Manchester’s property community has lamented the forthcoming exit of the city council’s strategic director of growth and development who has been in post for less than a year and urged leaders to appoint a replacement with similar qualifications and emphasis on design.
Based in the Midlands prior to taking the role last July, Louise Wyman has “reflected on the past year and decided that she wants to be closer to family”, Manchester City Council said in a statement this week.
A qualified landscape architect with a masters degree from Harvard University, Wyman joined Manchester City Council from the West Midlands Combined Authority, where she was director of design and development. She is also a member of the Design Group of the National Infrastructure Commission, and previously held posts at Government body Homes England and its predecessor the Homes and Communities Agency, including as large sites lead for 13 years.
Following news of her appointment at the height of the pandemic, industry professionals commended the council for recruiting Wyman. Her links with Whitehall and understanding of the importance of design quality were viewed as highly valuable in steering Manchester through a fresh chapter of regeneration and growth after the departure of her longstanding predecessor Eddie Smith.
“I will definitely champion public realm,” she told Place North West in her first media interview in the role. “I am trained to design everything other than buildings, and there is so much more we can do here if we ask the question, ‘What will Manchester look like in 2050?’”
The industry responds
Here, Place North West asks Manchester’s architects, developers, engineers, planners and agents for their responses to Wyman’s planned departure at the end of this month, and what the council needs to do to reassure the development community while her replacement is sought.
Roger Stephenson, founding partner of Stephenson Hamilton Risley Studio
“It is a great shame that Louise Wyman is leaving her post. I was excited to hear that someone with a design background was taking up this important role and all the early indications were that she was adopting a dynamic and proactive approach to the task.
“The city has transformed itself with some excellent architecture and placemaking: the Exchange Square area and St Peter’s Square are two good examples, but there are other lost opportunities where development took precedence over urban space making.
“It is vital that the city finds someone to replace Louise who has the same qualifications and approach.”
Simon Bedford, real estate Partner, Deloitte
“It’s a great shame that things haven’t worked out for Louise. She brought a new perspective to the city and it was very enjoyable to work with her.
“Manchester is moving through a period of transition – and a new vision and strategy for the city as a whole. We now need to find the right person to lead on that complex process of change as we strive for carbon neutrality and a fully functioning post-pandemic city centre. It’s a big job with a broad skillset required!”
Michael Dong, chief executive, Investar
“Louise Wyman is a major loss for the city and will be sorely missed by both the public and private sectors. This is especially true for us, as Investar is focused on sustainable development, place and integrated design, all of which sat comfortably alongside Louise’s vision for the city’s ambitious growth plans.
“Her central London connections both at Homes England and within No 10 through [Homes England chairman] Sir Ed Lister and others were a fantastic direct hotline into the central government machine, whose influence could have not only shaped policy and support but would have delivered considerable benefit to the city under her stewardship.
“On a personal note, having to spend time away from my own family during the pandemic I fully empathise with her need to be with her family, but from a commercial stance I do hope the city manages to replace her with a person of equal calibre, connections and capability.”
Stephen O’Malley, founding director, Civic Engineers
“Louise’s departure is a frustration all round, decisions like this aren’t taken lightly and I’m sure all the parties involved will have taken care and time in arriving at this conclusion.
“Louise’s high pedigree in the built environment, with a clear landscape and placemaking bias, offered these skills and experience to a thriving city successful in delivering building-led development.
“In this role, Louise was vital in steering the city’s evolution towards visioning and realising a city network of streets and spaces that embrace nature-based solutions as the automatic first choice. This [requires a] rebalancing away from vehicle movement and hard streetscapes towards shorter, ‘active travel’-based journeys occupying streets that incorporate sustainable urban drainage systems and other features with the amenity, biodiversity and climate adaptability those choices bring.
“This is all the more important at a time post-pandemic, when we have all had a chance to rethink how we spend our time and have a renewed appreciation of the public health benefits these type of spaces provide. The city is already on the right course – look at the Bee Network cycle route and the new public park at Mayfield, for example.
“No doubt the next seat holder will pick up that momentum and drive this forward-facing urban infrastructure programme to serve healthier lifestyles and protect our planet.”
Nick Moss, director, Nick Moss Architects
“It’s a shame it’s not worked out for her. Whoever takes on the role will need to address Manchester’s overreliance on the PRS [private rented sector] market, which as I understand it, equates to the largest market share for PRS in any major UK city.
“A broader mix of homes, especially for individual private sale, will enable younger people to get onto the housing ladder. The ongoing desire for quality homes and placemaking will continue to be paramount.”
A counter view
While most people contacted by Place North West were complimentary about Wyman’s skills and approach, one industry representative who asked not to be named said: “You might be surprised that we never had any contact from Louise at any point during her nine months, and you might find that is a common message among the regeneration and development community in Manchester.”
Others countered that it is unusual for specific companies to be contacted directly by someone in Wyman’s post without a specific reason, and that they had themselves reached out to her and “found her very helpful”.
Another source said the post Wyman has held for much of the past year has been “impossible for her and several professional property people before her due to the interference by [the council’s powerful current and past senior figures]. Many of those individuals have preferred associates, making the role untenable for someone with independent ideas and ethical standards.” The council has been contacted for a response.
In her interview with Place North West last July, Wyman noted that one of the things she wished to change while in post is the the lack of diversity in the council’s approach to design and procurement. In property circles, Deloitte Real Estate and SimpsonHaugh have long been perceived as the council’s preferred partners for major schemes, as the planner and architect respectively.
In reality, the market has expanded considerably in recent years, but the unhelpful perception of a ‘closed shop’ for less established firms remains.
“I am a real champion of diversity – and that means using businesses that are not just white, middle-class, and middle-aged,” she said at the time. “We can look at adapting the process a bit. There is so much more we can do in this space to help new businesses shine.”
Manchester City Council said this week that interim arrangements for her position will be put in place “in due course”. It is understood that Wyman has yet to secure a position elsewhere.