Rail improvements, Chester’s turn, the burgeoning science scene, and challenges facing the devolution bid, were all discussed before an audience of more than 150 Place North West readers at our area briefing.
Speaking at the event, sponsored by Pochin’s and Cheshire & Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership, and held in the Riverside Innovation Centre, Chester, were:
- Guy Butler, director, property developer Glenbrook, and chairman of Chester Growth Partnership
- Heather Standidge, associate director, adviser Cushman & Wakefield
- Chris Doherty, site director, Alderley Park, Manchester Science Partnerships
- Jim Nicholson, chief executive, Pochin’s
- Paul Vernon, executive director of commercial operations, University of Chester
See gallery and presentation slides below
Tracking Cheshire’s chances
More work needs to be done to improve the rail connections around Cheshire which have held back businesses and hampered commuting for many years, the panel all said.
Guy Butler, chairman of the newly created Chester Growth Partnership, which grew out of the old Chester Renaissance organisation, said: “Our connectivity with London is okay, but our connectivity with Manchester and Liverpool is absolutely appalling.
“If you want to get people to travel into Chester for business, or you want to get people to commute to Manchester, then it’s a bit of a joke in terms of the trains. We’ve been working hard on that and getting some quick wins, but it’s a very long-term project.”
Various rail projects are moving up the funding agenda for local and central government including electrification of lines to Holyhead and improving the service on the mid-Cheshire line, reopening the station at Middlewich, the Halton curve upgrade and Wrexham to Chester track redoubling. But promises remain bigger than the amount spent in reality, the panellists agreed.
Jim Nicholson, chief executive of developer, contractor and investor Pochin’s, agreed: “If you look at infrastructure, the rail is soft in terms of the types of vehicles and the time it takes to get to Manchester or Liverpool.
“The biggest problem we have in attracting people to this area is knowing when the money will be spent – and we haven’t really seen a huge number of pounds from government put out there on infrastructure projects.”
The local enterprise partnership set a bold target in its economic plan and devolution bid, submitted to government in September 2015, to more than double the size of the area’s economy from £23bn to £50bn by 2040. This would mean adding 127,000 and 139,000 homes.
Pochin’s Nicholson added: “We have to have a target for growth. Cheshire’s bid was as much about improving efficiency as it was about increasing quantum. With the science and added value sectors the target is possible. The clustering effect of the science industry is great, but you also need to look at logistics and advanced manufacturing. Do we have the training in place for advanced manufacturing? I’m not convinced. It is all about getting the fundamentals in place. The skills and infrastructure are not fit for purpose and that’s where we need a real big effort.”
Butler said the LEP “have been finding their feet and their strategies are being slowly implemented, but they are going to have to play a bigger role in terms of distributing cash” especially as Brexit looms and EU funding potentially dries up.
Nicholson added that LEP priorities are known but developers and occupiers have yet to be convinced that projects are being realised, “nothing seems to be coming through at the speed that it should be.”
Many in the room agreed the LEP’s devolution bid would be improved by having a single elected mayor, currently a stumbling block between the three unitary authorities for east and west Cheshire and Warrington, to act as a figurehead and champion for business.
Butler summed up the mood: “If you look at Manchester and Liverpool, then I think that a single voice for the region would be a really good thing. It is disparate at present and there are differences. The political makeup makes it a challenge at the moment.”
In the summer, the three councils, two Labour and one Conservative, said the discussion around a new mayor was on hold and there has been no resolution since. The devolution bid and growth plan is still being considered by government.
A thriving restaurant scene, new residential supply and progress with the long-awaited Northgate retail project were all trumpeted during a lively canter through Chester’s current and forecast developments by Guy Butler, director of property company Glenbrook and chairman of Chester Growth Partnership.
Public sector investment in the new Storyhouse theatre and library and relocated bus station at Gorse Stacks are “pivotal, vital changes”, Butler said, but need to be a catalyst for the city centre population. Adding to the number of people living in the city centre “creates a vibrancy and a trade all of its own” as well as adding to security and cleanliness.
The partnership is supportive of all kinds of residential supply in the city centre – student, private rented, elderly, open market.
Several ongoing and proposed developments suggest Butler’s vision of vibrant city centre living for Chester could be about to come true. At the old shot tower, contractors for developer Whitecroft are due to be on site in the coming weeks.
Morbaine is drawing up plans for 370 student beds on its remaining undeveloped land at Black Diamond Street near Hoole Bridge and Chester Station. Residential could also come forward at the surface car park at St Martin’s Way, Butler said.
The £300m retail development by Cheshire West & Chester Council, advised by Rivington Land, at Northgate received planning consent in September. There will be two phases to the 500,000 sq ft scheme. The first will feature a six-screen Picturehouse cinema and restaurants, with retail making up the bulk of the second phase. Completion is due in 2021. Securing funding for the major development at a time of economic and retailer uncertainty is a “big challenge” but “there’s a good wind behind us” said Butler. “I think we’ve made the job easier for ourselves, it’s just a case of which funds are out there and committed to be able to do that.”
Meanwhile, the restaurant circuit around Pepper Street maintains its momentum and has seen about 10 new openings in the past couple of years with more to come.
“Chester cannot get enough of food and beverage at the moment,” said Butler. “And what that does is increase footfall, makes it a better place to live and helps our case for building residential in the city centre.”
On the offices front the floors are filling up at the new One City Place 70,000 sq ft building by Muse Developments next to the station. Such speculative development is rare outside Manchester in the current property cycle and is a coup for Chester.
Paul Vernon, executive director of operations at the University of Chester, which has been an active property player in the past decade, played down the prospect of further city centre acquisitions. “I think the University has enough of the city centre as it is at the moment. The developments going forward will be private sector student accommodation. I don’t believe that the university is planning to acquire or develop any more real estate.
“We’ve gone from one campus 11 years ago to seven now, and I think that’s probably enough.”
Even without the university putting its hand in, the city centre market in Chester appears to have woken from the doldrums with plenty to offer.
Appliance of science
Heather Standidge of property adviser Cushman & Wakefield gave an overview of the Cheshire Science Corridor Enterprise Zone’s different assets, summarised below. The EZ, launched in April 2016, offers eligible occupiers relief from business rates and local authorities the ability to retain new business rates. This could add £120m to the local economy over 25 years.
- Two speculative units at Cloister Way are under construction by Andrews Property Holdings totalling 40,000 sq ft due for completion in November 2016
- Helix Business Park, Redsun Developments due to start building six units ranging from 6,000 sq ft to 15,000 sq ft for completion next year
- 20-acre site owned by Homes & Communities Agency at Hooton Park vacant for years has come to market via EZ
Standidge said: “In Ellesmere Port there have been indicators of market demand but nobody quite had the confidence to speculatively deliver until now. The business rate discount has been that catalyst and actually brought forward development.”
Protos, Ince Park
- Peel Environmental on site with 19-turbine 50MW windfarm, first turbines now turning and delivering energy
- £65m biomass facility on site due for completion 2017
- New road layout installed and two ecological areas will be managed by Cheshire Wildlife Trust
- Early next year work on timber recycling plant due to get underway, timber from the plant feeding into the biomass facility
- Speculative build of 53,000 sq ft on Cavendish Avenue completed earlier this year by Patrizia, medical diagnostics firm Werfen becoming the first occupier
- 30,000 sq ft of office space has been refurbished at Daten Park
- Further 50 acres of land with infrastructure in place ready to be developed
Thornton Science Park
- University acquired 66-acre former Shell research site in 2014
- 700 students now based there in new faculty of science and engineering
- Ultimately park will only be about 25% university, with remaining 75% industrial
- 30 acres around outside of park open to development, capacity for 1m sq ft
Paul Vernon of the university: “It’s probably the biggest thing that the University of Chester has embarked on. Thornton is an incredibly important project not only for the University but for the region. The Northern Powerhouse was going to pass us by without things like Thornton. Thornton has allowed Chester to be part of the Cheshire Science Corridor Enterprise Zone, and it’s opening up all kinds of possibilities for economic development in the region.”
Of the approach to development at Thornton, Vernon explained: “We are looking for partners. We’re looking at individual plots, and individual joint ventures for strategic partners.”
Alderley Park, former AstraZeneca campus
- Two years since Bruntwood and Manchester Science Partnerships completed the purchase of the site, 400 acres containing 1.5m sq ft of existing premises
- AZ is moving to Cambridge but will have to wait two to three years for its new facility there. Gradual phased departure is ongoing
- Vision is for a life science park and a residential village
- Village concept was approved in February with 275 houses, a hotel, gastro pub, restaurant, shop and sport centre
- First residential plot sold two weeks ago to PH Property Holdings, 13 acres for 75 homes
- AZ has vacated about 60% of the lab buildings, about 600,000 sq ft of space. So far about 150,000 sq ft is let to about 50 companies with 250,000 sq ft under offer. There is also 100,000 sq ft of office space to let
Chris Doherty of Alderley Park and MSP said: “Our focus is pharma, biotech, life science – and to create a new mothership for the North West in terms of the sector. We want it to be the home of bio-science.
“So far we are ahead of plan. Cambridge is running late which is holding up release of some of the best assets at Alderley.”
Doherty on importance of start-ups: “One of the key assets is the people. Only 450 AZ staff are moving to Cambridge. They are leaving 700 behind and there are probably 2,000 people who have been or are going to be made redundant.
“This represents a major stimulus to new company start-ups. We have a very active incubator, and are funding a whole incubation programme to try to help those people who are very experienced biotech scientists and managers form new companies. We think that should form 30-50 new biotech companies in the next three to five years.” A dozen new companies have already been created this way. In five to 10 years’ time the site could be half occupied by companies that are formed in the next three years.
To view and download slides click on presenters’ names below
- Guy Butler, Chester development pipeline
- Heather Standidge, Cheshire Science Corridor Enterprise Zone
Click image to launch gallery