Britain’s new apartment boom: can’t we do more than just add water?

We all know the problem by now: city centres all over Britain are rapidly being rediscovered as places to live, but the places that get built to live in are pretty much all the same: blocks of Identikit apartments aimed squarely at the investor market. Some are a lot better than others but there’s not much variation, and certainly hardly anything fit for families. Homes with gardens? Forget it, mate, get back to the suburbs. Still, a few people are trying to do something about this and a promising new player is about to emerge: Isis Waterside Regeneration.

Isis is a developer, but a distinctly unusual one. It is independent, but umbilically linked to British Waterways, which set it up as a public-private venture in 2002 along with builders AMEC, and financiers Morley Investment. It was launched at the Government’s “Urban Summit” of 2002, and it has a mission to regenerate: half of its profits will be ploughed back into the waterways network. And it is doing big work: these days it has over £1 billion of development planned on 170 acres of post-industrial waterside land in nine cities across the UK. Since it has not been around long, it doesn’t have much to show yet, but that is about to change. On January 28 Isis launches its Islington Wharf project in Manchester.

Now the waterways – which a few years back were extraordinarily under-used and under-exploited, and rather wonderful as a consequence – are these days bursting with brand-new £100,000 private narrowboats.and ever-expanding hire fleets. Where you used to chug almost unnoticed through cities, today you float from one waterside apartment, shopping or office complex to the next. From London’s Paddington Basin via Birmingham’s Brindleyplace to Manchester’s historic Castelfield district, our once-neglected waterway assets are being squeezed for every penny they’re worth. And they are worth a lot, since everyone has now discovered that a property on the canal or riverside can be sold, on average, for 20 per cent more than an identical property with dry feet.

So the canalside apartment has become something of a cliché. The most recent Adrian Mole novel by Sue Townsend finds our hero living in an unaffordable loft-style apartment next to the Grand Union Canal in Leicester, where his life is made hell by a particularly aggressive swan. Since Mole is the Charles Pooter of our day (as immortalised in the richly comic Victorian “Diary of a Nobody”), this means that a canalside apartment is today’s equivalent of Pooter’s little new-built suburban villa in Holloway: The Laurels, Brickfield Terrace. Like those sliced-loaf speculative 19th century homes, most of today’s apartments are built rapidly, to a formula. It’s a bit depressing. So can Isis Waterside offer anything different?

I thought not, at first. But the company claims to be trying to mix up the types of homes they build, to have lots of different sizes and types including, amazingly, family homes with gardens. So I went to see Isis’ managing director, Mark Ryder, who inhabits an office block in Paddington with a fine view of the Great Western Railway but unfortunately none of the adjacent canal. Ryder is a man with a mission, which is to be an untypical developer. One that appeals to the widest possible market. One that – get this – actually limits the number of its properties that investors can snap up, so as to get more owner-occupiers in.

Well, that’s the idea, anyway. Ryder points out the obvious – that although most such developments pay lip-service to the idea of the convivial mixed-use city, in fact they mostly fail to attract anybody apart from investors and 20-35-year-old renters. Ground floor shop units stay boarded up because there is no real community for them to serve.

“I’m passionate about moving away from this Identikit, sterile approach to developments,” he says. “I see Isis as being at the forefront of this shift. What we can do is take a long-term view of regeneration, when so many of the players that have been involved for the last five to ten years have had a very short-term, purely profit-driven approach.”

Islington Wharf on the Ashton Canal in Manchester will be the first outing for this longer-term thinking. To be built right next to developer Urban Splash’s New Islington “urban village”, which also has high ideals, it thus forms part of the still wider regeneration of the whole area known as East Manchester, where the aim is to double the existing population to 60,000 and lay on all the various schools, shops, clinics and so on to serve them. That’s a big job, considering that the unemployment-hit local population was haemorrhaging in the 1990s, the housing market collapsed, dereliction loomed, and around 20 per cent of existing homes are standing vacant. One thing in Islington Wharf’s favour is that it is close enough to be walkable from the city centre. The spruced-up canal forms an obvious route. Just over half a mile from the main Piccadilly Station, it is also right on the planned new branch of the city’s Metrolink tram system through East Manchester.

The images have that familiar computer-graphic sheen to them and the architecture is by a mainstream commercial firm, Broadway Malyan. So it would be wrong to expect too much. Later Isis schemes show that they are getting rather more sophisticated in their approach to architecture. In Manchester, however, the landmark tower is not bad, the mix of house types is indeed wider than usual – starting with one-bed flats at £105,000 and two-bedders at £160,000. There will be three and four-bed family homes with private gardens in later phases – no prices being touted yet. Across all the apartment types – there are claimed to be 40 variations – much is made of the fact that they are designed to be bigger than normal, for occupiers rather than investors.

At the heart of the 3-acre scheme is a “podium garden” (so called because it is on top of the underground car parking) which acts rather like a carefully-landscaped village green, is full of things like play areas for children and communal barbecues, and is big enough to be useful. It will look a bit odd in the early phases, but when finally all 500 homes, shops and business premises are built it ought to make a difference.

That’s a start. In Leeds they are doing something broadly similar, but for me Isis Waterside starts to get more interesting with schemes in other cities that are further down the line. True, their plans to revive the canal corridor through Glasgow, for instance, are so far notable not so much for the architecture as for the clever engineering of a new canal basin linking previously severed sections of the canal right next to the M8 motorway. But at Trent Basin in Nottingham, things depart firmly from the norm. It’s still at the pre-planning stage, but Ryder and his team, including architects Benoy, have been playing about with a much more low-rise, but still high-density plan. Short rows of terraced houses start to make a reappearance, interspersed with office and leisure buildings. It’s the old dream of a place where you can live, work and play without having to travel miles between all three. I hope the concept survives, and that they mix up a number of different architects to provide variety.

The signs are promising. In Birmingham Ryder ran a Europe-wide competition for his planned 4.5 acre eco-village, generating much of its own power, on an old canal loop at Warwick Bar. They have got a promising winner in the form of rising-star Bob Ghosh of locally-based Kinetic AIU architects. Birmingham, it is said, has more canals than Venice and postindustrial sites aplenty: Kinetic is becoming adept at rethinking these sites. Again, you hope the concept makes it through to reality because it’s high time people started trying to make places like this different from each other, rather than all the same.

So I’d give Isis full marks for good intentions – especially for that bit about resisting fast-buck investors and encouraging city-centre family life. They call it “Buy to Live” in obvious contrast with the formulaic buy-to-let. Can they do enough to change attitudes to urban regeneration? Only tine will tell. It is notoriously difficult to make a real, varied, human place from scratch.

Text © Hugh Pearman, images courtesy Isis Waterside Regeneration. Fuller version of the article first published in The Sunday Times, London, on January 22 2006, as “Canals on a new path”.

Isis Waterside Regeneration:
Kinetic AIU architects: