During the past 25 years, there has been a considerable increase in the attention directed to the problem of urban redevelopment and regeneration. Traditionally, this has been a political matter, driven by concerns regarding the social and environmental problems of the inner city.
These were seen as resulting from two key developments: First, Great Britain’s post-war shift from manufacturing to service economy, which left in its wake tracts of urban industrial wasteland and unemployment (Goodchild and Munton, 1985:159); and second, the focus of planning policy on the ‘decentralisation of people and jobs from the congested inner city areas’ (ibid. :157). Reflecting this, property-led regeneration dominated British urban policy throughout the 1980s, the embedded emphasis being on the private sector in the lead role of policy implementation (Adams, et. al, 2001; Lloyd and Black, 1993:145).
The present Labour administration has called for ‘co-ordinated action based on the joint principles of design excellence, economic strength, environmental responsibility, good governance and social well-being. ‘ (ibid: 153). Moreover, this time in response to a dramatic projected growth in the number of households (POST, 1998), the Government has set a 60% target for new homes to be built on previously developed (brownfield) land or by converting existing buildings (BGPSD, 2000:18).
Meanwhile, the desirability of brownfield redevelopment from the perspective of the developer has been improved by the remarkable success of projects such as Canary Wharf, in south-east London. The present situation contrasts markedly with the image twenty years ago, when such redevelopment was viewed at best with reluctance (Adams, 1994), and even ten years ago, when the Canary Wharf project was deemed a ‘crisis’ (Adair, 1993:74). Accordingly, much of the foregoing literature has focused on the role of government planning (at national, regional and local levels) in determining urban redevelopment prospects.
For an excellent analysis of the extent of government influence in large-scale brownfield redevelopments, the reader is directed to Punter’s 1992 case-study of Bristol’s docklands. The role of developers in urban regeneration has been similarly well covered, and indeed a substantial body of literature is devoted to understanding their motivations and calculi (see, for example, Adams, 1994). By contrast, however, there has hitherto been an absence of detailed and rigorous investigation of the land management and development strategies pursued by owners of brownfield land in comparison with those who own land at the urban periphery (Adams et.al. , 2002:137).
Indeed, Goodchild and Munton (1985) devote a mere two pages of their volume to conceptualising the strategy of urban land-owners, and their two brief case studies of urban redevelopment in Nottingham and Tower Hamlets are descriptive rather than empirical in their approach. Adams, Disberry, Hutchison and Munjoma’s chapter, constituting part of Guy and Henneberry’s inter-disciplinary study of the property development industry, represents an effort on the part of its authors to challenge and empirically examine the “mythology [that] has emerged about the characteristics and behaviour of the typical brownfield landowner.
” (Adams, et. al, 2002:137). This mythology, they allege, has emerged as a direct consequence of the lack of empirical attention accorded to the decision making of owners at the urban periphery (ibid. ). Commensurately, they propose two research questions, namely: (1) ‘Do most owners of vacant urban land or obsolete urban property encourage or impede its redevelopment? ‘; and (2) ‘does this tendency vary between different types of owner? ‘ (ibid.:138)
Recognising the importance of the broader social, economic and political structure within which brownfield owners define and pursue their strategies, they propose a third research question: ‘How are the strategies, interests and actions of brownfield landowners related to the organisation of economic and political activity and to the prevailing values that frame their decision-making? ‘ (ibid. :139). The present author proposes that they are more successful at answering the first two questions, and that in doing so, they make meaningful and substantive observations of landowner behaviour.
However the third question is less elegantly resolved and, in failing to formulate a powerful causal logic as to the actions of brownfield landowners, their argument is dogged by many of the same flaws that have hitherto impeded the effectiveness of other structure/agent models of the development process (see for example Hooper, 1992). In terms of empirical rigour, this Chapter rates highly, although there are occasionally flaws in the manner in which the empirical work is described.
In defence of the authors, however, these flaws may have been unavoidable given the volume of research undertaken, and the confines of space – the chapter is only twenty pages long. Adams et. al. conduct research in four cities, two of which are chosen because they had experienced strong development pressure in recent years (Aberdeen and Nottingham) and two because they had seen much weaker development pressure (Dundee and Stoke-on-Trent)1. The choice of cities has the added advantage of reflecting differences in land law and development policies between Scotland and England.
Unfortunately no further comment is made in the chapter as to the impact of these different sets of policies on landowner behaviour, although one may safely assume that it would be made in a fuller account of the authors’ findings. The authors’ decision to locate their research in large free-standing cities is a good one: prior studies have focussed principally on the major UK conurbations, and frequently only parts of them. Adams (1994:38-44) undertakes a major case study of Greenwich Reach, while Goodchild and Munton (1985:172-4) look at the Borough of Tower Hamlets, both in London.
The choice of four provincial cities also facilitates comparison of the research findings, as they are not susceptible to the types of locational influences (the presence of a major international financial centre, for instance) that distort the development market in London. Additional rigour is evident in the manner of choosing sites to study, the authors limiting their research to those that, as of 31st December 1995, were of at least 2 hectares in area or on which at least 5000 sq.
m. of gross floorspace was under active consideration. With random sampling, the number of sites was reduced to twenty in each city. The population of relevant owners corresponding to these 80 sites was found to be 212, and while some 140 of these actually took part in the survey (an excellent response rate of 66%), an additional 15 owners were analysed through reliance on planning records or information received from chartered surveyors or other contacts (Adams, et.al. 2002:141).
Information was gathered on the strategies of each of these owners, their marketing attempts and site valuations, their knowledge of development constraints and any action taken to resolve them, their potential influence over broader structural factors, their reaction to possible policy changes and finally, their particular legal and personal characteristics.
In these respects, this research has a distinct advantage over its predecessors in that the sample is large, recent, and concurrent. The choice of sites also incorporates a factor that is frequently cited as an impediment to the construction of large developments in urban areas, namely multiple ownership – ‘large urban sites normally have to be assembled from several ownerships, while those at the periphery can often be acquired from a single owner’ (Adams, et.al. 2001:153).
Inspite of the richness of their data, the authors found it impossible to operationalise a weighted measure of ownership behaviour, owing to the change in the importance of particular variables in different cases: ‘since each redevelopment site was unique, what would most encourage redevelopment varied from site to site’ (Adams, et. al. 2002:142).