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Urban regeneration: Holland on track for high-speed system
Axis – 23 July 2004

The Netherlands has taken sustainable transport strategies one step further by putting them at the heart of inner city regeneration. Mark Smulian looks at the potential benefits to the community

Most large train stations in the UK are places to be hurried through as quickly as possible. Even when they are well run, nothing much invites patrons to hang around longer than they have to. Worse, the areas around stations are often run down and are not places where most people would volunteer to spend their time.

The reasons are obvious. Stations are utilitarian places and the main aim of those working there is to shift large numbers of people quickly on and off trains. They were built long ago in what have become, in most large cities, declining inner urban areas. But there is another way of looking at major stations - as hubs for regeneration. Investment in the station and its immediate surroundings could kick-start development, rather like what happened in a different context in London's Docklands.

By their nature, stations are at the heart of sustainable transport strategies.

In the Netherlands, this has been taken one step further by putting them at the heart of sustainable urban regeneration. Known as New Key Projects, the Dutch station transformation programme has gained its impetus from the expected arrival in 2007 of the European high-speed train network.

Two lines will converge on Amsterdam Zuidas Axis, the largest of the New Key Projects' stations which will form the lynchpin of an entirely new quarter about 4km from the historic canal ring. One line will come from Paris and Brussels, passing through Breda and Rotterdam, arriving in Amsterdam via a new 10km tunnel under the "green heart" that separates Amsterdam, Rotterdam and The Hague, which will be served by a branch of this new line. The other line, which will run high-speed trains on existing track, links Amsterdam and Germany via Utrecht and Arnhem.

Ministers have allocated EUR1 billion to the programme, with the money roughly divided between EUR600 million for the railway itself and EUR400 million for the station buildings and their surrounding environment. Cees van Boven, director of New Key Projects in the Ministry of Housing, Environment and Spatial Planning, explains: 'The government decided that we should take advantage of the coming of the high-speed train to renovate the rail station areas in the inner cities.'

By far the largest of the projects is Amsterdam Zuidas. The project is two-and-a-half times the size of the other New Key Projects in investment terms, requiring huge infrastructure works to build the tracks, an adjacent motorway, a new metro line to Amsterdam's central station and the new quarter. 'It is being developed as a business area, but not only for business in the way that La Defense was in Paris. We want to make it a new part of the city, so there will also be residential areas and leisure facilities,' says van Boven.

The intention is that during business hours people will commute to Amsterdam Zuidas by high-speed train to work in the new quarter, with little need for onward commuting on the city's public transport system. One obvious potential drawback of this strategy is that the business district would become deserted during the evenings and weekends.

'This is the reason why we are not making them business areas only but are trying to put culture in there, with a new theatre, museums and bars as well as new residential areas,' says van Boven.

Another policy objective that will sound familiar to those involved in regeneration in Britain is the creation of mixed communities. 'We want these areas to be for people with higher incomes, because in a lot of places in Holland people went out of the cities to the suburbs and many new homes were built for people on lower incomes,' van Boven explains. 'To keep the cites sustainable, it is important to have people with higher incomes there, so we are trying to seduce the empty nesters to come back.'

In other cities the New Key Projects initiative has similar objectives in creating new central business areas around stations, although on a smaller scale. Investment in Rotterdam's station and surroundings is regarded as vital to the area's regeneration. Although the neighbourhood is improving, van Boven says that 'it had become a bad area with a lot of junkies and people did not feel safe'.

The problem in Utrecht is slightly different. The station area is not depressed, but it is cut off from the city by being nearly buried beneath a huge shopping mall, rather like Birmingham New Street. In Breda and Arnhem the surroundings areas are old and in need of revitalisation. 'We think we can use the potential of the area because the stations are at the centres of the cities and we have a lot of land taken up by railway tracks, which we can reduce to free a bigger area to develop,' says van Boven.

The Hague Central station project is different again, since the station is in an area of government offices and parks with no obvious inner city issues. The revamped station will serve as a terminus for the high-speed branch and for a new light rail system linking the capital to the corridor through Delft and Rotterdam. A large commercial development will go up in front of the station, with a shopping mall and hotels at one side.

Paying for work on this scale is something well beyond even the Dutch government's substantial willingness to invest in public transport. So far the country has not made much use of private finance initiative-type funding, and it is dipping a toe in the water with the New Key Projects.

Even though it was clear that there was not enough money on the government side, all the city councils thought the government would cover the cost.

'These projects were designed originally in an economic boom, but when I came to it the economy was going down,' says van Boven, who likens what happened next to the Michelin star-rating system for restaurants. He scaled down the government's contribution so that resources from the Ministry of Transport, which deals with the rail infrastructure, would provide a 'two-star station'. The Ministry of Housing, Environment and Spatial Planning's contribution to improving the surrounding environment gives the third 'star'. The fourth and fifth stars are very much dependent on contributions from local councils and the private sector.

The process used is a little like planning gain in the UK, except that getting developers to contribute part of the increase in land values arising from the station developments is a matter of voluntary negotiation alone.

It is more a matter of developers wishing to secure the local authority's co-operation with their plans rather than making a legal agreement. Ministry officials are hoping to formalise the system to make it more akin to section 106 agreements in Britain, but work on this is at an early stage.

'In The Hague there is a high-quality railway station coming, so the value of property around it is going up. I take some part of that rise to invest in the station,' explains van Boven. 'I don't have any legal instrument to this. I would love to have one but I simply don't, so it is really a question of bargaining. Local government is able to bargain with private investors because the station is instrumental in driving up the rent developers can charge and the quality of the area.'

The scale of Amsterdam Zuidas has required the creation of a new business enterprise between the city council, bankers and developers. In a new step for the Netherlands, the government is to share the risk. The rail works will have to be paid for by development on top of and around the tracks and the government has had to take on part of the risk to attract enough private sector money. 'The risk is of two kinds - that the project goes over budget and that when the buildings are complete no-one wants to rent them because of an unfavourable stage of the business cycle,' says van Boven.

Comparatively slow progress on the New Key Projects is attributable to problems that will be familiar to UK planners, of having to fit complex new infrastructure into urban areas in a densely populated country. But once the programme is complete, the Netherlands should manage to harness a synergy between rail development and urban regeneration that looks obvious, yet is not modelled on any foreign experience.

If Britain ever gets around to renewing its network, it may find a template for getting the most from it across the North Sea.

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