employment space over any other uses. The previous two owners of the site had proposed developing a business park. That proposal turned out to be unsuccessful.
While the location made sense for employment use – at the border between west London and the Thames Valley, close to Heathrow, with great road and rail connections and Crossrail on the way – at a local level there was not the draw required to attract occupiers. And the amazing history of the Old Vinyl Factory would have slipped into the background.
Doomed to fail
With the absence of amenities and sense of community that occupiers now expect in a workplace, a purely employment-led scheme was doomed to fail. So when we acquired the site we went back to the drawing board.
It seemed clear to us that to make the site successful we had to think beyond the property to consider local economics, social sustainability, community, provenance and place.
But to deliver this we needed to convince the London Borough of Hillingdon that while its planning policy for the site wasn’t wrong, it wasn’t enabling the full potential of the area.
Fortunately, we found in the council a partner that understood that sometimes it’s necessary to think outside the box – and that while doing things differently may seem like a risk, it is in fact a necessary precursor to doing things better.
By demonstrating that we could create the same number of jobs (4,000) on half the site that the council wanted on the whole site, while building housing, amenities and fantastic public realm on the remainder, we managed to convince the local authority that we could create a successful place that would drive the job creation it wanted, as well as provide much-needed homes.
We are now creating a permanent innovation hub in the Power House, to be run by our partner Plus X, which was granted planning permission last month.
This will bring together flexible workspaces with a wealth of facilities and support, including media studios, prototype workshops and bio labs to support entrepreneurial designers and engineers, driving a new generation of innovation on the site.
And in the end that’s why persisting with regeneration and striving to do it well is so important.
Leading a development like this means harnessing the creativity, energy, and innovation of a multitude of different partners, bringing them together to share in a vision of creating a place that genuinely works as a “real” neighbourhood – a place that actually makes a difference to a community and a local area. That’s what makes regeneration worth it – and that’s why we do it.
Rebecca Selby is an EG Rising Star and senior development manager at U+I