Covid-19, while a challenge, should be viewed as an opportunity to shape the future of the 10 Greater Manchester boroughs and drive meaningful development, public and private sector experts told a Place North West event.
The event was sponsored by LUC, JMW, Curtins and Morgan Sindall Construction, and hosted by editor Sarah Townsend. The line-up of high-profile speakers included senior officials from Wigan, Trafford, Rochdale and Stockport councils, developers Investar, Muse Developments and Glenbrook, law firm JMW and planning consultancy LUC.
The event was the second in a new Place North West conference format, using a platform called Remo that enables networking on digital ‘tables’, as well as many other features.
- What can local authorities do to encourage private sector investment?
- What makes a fruitful public/private partnership and how can these relationships survive the pandemic?
- How can Greater Manchester’s 10 boroughs respond to changing trends in town centre movements and amenities on the back of Covid-19?
- Contracts between public and private sector clients should be signed and then put on the shelf, if you pick up the contract at the first time of trouble, the partnership is not the right one
- The Green Belt should be made to “work harder” – retained but viewed as a tool for creating better developments, rather than as a means of blocking them
- Most development plans and deals already in the works have continued, whereas those that had not yet begun may be reviewed and tweaked in response to market changes
Panel discussion 1 – Where next for Greater Manchester?
Melissa Kurihara, associate director of planning, LUC
Alison McKenzie-Folan, chief executive, Wigan Council
Chris Lloyd, investment director, Glenbrook
John Searle, director of economy, Rochdale Council
John Searle said Rochdale has been trying to play a proactive part in the growth of Greater Manchester rather than waiting for “breadcrumbs” from the combined authority.
In order to do this, the council has to look to the private sector for support and Searle spoke of the importance of developers being open in discussions in terms of what they want to achieve from their projects – including profit.
“Some developers think local authorities look at profit as a dirty word,” he said. “It’s not. Be an open book with us. We will help you to get that development delivered.”
Chris Lloyd said that the oversupply of retail space in Greater Manchester creates an opportunity to build more offices, which he said would stand the test of Covid despite current uncertainty as to the future of workspace.
“Covid is a bump in the road but not something that is going to reverse 100 years of urbanisation. Everyone has a vested interest in offices succeeding over the next 50 years,” he said.
Lloyd predicted there could be a forthcoming spike in new office accommodation in GM towns based on current plans in the pipeline, and warned developers and authorities to act quickly to take advantage of opportunities.
Melissa Kurihara noted that the planning system is often seen as a barrier to development but the “radical reforms” proposed by housing secretary Robert Jenrick last month could change this.
However, she warned that, while the purpose of the reforms is to speed things up, the changes could bring initial uncertainty that may actually slow down planning processes in the short term.
Kurihara also predicted that conversations around green infrastructure would “come to the fore” as a result of the pandemic and people’s experiences during lockdown, when they may have had a greater need for green, open spaces.
Alison McKenzie-Folan said Wigan is very much open for development and its “ambitions remain unchanged” from before the pandemic.
In particular, Wigan has too much retail space amid a “recognition that consumer trends have completely changed”, she added. “The diversification of what we can offer and the consolidation of retail in town centres is really important.”
Presentation – Making the Green Belt work
Lucy Wallwork and Melissa Kurihara of environmental planning, design and management consultancy LUC said that, given the scale of growth in Greater Manchester, it is “likely” that some of the area’s designated Green Belt – which makes up 47% of land allocations in Greater Manchester – will be looked at as a way of bringing forward development.
The objective, therefore, should be about making the Green Belt “work harder” to create better developments so that it can enhance development and it does not represent a loss of green space and green infrastructure, they said.
“The Green Belt and the controversy around it, has been at heart of the [Greater Manchester Spatial Framework’s] journey since its inception. But the need for housing and employment development is not going away and the Green Belt should be looked as an opportunity rather than as a barrier to development,” Kurihara said.
The key, LUC believes, is green infrastructure planning and enhancing the Green Belt’s “beneficial uses”.
“The Green Belt is going to be the playground for people living in regenerated areas where development is focussed. A lot of what is driving people to those places in having access to green space on their doorsteps,” Wallwork said.
Panel discussion 2 – Public/private strategies for town centre regeneration
Michael Dong, chief executive, Investar Property Group
Richard Roe, corporate director of place, Trafford Council
Thomas Pearson, partner, JMW Solicitors
Paul Richards, director of development and regeneration, Stockport Council, and chief executive of Stockport Mayoral Development Corporation
Maggie Grogan, senior development surveyor, Muse Developments
Maggie Grogan said contracts between public and private sector clients should be signed and then “put on the shelf” and any problems that arise, for instance because of project delays due to Covid, should be dealt with without the need for litigation.
“If you are having to reach for your contract off the shelf, the partnership is probably failing. [If the partnership is strong], you don’t go back to that contract very often. It is signed and put on the shelf and you crack on,” she said.
Grogan added that parties have to be aligned in their views and ambitions for a project to be successful.
Richard Roe agreed with Grogan on the issue of public/private partnerships. “If you are immediately going to fall back on a contractual position and say we are going to enforce [a clause] now, then you should question if that is the right partnership anyway,” he said. The conversation was in response to a question about whether so-called ‘Covid clauses’ in development contracts would become increasingly common in future as parties seek to protect their interests should timeframes slip and other unforeseen scheme changes take place because of a pandemic or other extenuating circumstances.
Roe added that Covid has forced Trafford Council to rethink its planned regeneration of the Grafton Centre in Altrincham town centre, perhaps shelving it for now. At the same time, however, the council has approved more residential schemes in the last six months than in the six months before the pandemic.
Often, the private sector is looking for the public sector to take the lead in terms of development by buying up assets that could be converted or refurbished through a partnership between a developer and the local authority. These types of joint venture will remain crucial for bringing forward quality development in the coming months and years.
Thomas Pearson said the virtual and other planning processes that local authorities have adopted throughout lockdown are a case of “needs must” but that many of JMW’s clients have welcomed the streamlined approach in terms of maintaining momentum.
“I am all for having more clarity in the planning system to allow development, where it is appropriate, and getting things on site quicker,” he said.
He added that the rapid and healthy development momentum seen in Greater Manchester prior to the pandemic was “on pause” rather than stopped altogether, and that the industry should use Covid as a “springboard” to move forward.
Paul Richards said the regeneration of Stockport town centre, led by the council’s Mayoral Development Corporation, is continuing apace.
The MDC’s development strategy, drawn up ahead of its launch 12 months ago, was based on green credentials, sustainability and localism, and that these factors are more important now than ever before.
Stockport has a total of 1,100 homes in the pipeline, of the 3,500 it plans to build over the next 15 years and Richards said there is “massive investor appetite” for schemes across the borough’s available residential sites.
Michael Dong, whose firm is working alongside Stockport Council to deliver a £65m mixed-use redevelopment of the former Stockport College, described the best public/private development partnership as a healthy “marriage”.
“You have to start with the right mindset and values. Developers look for councils with clear direction and strategies,” he said.
“Private companies going into a partnership shouldn’t focus on profit. The focus has to be on getting the job done. If you do the right things, the profit will come anyway as a bonus,” he said.
Dong added that the quickest way to get the economy back on its feet is through construction and development. “We saw it after world wars and we’ll see it post-Covid. We need these big schemes to start kicking off.”