Going to the zoo, zoo, zoo

Below is a copy of the speech I gave at the end of the Hill Dickinson Developers' Conference in June at Chester Zoo. I was asked to do a state-of-the-market type talk, what's hot, what's not, development prospects… It's in no way at all comprehensive – just some points that a few developers made when I rang round the day before the event combined with my own thoughts.

Big disclaimer: been covering property since started on business desk of Liverpool Daily Post nearly 15 years ago. I knew more then than I do now. I thought I did. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing and the more I have learned over the years the less I know. Always something else didn't know or angle hadn't considered, often contradictory to what you initially thought.

So it's with that massive lack of confidence in any of my own opinions that I take to the stage to describe the state of the region. Not often my place to offer opinion and my bread and butter is delivering facts in hard news stories, and I let the readers decide what they think of it.

That said, Martyn and Bill obviously think I have a worthwhile vantage point from covering property and regeneration across the region. Unfortunately it's a bit like doing exams and as soon as one story is written I forget it and move on to the next one.

So anyway I took the journalistic approach and rang a few developers and advisors and asked what they thought I should tell you and have digested that and added it to my own fragile take on things and tried to distil it into a few points as we take stock at halfway and move ahead.


Biggest thing that came out was that the housing market is taking off again. Hiring, new divisions being set up, big developers gone from doing minority of work in residential to majority of portfolio now being residential. Mainly family homes but starting to talk about apartments again too. House builders that have been cautiously churning out up no more than 30 units at a time are now in the market for sites of 100 units.

Some interesting points, one senior planner said the next two years offers best planning outlook seen for 30 years and especially in housing. NPPF, five year supply argument, planning by appeal, the office to resi waivers, sustainable development, general gulf between supply and demand being on political agenda.

And the government seems to have it right on the money side here in the main. Get Britain Building, Help to Buy, funding for lending. If got Steve Morgan praising government know doing something right.

Also seeing more and more mixed-use schemes bringing residential elements back in to help make them viable. Midpoint 18 a logistics park in Cheshire will have residential in next phases to help pay for a bypass. Omega southside a similar case. We will see more of that. It means commercial agents will have to know their housing counterparts and vice versa and creates a lot of opportunities.

One black mark remains that councillors often need convincing. Councils don't seem to have grasped New Homes Bonus and are missing out on council tax boosts worth millions and biggest challenge remains convincing planning committee members of the economic growth that housing can bring.

Also, this might be a short-term window and could all change by 2015, spending, planning, all change with election.


Lacking in confidence. Occupiers finding it hard to justify or to afford the funding to move. Still a prelet market. Occupiers and developers being very selective about where those prelets will be. Supply and demand is getting interesting and there are bits of grade A space being taken up slowly but surely which could put pressure on speculative but we've been hearing that for years, normally from agents who want more instructions.

My own view – two ways of looking at offices. We've had Ask and Allied London both say the days of big new offices filled with corporates – banks, lawyers, accountants are over. Be less churn, stay where they are efficiencies are shrinking the overall estate anyway. Have to focus on smaller occupiers in digital age and plan buildings differently, more like incubator space, collaborative working spaces, studios. How we fund these and what the digital dudes think is another matter.

Swan Square fully let in Northern Quarter, amazing little scheme. Fifteen three storey units retail office hybrids fully let cool businesses, by an independent Asian textile businessman who knows the area and knew what people wanted. Iffy at Workshop Properties. Future of offices looks different.

Behind a cluster, get all support firms behind the entrepreneurs in one building, some interesting models overseas in Chicago, Boulder Colorado, Berlin, Frankfurt among others. I'd like to see a landlord have a punt and do an equity based scheme around digital or biotech, free space for a slice of the business.

But then on other hand still proposing traditional big shiny glass offices at City Place in Chester, Pall Mall in Liverpool, Chapel Street in Salford. If that's the case why is there only one tenant signed at St Peter's Square in Manchester as it's coming out of the ground and clearly going to be a very smart building? Why is St Paul's Square in Liverpool not fully let? Why spaces opening up in Chester Business Park?

Jobs fill buildings. Buildings don't create jobs, contrary to what local papers might try and convince us of. "Business park set to create 10,000 jobs". No. Set to create room for 10,000 jobs.

Development Securities very prolific listed developer said it is reducing its exposure to offices long term, getting into elder care, health care, student housing.

Liverpool agents still crying out for inward investment. Not gonna happen.


God knows. High street. No one knows. Terrible June quarter day, internacionale, dwell. Long way from sorting that out, no answer, multiple ownerships, changing behaviour, not settled down yet. Meanwhile Trafford Centre, Liverpool One and Cheshire Oaks will continue to act as reliable magnets for shoppers and retailers alike, the strong will get stronger.


Few and far between. Market town schemes been cut in half and Airport City and Carrington.
Can Cheshire deliver barons quay and northgate on its own? I would say be very hard.

Developers – would day that wouldn't they – that council should stick to education and street lights and don't risk catching a cold in commercial development. Would love to be proved wrong and Chester and Northwich need these to happen.

Other centres including Preston, Burnley, Blackpool are still worrying. One or two things going on Muse, Maple Grove, Barnfield active but beyond a council office and supermarket need jobs. Jobs fill buildings. For now see relaunches of development prospectuses and new quango names but not many cranes on the skyline. Liverpool launched its Strategic Investment Framework with 1000 great ideas in – 1 Nov 2012 – , now whittled down to 115 priority ideas. Sensible number? What does Monday morning's 'to do' list look like?

Government wants a clear simple plan, developers want to form relationships. If they see confusion, muddled plans, they will walk away. Presentation is very important as we start to think about the next development cycle. Clarity, message, leadership.

Public sector is still key. New rounds of ERDF, new Regional Growth Fund round coming out, new Single Local Growth Fund. Making friends and influencing people is as important as ever but suspect ignorance and complacency on all sides, developers don't think there's any point asking for help, public sector too often caught up navel-gazing in meetings.

Look at difference in Oldham since Charlie Parker arrived, Stockport Eamonn Boylan.

On other hand, is it sensible for a city, Chester, without a theatre, concert hall, cinema to bid to be UK city of culture? Silly. Unnecessary. Gives public another stick to beat them with. Pick campaigns carefully: short and winnable.

Definitely more positive among consultants than a year ago. Mad busy and not just being busy fools out creating leads, now working on firm instructions. Yorkshire, Midlands and London featuring heavily and need to make sure don't leave ourselves short of skills in this region.

We are not out of the woods but the sun is coming up and we can at least see our way.

Thanks to Hill Dickinson for today and supporting Place North West for five years.

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