Cheshire Development Update C PNW

Cheshire Development Update was held on 6 June at the Chester Racecourse. Credit: PNW

Event Summary

Cheshire Development Update | Summary, photos, and slides

The Place North West Cheshire Development Update saw strong demands from attendees ahead of the forthcoming general election. Planning reform and more resources, greater regional autonomy, and “a kick up the arse” for Homes England were just a few of the items on the panellists’ wish list.

Held on 6 June at Chester Racecourse, the event was sponsored by Waterman and Muse.

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Cheshire Development Update C PNW

The first panel included JLL’s Richard Wharton, McCarthy Stone’s Ciaran Aldridge, Emery Planning’s Caroline Payne, Savills’ Jonathan Atherton, and Gascoigne Halman’s Andrew Buckley. Credit: PNW

What’s hot, and what’s not

Julia Hatmaker, editor of Place North West, kicked off by asking about the current state of the market in Cheshire.

An online audience poll showed the audience thought the sector with the most potential for growth in the county was definitely residential, with more than 50% of the votes, while hospitality and tourism, life sciences, industrial, and offices split the rest.

Richard Wharton, director at JLL, said his team’s recent office deal involving a site at Birchwood Park was a definite high – with an announcement due this month from the, as yet secret, new tenant. Meanwhile, he said the office industry was seeing the lowest take-up levels in 10 years.

Ciaran Aldridge, divisional managing director at McCarthy Stone, was more upbeat saying his customers were showing a strong desire for retirement properties in the Cheshire area. Andrew Buckley, director of Gascoigne Halman, is seeing resilience in the housing market as well – nothing that it is outperforming other areas of the UK, with March 2024 showing his firm’s best results since March 2021.

However, Aldridge said issues of protected wildlife, biodiversity net gain, and the Green Belt were always proving challenging for developers.

Caroline Payne, director at Emery Planning, was also positive, saying her firm is seeing real diversity in a buoyant market, with schemes ranging from residential and private client work to more “bespoke and quirky” golf and equestrian projects.

Jonathan Atherton, director at Savills, described how Warrington has the best distribution site in the North West at Omega, but expressed frustration: “I can’t understand why they are not allocating more land for future demand.”

Heather Standidge, associate at Cushman & Wakefield, put on her Enterprise Cheshire and Warrington hat. “We’ve got fabulous innovative businesses, we’ve got the skills, we’ve got the quality of life.” But she warned: “I don’t think we shout about it enough.”

Cheshire Development Update C PNW

CWAC’s Gemma Davies highlighted the council’s projects at Northgate, Ellesmere Port, and Winsford. Credit: PNW

Where’s the excitement?

A second poll placed Warrington as the area with the most potential for development, ahead of Ellesmere Port, Crewe, and Chester, but no love at all for Macclesfield.

Gemma Davies, director of economy and housing for Cheshire West and Chester Council, took a “canter through” her authority’s regeneration programme, an appropriate analogy given the event’s Chester Racecourse venue. She included Chester’s Northgate development where future phases are now in soft market testing and attracting investor interest.

She also addressed Ellesmere Port’s £13m town centre transformation, where they are bringing people back to work and live, and Origin, one of the UK’s largest industrial clusters, worth £1.4bn to the economy, while Winsford is seeing the largest investment in its town centre since the 1960s.

Steven Broomhead, chief executive of Warrington Council, highlighted the area’s enviable connectivity, with £10m of investment in a new bus depot – Warrington is one of few local authorities to still control its own public transport fleet – and plans for a Northern Powerhouse Rail interchange under Bank Quay Station. He also mentioned residential schemes around Central Station and the former Wilderspool rugby ground, as well as the town’s “important trigger” of the Time Square retail and hospitality development.

Sarah Chicken, development manager for Muse, discussed Crewe, where her company is working on £1.2m of industrial space and 100,000 sq ft of office space.

Meanwhile, Standidge said: “Chester is one of those locations where we could potentially have more mixed-use commercial developments around the town centre, particularly when we are getting more housing in.”

The plans for the future of Fiddler’s Ferry brownfield site, being managed by Peel NRE, attracted attention, with several panellists saying it was one to watch.

Turley director Anna Relph, who is the planning consultant for the project, said the remaining demolition will take place over the next two to three years and added: “It really is exciting as a planner, to take an old power station site and turn it into a new community. It’s why we get out of bed in the morning.”

Cheshire Development Update C PNW

Warrington Council’s Steven Broomhead defended the council’s borrowing. Credit: PNW

Debt or investment?

Broomhead was in feisty form on his authority’s growth strategy.

He said “civic entrepreneurism” had brought the council to the attention of government inspectors and added: “We have been borrowing money for regeneration and what the bloody hell is wrong with that? We will face them with relish and tell them our success story.”

When Hatmaker said the council is subject to £1.8bn of debt, he replied: “I respect the fact the government wants to look at that but we are not in debt. We’ve made £1.8bn of investment, 95% of it secured against property. All of our investments are long-term, with low interest rates, and they’ve been used for regeneration. We spend an enormous amount of time and money on due diligence. The governance is very strong.”

Cheshire Development Update C PNW

Emery Planning’s Caroline Payne gave an update on the planning situation in Cheshire. Credit: PNW

Planning woes

Emery Planning’s Payne said one of her biggest frustrations was getting an application to officer recommendation stage, then seeing it refused by a development panel: “It’s planning by appeal and not how the system should work.”

Broomhead described this situation as “a disgrace” and said it shouldn’t happen: “The worst thing we can do is string people along and waste your time and money.”

Though she said under-resourced planning teams weren’t confined to Cheshire, Payne also expressed concern that Cheshire East was under so much pressure it had abandoned its pre-application process, while Cheshire West wasn’t validating applications until an officer was available to deal with them.

Cheshire Development Update C PNW

Clarification on planning policy was on Anna Relph’s wish list for a new government. Credit: PNW

Election wish list

McCarthy Stone’s Aldridge wanted a new government to acknowledge the benefits of allowing retirees to downsize and make allowances like stamp duty relief, while Payne said more housing was needed, describing a correlation between housing and economic growth.

Gascoigne Halman’s Buckley said there needs to be reform of the home buying process: “The biggest challenge is trying to get transactions across the line. It is slowing the economy down and we are seeing a lot of aborted transactions.”

Atherton added: “They need to understand what our sector brings to the economy. It’s huge.”

Turley’s Relph wants “to see action on the local plan situation in the first 100 days that clarifies exactly what planning policy is” and added: “There is a real opportunity for local authorities to go for growth. I hope they are given national encouragement, political support, and policy basis. If they go for the minimum, they are effectively planning for decline.”

Broomhead said he’d like a decision on devolution in 2024, encouragement for investors to come to Cheshire, and “to kick Homes England up the arse”.

Cheshire Development Update C PNW

Savills’ Jonathan Atherton said the industrial sector was hot in Cheshire – but it needs more land. Credit: PNW

Post pandemic

JLL’s Wharton said the office market was still challenging as companies had ongoing conversations over employees working from home – something he described as “bad for business and bad for wellbeing”, adding: “Take up is down in 2023 and 2024, at lower levels than in Covid, though we are seeing signs of this moving.”

Savill’s Atherton said Covid meant the industrial sector experienced “take up levels we had never seen before” during Covid and this, followed by the upheaval caused by Liz Truss’s mini-budget, had left space in short supply. “If you need 100,000 sq ft in Warrington or Crewe, you’ve got one building to choose from, at Omega.”

Cheshire Development Update C PNW

Progressive Energy’s Chris Taylor said HyNet would unlock 55,000 UK jobs by 2030. Credit: PNW

Net Zero

In a show of hands, there was little enthusiasm about whether the UK could hit net zero targets by 2050, though one presentation did extol strong Cheshire developments.

Chris Taylor, head of planning and consents for Progressive Energy, presented his company’s HyNet schemes putting Cheshire at the forefront of net zero.

Detailing developments including Runcorn and Ellesmere Port, HyNet will allow energy-intensive industry to switch to low-carbon hydrogen production, bridge the gap in renewable energy supplies, and see both new infrastructure and reuse of existing redundant pipelines to dispose of CO2.

He said, that by 2030, HyNet will unlock 55,000 UK jobs, 42,000 regional jobs, £5.4 bn of capital investment, and £110m GVA each year.

However, he did raise problems with supporting infrastructure, like grid reinforcement and electrical connections. Cushman and Wakefield’s Standidge highlighted a follow-on concern: “Once that’s in place, have we got the strategic sites to provide the land supply for occupiers and investors?”

Muse’s Chicken said she wants to see targeted funding to “bridge those viability gaps”, while Relph said: “In the Cheshires, their local plans lag behind the climate emergency declarations”.

Cheshire Development Update C PNW

The final panel of the day included Muse’s Sarah Chicken, Progressive Energy’s Chris Taylor, Turley’s Anna Relph, and Cushman & Wakefield’s Heather Standidge. Credit: PNW

Mayor or no mayor?

Another audience poll was split on the benefits of a mayor, with 54% saying yes to the role, and 42% opting for just a devolution deal. Just 4% said Cheshire is doing fine under the current system.

Progressive Energy’s Taylor said a mayor could be a “major opportunity” and “a voice on a national stage”.

Chicken agreed, saying a figurehead could drive things forward, giving Cheshire’s priorities a chance to be “talked about on a public stage”.

What’s next?

Join Place North at one of our upcoming events:

Education Property & PBSA | 13 June

Cumbria Development Update | 20 June

North East Emerging Development Hotspots | 27 June

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