The county is well placed to bounce back from the economic hit of the pandemic, but the speed at which the private and public sectors can respond to changing trends will be key to Cheshire’s recovery, according to panellists at a Place North West event.
The Cheshire Development Update last week provided an overview of the economic growth potential inherent in projects across the region, and explored how planning improvements and better integration of housing into town centre regeneration schemes could drive prosperity.
The event was hosted by Place North West editor Sarah Townsend and sponsored by Torus and CampbellReith Consulting Engineers.
Presentation – Investing for growth
Phillip Cox, chief executive of Cheshire & Warrington LEP, presented an update on key projects that the local enterprise partnership is championing in Cheshire and Warrington.
The Cheshire Science Corridor Enterprise Zone, which includes the Alderley Park and Birchwood business parks and is home to companies including Rolls Royce, Essar and AstraZeneca, has received £11m from the LEP so far, which has generated £146m of private sector investment, Cox said.
Pipeline projects for the corridor include the creation of a 90,000 sq ft bio-secure laboratory at Bruntwood SciTech’s Alderley Park that will be used to test highly infectious pathogens.
The LEP is also in talks with industrial developer Redsun over delivering a second phase of Aviator, the industrial scheme at Hooton Park in Ellesmere Port.
Cox expressed concerns about Cheshire and Warrington’s ability to “attract and retain” young people and that this is partly down to the relatively high proportion of young people who do not have driving licenses – around 40%, he said.
“We need public transport and homes located close to work. [Young people] are unable to live in outlying villages.
“We are working with Homes England to promote housing sites in urban areas that would be suitable for under 35s.”
Cox also said the LEP is in talks with the Government about creating an HS2 corridor – similar to an enterprise zone – “exposing growth opportunities” in Crewe, Basford, Winsford, Middlewich, Northwich and Warrington.
“If the Government was to approve the proposals tomorrow, we could see bulldozers on site as early as the middle of next year,” Cox revealed.
The LEP envisages an HS2 corridor containing around 6m sq ft of commercial floor space, 30,000 new homes and 8,800 new jobs.
Panel one – Cheshire’s growth outlook
Philip Cox, chief executive of Cheshire & Warrington LEP
Jamie Bottomley, head of commercial, Bruntwood SciTech – Alderley Park
Jayne Hennessy, development manager, Peel L&P Environmental
Nicola Rigby, principal, Avison Young
While the economic outlook in the middle of the pandemic was challenging, unemployment in Cheshire and Warrington did not drop as much as was feared, Cox said.
However, he admitted that young people have been hardest hit and it is up to the LEP and local authorities to “work hard to make it easy for them to get back into work”, while also attracting people into the area.
“The Cheshire and Warrington economy is moving into a different stage,” Cox added. “We had more jobs than we had people and that meant we didn’t need to do an awful lot to attract people into the area.
“We will need to be actively promoting Cheshire and Warrington and are thinking about how to get that message out locally and internationally [in the months ahead],” he said.
Bottomley said that Bruntwood SciTech is looking at making transport improvements to improve last-mile connectivity at Alderley Park with the help of investment from the local authority.
While the complex is well-located in relation to the airport, the site is only really accessible by car, he said.
Alderley Park has benefited from “Covid-specific demand” for laboratory space but general demand has also risen 40% since April, Bottomley said.
He added that the main priority over the next 12 months is to “integrate technology and life sciences” into Alderley Park’s offering – a process that has been disrupted by the pandemic.
Hennessy revealed that Peel Environmental is in the process of rebranding as Peel Natural Resources and Energy.
The firm is working on the 133-acre Protos energy park, one of several key projects underpinning Net Zero North West, a strategy to develop the UK’s first low carbon industrial cluster, at Ellesmere Port, by 2030.
The next phase of the development hinges around the creation of roads, opening up the site for development.
Hennessy was bullish about what Cheshire has to offer in terms of green energy, describing the county as a “sleeping giant” and impressing the importance of accessing Green Finance, a Government programme that aims to support the delivery of schemes in line with the UK’s commitment to climate change.
“Cheshire is already doing so much and it is ideally placed [to lead on this agenda],” she said. “I think we are in a really good place and we just need to grab that Green Finance now. I think we are ahead of the curve.”
Rigby described Chester Northgate, a £74m mixed-use scheme in Chester city centre, as “one of the most contentious regeneration opportunities in the North West of England”.
Despite this, she said it is a “great opportunity for investment”, which should now be heavily focused on residential development.
“Residential will be fundamental to our town centres going forward. We need to crack the nut of intergenerational living, mixed tenures and housing types to create sustainable communities,” Rigby said, acknowledging that, at present, housing delivery rates in the county are too slow.
Panel two – Cheshire calls for planning reforms
Stephanie Ramsden, economic growth and regeneration lead at Cheshire West & Chester Council
Steve Alcock, director for development and sales at Torus
Chris Brady, partner at CampbellReith
Andy Farrall, board member at Cheshire BID (business improvement district)
Nick Lee, managing director of NJL Consulting
Ramsden said she had a “a real interest” in using housing as an economic driver – in particular, pushing the retrofitting agenda to make sure existing stock is fit for purpose.
“We recognise that the vision for towns has moved away from retail. Housing, leisure and workspace will play a huge role in future prosperity,” she said.
Ramsden added that the private sector could support local planning authorities, which are “significantly underfunded and struggle to attract and keep quality staff”, by providing resources that could see the planning process speeded up, but added that Cheshire West’s track record and pipeline in terms of housing delivery is good.
Alcock, whose firm is delivering a £70m, 400-home scheme at Flowers Lane near Crewe, agreed that the planning process in Cheshire and across the region is flawed.
“If we were to submit a bog-standard scheme that met policy, the local authority would accept it. But if you are a bit more creative, the planning officers are immediately a little bit resistant because they just see a headache and that’s wrong. They should be encouraging creativity.”
Alcock said more needs to be done to convince communities of the benefits of development, “instead of hiding them in Section 106 contributions”.
“Let’s explain how it benefits the school and the parish and how it improves infrastructure and biodiversity. I worry with the Government’s proposed planning reforms that it will become even muddier,” he said.
Brady was also critical of the current planning system, saying that too much is asked of project teams at an early stage, making progress sluggish.
“We are being asked for more and more ridiculous levels of detail at outline planning stage and it frustrates the whole thing. The planning authorities should believe in developers a bit more.”
Like Ramsden, Brady suggested that the private sector should step in and help speed up the process.
“There isn’t a great wall between us, we all want to achieve the same thing and for society to benefit but often it is society putting the hurdles in the way,” he said.
Farrall said the future is bright for “smaller, attractive, historic places like Chester” as long as the focus is on developing homes in the heart of the city, improving the town centre experience and increasing footfall.
“The key to that is speed and agility [of decision making],” he said. “For a long time we have been too slow to react to opportunities. We have to start thinking about Chester in a different way and make it more of a colourful and cool and vibrant place that people want to visit, work and be in,” he said.
People are “anxious” about the development of Chester Northgate, according to Farrall, who added that it is important for the local authority to lead on the project but that a private sector partner is needed to deliver an “imaginative” residential scheme.
“The most important thing about Northgate is speed and also being bold. One of the problems is that a lot of people have views on it and if a local authority tries to please everybody it gets nowhere. I think that has been the case with Northgate to be honest. Just get on with it, that’s my plea,” he said.
Lee, like other panellists, said the planning system is in need of simplification.
“We don’t want to provide detail that can bog down the determination of a proposal. Developers want certainty, the more certainty they have the more money they will put into the project,” he said.
Lee added that reforms to the Government’s Green Book appraisal system, announced during last week’s spending review, were a positive step for the North but wrangling over the Green Belt is a big concern in terms of creating the right developments in the right places.
“We have to face up to Green Belt issues in a more constructive manor. It’s too binary at the moment. Just look at the GMSF [Greater Manchester Spatial Framework] and people throwing their toys out of the pram. There is a lot of good that could come from Green Belt development but I think we have a long way to go [to convince people of that].”