The final Place North West conference of 2020 saw key figures from the public sector take to the virtual stage to examine the ins and outs of partnerships with the private sector, fundamental to the delivery of so many schemes.
The event was sponsored by Waterman, DAC Beachcroft, Telcom and Three Sixty and hosted through the Remo events platform.
Panel One – How are local authorities managing to keep things on track at a time when scant resources are challenged further by macroeconomic contraction?
John Bowker, director of property services, Stockport Homes Group
Christopher Stanwell, head of planning, DAC Beachcroft
Tim Heatley, co-founder, Capital & Centric
Sean Anstee, chairman, Trafford Housing Trust
Becca Heron, director of economy & skills, Wigan Council
Wigan’s Becca Heron said the move to more local shopping has shown the need that’s still there: “Covid has taken a lot of our attention this year, but it has emphasised the importance of our economic strategy, especially diversifying our town centres as retail’s role is reduced. We’re continuing with procurement for the Galleries in Wigan, and are progressing with the Future High Street fund for Leigh.”
She continued: “The ‘towns as the new cities’ idea was something we fortuitously put forward a year ago, and there’s no doubt the pandemic has made people re-evaluate their relationship with place. Although there’ll be a return to the office, commuting patterns will change. Quality of place is key, whether private or shared.
“In residential terms, what towns can offer is central living with a level of access to schools and health you don’t get in city centres. Viability can be the main issue.”
Capital & Centric has been prominent both in central Manchester and in towns such as Stockport. Tim Heatley said there’s a lot to be gained from working in partnerhip:
“We like working with the public sector because we like the outcomes it creates beyond property, there are exciting things with social impact. The good thing about partnership is that one party can take pressure off the other at times over complex, long-term projects and ride waves out.
“Town cente were serving a demographic that’s not there so much now, and the future lies in attracting younger people, those who moved to Manchester for university or work from all over: why wouldn’t they want the space, character and benefits of a town, with the appeal of Manchester 15 minutes away too?”
In Heatley’s view, institutions might start to back suburban development – 300-home sites with energy-efficient systems, and amenities built alongside saying: “The ‘weight of money’ that we hear a lot of talk about lies in funds where public pensions are, and the people who manage those are increasingly keen to demonstrate social outcomes that consumers want to see.”
What impact has 2020 had on a housing trust bought in 2019 by L&Q, one of the sector’s biggest players? Sean Anstee said: “What we want to achieve hasn’t changed, and the big issues haven’t changed: we still need more affordable homes in this region. As providers re-set, we’ll see more creativity. Ultimately, being focused on end outcome will be part of the economic solution, stopping building won’t help.
Warning against value-engineering, he said “when things go wrong, people often go for significantly higher densities and poorer quality – as an industry we need to make sure we’re not throwing up things we won’t be proud of in 25 years”. This is not a time to not compromise, he added.
Christopher Stanwell said that much client thought is going into repurposing retail: “We’re seeing a lot of people trying to work out what to do with space, exploring what could be repurposed for logistics and housing. Partners have to bring their respective skills and among what councils can offer, the ability to borrow money long-term and CPO powers are particularly useful.
Like Heatley, he said there’s definitely an eagerness to explore socially-minded projects among institutions. “It’s not just theorising: lots of big organisations have ambitious CSR targets: we’ve seen that high street brands that fail to deliver have withered and died. Customers want things to reflect their aspirations.”
As welcome as town centre residential can be in revivifying central areas, John Bowker warned against ‘too much too soon’:
“With investment coming in, we need not to lose sight of people who need us as towns become cool to live in: we need to maximise social impact, generate local jobs and not price people out. Can we use this investment to bring about real social and economic change?”
Bowker, who presented on the work being delivered by the Stockport Homes Group, including the Three Sixty building arm, added:
“As an organisation, we’re a safety net to many people, and with the impacts on the economy coming, there will likely be more people in need of support.”
Bowker added that “big challenges lie ahead” for the building sector, such as delivering zero-carbon and introducing more modular development.
Gerry Brough, director of place, Bolton Council
John Laverick, head of development, Warrington & Co
Caroline Simpson, corporate director for place, Stockport Council
Cllr Peter Moss, deputy leader, Preston City Council
Do local authorities still have firepower, or are they hamstrung by Covid?
Caroline Simpson said it’s full steam ahead in Stockport: “We’ve ploughed on through 2020, and have some significant private investment projects going through planning.
As is the first session, there was agreement that public space can be a strength ofr towns over the larger cities. Simpson agreed but warned “it’s easier said than done – we’re advancing a two-acre park, which has only been possible with equity commitments from the council, GMCA and transport monies, in a scheme delivered with a transport interchange and a residential block”.
As to what councils look for in developers, she said: “We want to work with developers who understand what a council’s priorities are, but also show some commitment and initiative, rather than just asking officers to ‘tell us about your sites’. A good “how-to” example would be Muse, Stockport’s partner on the Exchange scheme, she said.
One intriguing idea is a housing product to appeal to middle-aged “empty nesters” freeing up sought-after family housing and creating a market for town centre retail & leisure: “If we can crack this, it’s a huge opportunity, bringing to areas close to town centres an active population with disposable income and time to spend.”
While Bolton’s Gerry Brough admitted council investment will be tougher to secure post-Covid, he said “we have committed £37m of the £100m town centre investment plan announced in 2017, and still have leeway: no one’s hinting at slowing down or pulling out among our development partners”.
One thing Bolton’s been a beneficiary of is changing sentiment around affordability. Brough said: “We decided not to ask for affordable housing to be included as a must on town centre schemes, but what’s happened is that schemes are coming forward with good amounts of affordable housing because the funding environment for registered providers is healthy, so partnerships are working well.
“There is a balancing act: RPs are reluctant to go taller than five storeys, so densities are low and completion numbers are impacted, but that emphasis on more traditional homes does bring in families. It shows the need for flexibility.”
Not uncommonly, Warrington is amid a long-term plan to bring in more residential and offices to the town centre.
John Laverick said: “We’ve invested heavily in Time Square and that’s starting to bear fruit in the surrounding areas. Developing our infrastructure is key, both to enable town centre regeneration and to encourage more cycling and walking. Everyone benefits from a more attractive environment.
“Viability can hold back affordable housing in some areas, and it’s something you have to be flexible with: if it’s not quite possible, but the intention’s there and the proposal is well thought through, that deserves support and we’d rather see something delivered than not. You have to be pragmatic.”
The only elected member on the panel, Cllr Peter Moss, said “what’s driven Preston is trying to make the city centre a calm, enjoyable place to be for anyone, from 8 years old to 80.
“We’ve had an emphasis on increasing city centre living, and that’d supporting bars, restaurants and shops – there’s room for more.”
Moss also touched on the “Preston model,” city’s economic approach to community wealth-building. He said: “Buying locally doesn’t stop us working with major contractors: Balfour Beatty are delivering one of our largest projects, but all their sub-contractors come from within 40 miles of Preston. We’re very open – there are 100 organisations in the Preston Partnership, all talking to each other.”