The future of Chester city centre’s regeneration, Ellesmere Port’s masterplan and whether Crewe will get HS2 were among the key topics at Place North West‘s Cheshire Development Update.
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More than 220 guests attended the conference, where issues and opportunities across the city and wider region were outlined by senior figures in development, politics and construction.
Speakers took part from Cheshire West & Chester Council, Cheshire East Council, the Dee House & Chester Amphitheatre Working Group, Jones Melling, Tatton Group, Muse, and James Peacock Property.The conference was chaired by Place North West deputy editor Charlie Schouten and sponsored by Liberty Group and Pochin’s.
Andrew Lewis, chief executive of Cheshire West & Chester Council, began the event by unveiling new images of the long-awaited Chester Northgate.
Work on the city centre regeneration scheme is set to begin next year.
- Lewis, who took over the authority last year, said the focus of development has shifted to “the market hall, high-quality public realm, leisure, cultural attractions and city centre living” to “reflect the changing retail environment”
- The council will invest £60m into phase one of the project
- The council is aiming to double the number of visitors to 2m on Northgate’s opening
- A formal planning application will be considered by the council’s planning committee in October
Can a historic eyesore be saved from ruin?
Architect Andy Foster, chairman of the Dee House & Chester Amphitheatre Working Group, followed with a presentation on the plans – and challenges – of redeveloping a derelict grade two-listed Georgian building.
Dee House, which was originally built in the 18th Century, is situated on Chester’s Roman amphitheatre. It has been vacant since the 1990s. Pub chain Thwaites pulled out of a planned redevelopment, citing the excessive cost for a structural survey.
- Foster said development was “particularly challenging” due to having “one historic asset sitting on top of another”
- It could cost up to £500,000 just to gain access to the dilapidated property
- Demolition is “technically impossible” due to strict listed building “hurdles”
Foster was joined on a panel by Lisa Harris, director of place strategy at Cheshire West & Chester Council; Ken Jones, founder of Jones Melling; and Leon Guyett, development director at Muse.
- Foster said the Labour group was now in favour of listening to the recommendations of the working group on the future of Dee House before making any decisions, but the Tories were still keen to demolish it
- He added the council had been “extremely positive” during its work with the group and that a “public-private” group hadn’t been tried before
- Jones discussed how he had moved an office in Warrington to Chester due to its central location and easy transport links to Wales
- However, he said engagement with the council had been “zero” since the relocation regarding the Northgate development
- Harris said the council had since “listened and responded, and changed the way it does business”
Ellesmere Port masterplan
- On the £29m Ellesmere Port masterplan, Harris revealed the scheme was moving into the delivery stage, with a new transport hub and public service building earmarked for the project
- She added that a planning application had been submitted to the council, which she hoped would be a “kickstart” regeneration of Ellesmere Port town centre, “working very closely with and the private sector” and “bringing forward insights for housing developments”
Warrington’s Time Square
- Asked about Warrington’s £142m mixed-use development, Guyett said the project was initially hindered by the location of the town’s historic market, which dates back to 1255
- He added preserving the market, which attracts 25,000 every week, was a key priority, and said there were plans to expand the market to attract up to 10,000 extra weekly visitors
- Guyett also revealed Time Square has tenants interested in 22,000 sq ft and three new operators have been given lease terms
Weaver Square in Northwich
- Harris discussed the plans for Weaver Square in Northwich
- Demolition of the former council offices has started at Watling Street to make way for a new residential hub, she said
- She also said the council was looking at new ways to attract more retailers to the £80m Barons Quay shopping centre and developing a masterplan for a residential development in the town, with Public Sector Plc and Fletcher-Rae
- She said Barons Quay was now retaining tenants, despite a “difficult market”. She added one retailer said their businesses was “outperforming Manchester and local stores”
When asked whether councils could please everyone on planning issues, Jones stressed that it “wasn’t an easy job”, but stated the public sector was “slower” to learn from mistakes than the private sector.
Following a networking break, John Adlen, growth director at Cheshire & Warrington Local Enterprise Partnership, took to the stage to discuss the sub-region’s thriving economy.
He said: “We are the most productive economy in the North of England, the top of the economy for the very west of the country. And we’ve got the highest GVA.”
Adlen added that since launching an open enterprise scheme in 2016, 300,000 sq ft of commercial floorspace has been developed for 50 businesses, creating more than 1,000 jobs.
A further 13 developments across the science corridor will create an extra 1.5m sq ft over the next three years, generating up to £96m in retail business rates over the next 25 years.
Will Crewe secure HS2?
A panel followed, featuring Adlen, Annette McDonald, deputy managing director at Tatton Group, Dominic Jude of James Peacock Property and Andrew Ross, director of highways and infrastructure at Cheshire East Council.
- Ross discussed the potential for the HS2 network in Crewe, stating: “Government hasn’t committed yet to HS2… but we need to create an environment to attract investment”
- He added that plans for 3m sq ft of offices in Crewe town centre and redeveloping the train station to cater for the high-speed network were underway
- “The first stage of our plan is to bring Crewe up to a higher rate of performance to marry with the rest of Cheshire and Warrington,” he said
Is Knutsford’s housing market misunderstood?
- McDonald said a lack of a “suburban model for buy-to-rent” in Knutsford had sparked a “misconception that it is much too expensive to buy” homes for young professionals
- “It’s only too expensive, because they’re all four or five-bedroom houses on the market,” she added. “If you look at the rental stuff in Knutsford, it’s actually very small and quite poor quality. So that’s a real issue to a 25 to 35-year-old.”
Warrington’s housing issues
- Jude said there were viability challenges to building affordable and social housing
- He said: “The council has been pushing us to come to them with schemes to see how we can work around the viability”
Preparing for Industry 4.0
- McDonald said: “There are still some very significant spots lacking good internet connectivity in the rural area, and that just has to change”
- Adlen added that the LEP was looking at a “broadband rollout” but warned: “It’s a real challenge for Cheshire and Warrington to make sure that we’ve got that digital connectivity. We are just in the middle of producing a digital strategy for the area”
Bridging the skills gap
- Adlen discussed Cheshire businesses’ struggles to hire and retain staff. He urged employers and the education sector to work together to find work for graduates: “For too long, employers have sat there saying the colleges and universities aren’t churning out the right type of people, and the colleges and universities are saying ‘we’re providing courses for what there’s demand for’. So getting those two players in a room together to plan for the skills we need is the first key step”
- Jude added: “There is definitely a skills shortage – at every level. We focus on training our own. That’s an important factor for us. But everybody is aware of the skills shortage, particularly in the construction sector”
A ‘very dynamic and successful economy’
- Adlen praised Cheshire and Warrington’s economic progress in recent years, saying: “We are a very dynamic and successful economy, but we cannot rest on our laurels. With our productivity levels, we can start to close the gap between us and the rest of the country”
- Jude said he’d like to see local authorities “engaging with the private sector on some of the underutilised vacant buildings that we have in the town and city centres in the North”
- Ross said collaboration was key, adding: “There are lots of viable development opportunities around Cheshire and Warrington. It remains a successful place to invest. We do have challenges, and it’s only by working together that we will get the sorts of places that I think everybody here wants to deliver”
The presentation slides can be accessed below:
The next Place North West event in the area is the Cheshire Social on 31 July – book here.
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