Cheshire Development Update 2023 | Photos and summary
Is Cheshire squandering opportunities for growth?
Dan Whelan, senior reporter at Place North West, opened the annual Cheshire Development Update in feisty style with this question. The event, held at Chester Racecourse on 8 June, was sponsored by Waterman, Telcom, and Savills.
One opportunity travelling at speed is the Chester City Gateway project – a partnership between developer LCR Property, Network Rail, and Cheshire West and Chester Council over the next 10 to 15 years. It has five priorities: the Chester Station experience, accessibility, high-quality public realm, and meeting local housing needs.
“Chester has a vibrant city centre but the area around the station is uninspiring,” said Peter Rowe, senior development manager at LCR, during the first, Chester-focused half of the conference.
To remedy the station’s “uninspiring” nature, the partnership is looking at creating a pedestrian and cycle-friendly route at Hoole Bridge to complement the existing road bridge.
Cllr Richard Beacham, deputy chair of Cheshire West and Chester Council, said: “Hoole Road is a really important corridor and the railway is a barrier. This is an opportunity to make it more permeable.”
Speaking more broadly about LCR’s projects, Rowe said: “We’re driven to deliver commercial return but, equally, public value is really important to us. It’s about housing delivery, public realm, job creation, and driving investment back into the railway.”
Professor Eunice Simmons, vice chancellor of the University of Chester, said her organisation was reacting to the way students operate – from promoting green travel to relocating the university’s base in Warrington to a central location between the town’s main railway stations.
The university’s out-of-town site is in the process of being sold. She added: “60% of our students are from the region; quite a few of them stay at home. People are looking for more adaptable ways to study so public transport is massively important.”
Andy Farrall, board member at Chester BID, said: “The interesting thing about Chester is, for a historic city, it’s got huge opportunities for redevelopment. About half the city dates from about 1970 and it’s getting fairly elderly.
“I think there’s key promotional activity to do so the right developers see the sites and we need to be a bit more urgent to bring them forward to prove to the investment industry that development here is not difficult,” he continued.
Beacham added: “There are lots of opportunities for different levels of investment. We’ve got smaller building projects that are coming forward now that are conversions of under-used space into residential, which also helps us get more people living in the city.”
Tony Barton, chairman of architecture firm Donald Insall Associates, said: “People are seeing that the historic buildings aren’t the barrier to development. They’re the attraction. There’s lots of land all around them. People want high-quality housing. We need social housing as well. It’s got to be that mixture.”
The council’s ambitious Northgate project was discussed, given the semi-recent completion of the £72m first phase which created a leisure destination in the heart of the city. An expected second phase would look to build on the land of the old Chester Market (a newer version of which now exists at Northgate) and its adjoining car park.
Quizzed about progress on this next phase of the Northgate redevelopment, Beacham said: “The council has already assembled the land, we’ve compulsory purchased parts that we need, so there is a red line around that site. We need to bring forward strategic framework in the same way we’re doing with City Gateway.”
Changing the estate
Simmons said the university is looking hard at how it uses its buildings – retrofitting, building sustainable extensions, and selling surplus stock.
She added: “It became really clear that we had to do something about the legibility and coherence of our estate. We’re a multi-faculty, middle-sized, middle-ranking university of about 15,000 students…
“The vast majority of students want to stay in this area so graduate housing is a real thing. There might be a developer out there amongst you who’s got an idea about what a housing model looks like that’s one step up from a hall of residence but not a luxury apartment building.”
Farrall added: “The Cheshire and Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership did a study six years ago which looked at young people. It identified three places: Crewe with HS2 (whenever that happens), Warrington because of its position and its connectivity, and the other one was Chester city centre, because of its lifestyle and character, and its attractiveness to younger people. But what they found was the offer wasn’t there.”
Donald Insall’s Barton teased the audience with a ‘watch this space’ message when asked about the Browns of Chester and Grosvenor site. He said the Martin Property Group, the new owners, is actively working on plans for it and added: “Browns of Chester will be reborn.”
Beacham said: “Strategically, it’s a really important site. Now it’s got one solid owner for all of those buildings. It’ll be exciting to see what they do – and they’re listening.”
Asked about planning and development delays, Barton said: “You could say the same for almost any other attractive place in the UK – Chester probably got a reputation for being hard to do business. The thing is, Chester wasn’t built by a council. It was built by loads of people over time. We need to get back where the council’s there to oil the wheels. It’s not there to create the city.”
Simmons said: “It’s all about knowing your council and knowing what the priorities are. I think it’s a framing of a vision.”
Rowe said: “We need to work together as a collective, as an industry, and part of that is going out of our comfort zones. We need to not be afraid that we might get it wrong.”
Farrall said: “The last thing you need is a design framework for a place like Chester. It’s beautifully chaotic in terms of its design.”
During the second panel presentation, Annette McDonald, deputy managing director of Tatton Group, described the wealth of projects her company was involved in, like the Parkgate Village development of 400 properties.
She also highlighted the new Tatton Services, in conjunction with Cumbria’s Westmorland Group, that is due before planners in July. Tatton Services will utilise a derelict farm as its location, integrating original buildings and creating a kitchen garden.
“It’s important to be agile and future thinking,” she said. “In terms of sustainability, we want to be pioneering and influential. It’s about partnership working across the geography. We say to local authorities ‘we can help you solve problems if you work with us’.”
Discussing the future of Cheshire and Warrington, Karen Hirst, managing director of Maple Grove Developments, said: “From a business perspective, business doesn’t look at the boundaries of counties. They’re just looking at places and opportunities where people want to live, work and play. It’s hard to get the coherent plan for the whole of Cheshire.”
However, she did praise the fact all the councils came together at UKREiiF, as did John Laverick, managing director of Warrington & Co.
Laverick added: “You’ve got Liverpool, Manchester, Midlands – all these people who have got something to say. It’s quite a big marketplace for Cheshire and Warrington to break into so if we do it separately, it’s not going to happen.”
The mayoral debate
A show of hands in the room revealed only two people in favour of a mayor for Cheshire.
Jeremy Hinds, director at Savills, said: “The benefits of devolution arrived from economies of scale so it will work for Manchester, Liverpool, and so on. Cheshire is not a city, and the model that exists at the moment would not work for Cheshire. I want to see centralisation in the sense of having a county model and capitalise on its strategic benefits.”
Laverick added: “I think, more importantly, we get ourselves together so we have one voice in Cheshire and Warrington, and that we have proper conversations with our neighbours in Liverpool and Manchester. So, if you’re sat in Westminster and Liverpool, Manchester, and the combined authorities in Cheshire and Warrington want to come and speak to you, you’re going to speak to them, because that’s the whole of the North West, probably one of the most economically active parts of the UK.”
Hirst said: “What government wants to understand is who the accountable body is which is going to show them the money will go where it should to create jobs and homes.”
Asked what Cheshire needed to become more collaborative and open for business, Hinds said: “A cohesive, coordinated narrative about the value, the virtues, the benefits, and the resources that this fabulous county has to offer.”
McDonald wanted more green energy opportunities to attract businesses, while Hirst said she wanted residents to treat it as a northwest hub for their careers, without boundary restrictions.
Laverick concluded: “How do we get weight behind our leaders in order to tell our story coherently? I think that’s the bit we really need to crack.”
Place is heading to Kendal tomorrow for our Cumbria Development Update conference. Tickets are still available. Next week, the Place team will be hosting our Liverpool Summer Social on 22 June. Book your tickets.
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