Cllr Mike Jones, leader of Cheshire West & Chester Council, threw down a gauntlet to the private sector to engage with the council to help revive the fortunes of Chester and the wider borough at an exclusive Place event.
In an impassioned speech to the 70 guests from across the property community at Place's first Cheshire West & North Wales Property Forum, Jones said he was shaping the local authority into a streamlined organisation with clearer lines of accountability and a reduced cost base. He said £43m/year of savings had been found already and there would be further £200m raised through an auction of surplus property assets over the next ten years if plans were approved. This includes 500 acres of farmland and 32 retail units. The auction plan is due to be consulted upon in the summer.
Jones said £100m was needed for road repairs and another £100m to improve sports facilities across the borough. He added the local authority was preparing for further spending cuts from central government and had contingency plans to save an extra £10m/year for the next three years.
Jones outlined four priorities for regeneration: the Chester Renaissance city centre masterplan; a new Ellesmere Port development plan, the Weaver Valley vision for Northwich and Winsford, and a fresh strategy for developing the rural economy.
Jones was speaking at the forum held at Pioneer House in Ellesmere Port and sponsored by DTM Legal, Kenneymoore Property Consultants, Marketing Projects and Cheshire West & Chester Council.
In response, speaking from the delegate floor, Tim Kenney of Kenneymoore, welcomed Jones's upbeat speech but said the private sector had heard similar local political pledges before to no avail and it needed stronger leadership than in the past to push through real change.
See below for images from the event
The opening keynote speech was delivered by Andrew Teage, head of the Liverpool studio of architects and urban planners BDP. Teage said Chester could meet its target of becoming a must-see European city by 2015 but had to act fast on projects such as Chester Rail Gateway and Northgate, the stalled retail-led development.
On Northgate, Teage added BDP facilitated a workshop with the council to identify their priorities going forward. A scaled down plan by ING Real Estates and Land Securities with less public 'giveaways' is expected to be revealed this year.
A series of roundtables and a final panel discussion was held between the two keynote speeches at Place's forum. On the panel alongside Teage and Jones were Rita Waters, chief executive of Chester Renaissance, and Margaret Bardsley, marketing and business development director at Reaseheath College. Some of the findings and questions arising from the roundtables and panel were as follows:
- There is a greater need than ever to lobby and secure significant infrastructure improvements in places such as Sealand/Deeside and Middlewich town centre where transport black-spots are putting off inquiries
- There is an ongoing lack of supply of new stock as developers stay away from speculative building
- The North West Development Agency is more likely to recommend Manchester or Liverpool to inward investors and often seems unaware of the product Cheshire has to offer
- There is great potential for the rural economy but it is not being fulfilled due to a lack of investment
- A comprehensive plan needs to come forward for housing, education, jobs, and transport to prevent the outward migration of young people
- Local champions should be used to lead a campaign for investment in the rural economy
- There is talk but no action about catering for older people and those with special needs
- Many schemes have stalled due to the recession but there are providers waiting in the wings
- Reliant on grants to get new developments moving but the market will be expected to do more with less in coming years
- Chester needs to develop its retail offer to prevent spend leaking to other areas…
- …but is Northgate the right scheme in the right location; and how will it develop a cultural offering alongside the retail?
- North Wales needs to work on improving the welcome and incentives for new retailers and decide what its coastal towns are for: dormitory towns, tourism, local communities?
- There were concerns about the impact of dropping 500,000 sq ft of offices on the market through the Chester Rail Gateway scheme
- New offices are needed but can the local schools, housing and public transport cope with thousands of extra workers?
- In North Wales, the Welsh Assembly Government has gone, according to one delegate, 'beyond aggressive' and effectively if you want to do business in Wales you have to have a physical presence there
Click on the images to enlarge. Photos courtesy of Marketing Projects