“What we’re doing to the built environment is a travesty”, according to Nick Johnson, head honcho at Altrincham Market, who made his name at developer Urban Splash. He called the current process for procuring new projects “a barrier to enterprise”.
Johnson spoke at Place North West’s M60 Towns Development Update, sponsored by Barton Willmore and Rochdale Development Agency.
Johnson bemoaned the protracted OJEU process he had to go through in order to secure the development brief for Altrincham Market, a process he said was made up of “bizarre questions with no relevance” and “an artificial competition.”
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“Altrincham is a market town, that’s been the rationale behind it since 1290, and it now needs to discover the reason for its existence, so we thought it could become a ‘modern’ market town.
“So we had the idea that we want to transform the town, which then gets bogged down in OJEU [Official Journal of the European Union] notices, and the whole thing gets turned into an abstract reality.
“There are already enough barriers to enterprise, and for Altrincham Market, the whole tender process took 18 months and cost £100,000.”
Johnson called on the property industry “to consider with a full voice how we allow these processes to affect outcomes.”
He outlined the success of Altrincham’s revamped covered market hall and grade two-listed Market House, which he said feeds 7,000 people every week.
“The success of the market has taken us all by surprise, and the impact is transformational,” said Johnson. “It cost very little money, to do something with a profound change. Market House turns over £100,000 a week, has created 65 jobs, and each stand there is a business and enterprise in its own right.”
The success of the market shows how each town has the potential to define its identity and create a unique selling-point, Johnson said, but he stressed that Altrincham Market was “repeatable, but not replicable”.
“We shouldn’t use a cookie cutter, we need to capitalise on and celebrate our differences. Cut the crap and start a conversation that is honest, and stop wasting money on abstract processes.
“I’m a great believer in serendipity. With serendipity, sometimes you don’t have the answer, or not yet. You need to ask the questions at the right time, and allow ourselves the freedom to say ‘I don’t know’. The current process doesn’t allow room for that.”
A Greater Manchester
Among other speakers at the event was Dan Mitchell, partner at planning consultant Barton Willmore, who gave context to the discussion about strategies for growth across the M60 towns, and asked “what makes Greater Manchester great?”
He defined Greater Manchester as “a lot of urban sprawl and merging settlements”, made up of the M60 towns which “are actually very, very well connected, but in a hub and spoke arrangement, in which all roads lead back to the city centre.”
The populations of many of the boroughs suffer from poverty, he said, such as Oldham, “which is the most deprived town in England, and suffers from major perception issues,” according to a survey. The figures cited by Mitchell state around 72% of the population in Oldham, Bolton and Rochdale are classified as deprived.
He identified that many towns had struggled to reinvigorate schemes which stalled during the recession, where anchor occupiers committed but then fell away, while facing large-scale competition from attractions such as the Trafford Centre.
“We’ve not helped ourselves”, said Mitchell. “We’ve been competing to attract the same retailers in the same towns, all the while there has been a dramatic change in the retail sector as a whole.
“Transport and movement now is key to what we do. I encourage plans to connect Wigan, Bolton and Bury, in a circle line so not everything is routed through and dependent on the city centre.
“M60 towns could be the hubs which feed into the large employment centres. But at the moment it is a matter of perception, and we need to think of ourselves as different to ‘the poor Northern M60’, but actually see ourselves as new neighbourhoods for Greater Manchester as a whole.”
Nicola Kane, transport strategy manager at Transport for Greater Manchester, set out plans to create a vision for transport across the region up to 2040. The draft Greater Manchester Transport Strategy is due to be published for consultation in the summer. Kane said the strategy would enable the city region’s transport network to deliver “world-class connections, that support long-term, sustainable economic growth and access to opportunity for all…transformed town centres, better orbital connectivity, with integrated, seamless public transport”. With at least 20% of commuters in Greater Manchester towns travelling more than 10km each day in their journey to work, Kane stressed that the connectivity between areas such as Stockport, Oldham and Rochdale is essential to supporting a growing economic base.
Joining Kane was TfGM colleague Rod Fawcett, transport policy manager at TfGM. He said: “We want to create a similar pan-city bus system as London has, with one set of ticketing, timetable, and travel planning data.”
Key to the unified plan for transport was the devolution of rail stations, and a greater control over highways and the bus services. “There are 97 rail stations which have been run by the same operators for nine years, then taken over and run by another franchise. There’s no incentive to invest long term,” explained Fawcett. “We believe by taking them in-house we will manage them better.”
Recipe for success
Partner in masterplanning and urban design practice, Planit-IE, Lindsay Humblet likened the creation of successful town centres to making a cake; “you just have to gather the right ingredients”. In the case of Altrincham, where the company is based, the key ingredients are its people, activities, location, culture, scale, environment. Putting all of these elements together, in a sensitive plan which respects historic character, the movement of the population and its priorities, influenced by public consultation, Humblet said would create ambitious but deliverable vision for towns.
According to Humblet, town planning was best approached from a “people first” perspective. “If you plan towns for cars and traffic, you will get cars and traffic. If you plan for people and places, you will get people and places.”
In a panel discussion, Mitchell, Kane and Humblet were joined by John Sullivan of Cinema Next, and David Smith-Milne, chief executive of PlaceFirst, developer of Ashton Old Baths and specialist in quality family homes for private rent.
Also speaking at the M60 Towns Development Update, John Searle, chief executive of the Rochdale Development Agency, announced Rochdale Riverside as the new name for the £65m town centre leisure scheme, being built in partnership with Genr8 and Kajima. With large-scale retailers Marks & Spencer and Next committed to the project, alongside Reel Cinemas, Searle presented the scheme as providing a critical mass of retail-led activity, set to boost footfall in the town.
Searle also praised the local business rates reduction scheme set up by the council in 2014. The initiative reduces business rates for new businesses into the town by 80% in the first year and 50% in the second year, and Searle said 16 lettings had been agreed in the past year because of it.
Shelagh McNerney, head of development at Salford City Council, described the city and its surrounding borough as “a hinterland to Manchester, and better off for it”. McNerney showed how Salford was a “borough of contrasts”, including small towns such as Eccles and Irlam, and reaching across all the way to Warrington in the west.
Embrace past mistakes
As a council doing a lot of work planning the future of Salford’s economy over the next few decades, McNerney said that while some towns were struggling to find their positives, “we have to work with what we’ve got, and work around decisions and investments made in the not so recent past.”
Pre-recession decisions to build big-box out-of-town retail schemes, or department store-led shopping centres, may have created developments that are unpopular or unsuccessful in the present day, but McNerney stressed that “we can’t just wipe them out, we need to work around them and build projects around them.
“Alongside, we can maximize the local, distinctive and authentic assets.” Like Humblet, she emphasized that public consultation was important. “Local people know what they love and value about their towns. Listen to them, not everything needs turning over.”
Faced with oft-quoted figures about the levels of deprivation in Oldham, Roger Frith, head of strategic regeneration and development at Oldham Council, presented attendees with a more positive outlook for the town and gave an update on £140m of large-scale projects underway.
Greater Manchester, he said, was in danger of competing with itself unless each town developed its own sense of place and offer. In Oldham, projects such as Hotel Future, a 120-bedroom hotel due to start on site later this year, and the leisure redevelopment of the Old Town Hall, are creating a magnet to bring people into the town. Frith described the Old Town Hall project as “the single most transformational project in the town centre”. Being built by Morgan Sindall, the cinema and restaurant scheme is due to open later this year.
The new Heritage Centre and Coliseum on Union Street will deliver a sensitive restoration of a loved, local heritage asset, said Frith, and provide cultural activities, wellbeing and learning opportunities for local people.
However, Frith stressed that, while a town could make the most of its assets, good connectivity was key, and Oldham had suffered from “a transport problem”.
“With the tram network and road system, you can’t physically get to Manchester Airport, which is lauded as a key employment site, unless you want a really long commute”. Like Barton Willmore’s Mitchell, Frith called for greater circular connectivity, ensuring that Oldham could make the most of the city region’s job opportunities.
To round off the morning’s discussion, a panel made up of McNerney, Searle, Frith and Kane, was joined by Paul Nolan, director of agency Nolan Redshaw, and Ade Alao, head of investment and development at Tameside Council.
Alao emphasised that many of the challenges faced by M60 towns “were in fact yesterday’s solutions. So we need to be careful that we don’t now create what will be the problems in 30 years’ time.” Alao lauded masterplanning in partnership with innovation as the best way to navigate this risk.
“We all have a role to play in how development happens across Greater Manchester,” he said, but he also warned that the planning process, including the creation of strategic frameworks, could present its own challenges. “We can’t pretend that the strategic framework process, and potentially the discussion about the release of green belt, will be easy. A lot of the green belt we have now may not be very high quality, so we need to ask, does this make sense?”
Nolan gave a word of caution from the agent’s perspective, and said that while the market had picked up “significantly”, it was not back to the levels it had reached prior to the recession. “We still have issues with viability, but the market has a way of correcting itself, by forcing old space out of circulation, to be replaced by new products.”
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