There are always places and sectors that buck trends, even in challenging times, so which parts of the Liverpool city region’s economy are charging ahead, asked a Place North West event.
Merseyside Development Update was sponsored by Pegasus Group, Torus, Curtins, Rendall & Rittner and Lexington Communications, and chaired by Place North West publisher Paul Unger.
Two presentations and panel sessions ran the rule over how Merseyside’s property industry is faring now, and the outlook for the months ahead.
Panel One – The development picture
Louise Sheridan, director, Ellis Williams Architects
Darren Muir, principal planner, Pegasus Group
Nick Wightman, director, Redsun Projects
Lisa Harris, executive director of place, St Helens Council
The panel was topped with a presentation by Louise Sheridan on ‘Destination Bootle’. Community business SAFE Regeneration secured the use of the former St Mary’s primary school in Bootle to use as a hub, and launched a music festival in 2018. In 2019, it reworked an old pub into the Lock & Quay not-for-profit pub.
Ellis Williams Architects was appointed that year to lead on Destination Bootle, a redevelopment of these plots and the former Carolina Wharf coal yard, linked underneath a railway line by a now reopened tunnel.
Overarching design principles include the addition of green space and opening out previously inaccessible canalside, Sheridan said.
The project has four phases: a replacement hub, including offices; a multi-purpose hall, studio space, workshops and a nursery, to be built at Carolina Wharf.
Phase two is the residential part, comprising 41 houses and 66 apartments. Phase three includes the pub and social enterprise zone, including a B&B. Phase four includes an 80-bed extra care facility.
Sheridan said: “The key is the community elements are coming first. This is a cradle-to-grave community.” The scheme could in time link to the Strand shopping centre, which Sefton Council is planning to overhaul.
In the main panel session, Redsun’s Nick Wightman said logistics at least has enjoyed a boom in 2020. “We’ve probably had our busiest year. We’ve completed around 250,000 sq ft of industrial space across Merseyside and Ellesmere Port, including the 125,000 sq ft Aviator building we let and sold a few months after completion. Demand is as strong as its ever been.”
He added: “Business owners are still in the market – our bread and butter is the owner-occupier smaller units, and although some panicked initially, within two months they were restarting plans to expand, such as companies in online retail, packaging, food and drink. There are winners and losers.
“Sustainability is important for occupiers in the simple sense that they want an energy-efficient building – charging points are becoming popular, we’re fitting them as standard.
“Companies aren’t bothered about badging: I’m sceptical about the value of certification schemes. Planning and building regulations get a raw deal, but are actually pretty good at ensuring buildings are done soundly.”
Sheridan agreed that some sectors are up, some down. She said: “We’re seeing activity in extra care, and leisure centres in response to the health crisis. There’s strength in logistics for us. Arts has always been strong for us but is non-existent in this climate. There’s a lot riding on the next Government spending review.”
With electric vehicle charging points, the cost will come down, she added – EDF taking over Pod Point shows that the huge companies are interested. “Hopefully, the gains made in building cycle networks during Covid won’t be wasted: Dublin has halved road space. That ‘mile from the station’ need for sustainable transport is really important, you’ve got to give people a viable alternative.”
Lisa Harris said: “For St Helens, it’s important that we’re ready for market readjustments and have product available. The Glass Futures project is huge for us, it’s unique, and is something we’re keen to look at for other foundation industries. We’re looking to build green links from that area into the town centre, tying in with our Town Deal. What are the cultural, community and retail uses that the people of St Helens need to access?
“In housing too, we’re looking at several innovative projects, working with the likes of Taylor Wimpey at Moss Nook; and with Torus and BXB.
“The Parkside logistics scheme is also important: demand is through the roof in the sector. There are big challenges around Brexit, and getting port connections right will be key.”
Darren Muir said: “There are definitely implications for housing in the planning White Paper, with one of the main issues being around the standard method of calculation. There are questions around allocations, as the target for the North is now actually lower than what’s being delivered at the moment. We’re not sure what that says about ‘levelling-up’.”
He added: “There’s certainly strong demand from the residential side, and in particular affordable housing is topical in Merseyside, we’re seeing lots of land-hungry registered providers. The hotel market is also still strong here, delivery takes longer and no one’s backed off yet.”
Panel Two – housing at the heart
Kate Ellison, director of housing growth & partnerships, Torus
Dale Milburn, executive director, regeneration & economic development, Knowsley Council
Cllr Anita Leech, chair of economy, regeneration & development committee, Wirral Council
Adam Morgan, architect director, Studio RBA
Presentation by Kate Ellison – registered providers on the rise
Torus is the largest developing housing association in the North West, with anywhere up to 35 live sites at a time, and becoming a Homes England strategic partner has put the company on the road to realising an ambitious 10-year £1bn development programme, Ellison began.
Registered providers are delivering a third of all housing in Merseyside – and the impacts of Covid are likely to mean they become yet more important, she added.
“In the short term, Covid shut down 73 of 111 sites, for an average of 13 weeks. Build costs have gone up 5%, and there’s been some busines failures among contractors. There will be less rent collected. The need for affordable rent is only going to grow as job losses hit.
“The role of RPs in ‘building back better’ is that we’re flexible and can take a long-term view – we appraise over a 40-year period anyway. However, the sector is heavily dependent on government funding.”
“The shared ownership segment is buoyant, we’ve had our best quarter since we started with the model. The question is, will the customer profile change from two-bedroom, stepping stone properties towards three or four-bedroom family homes?”
Adam Morgan started the main panel session by stating: “We’ve definitely seen a trend towards more enquiries on affordable housing. Expectations have definitely changed – it’s not just about how many units you can get on a site, it’s about creating community. Developers want to talk about green space, community and genuine mixed-use.
“We’re also seeing some clients acknowledge wellbeing in designing dwellings, with natural light and higher ceilings both key points. A contractor laughed at us for insisting on 2.7 metre-high ceilings in one scheme, but everyone really felt the difference at handover.
“One upside of Covid is the pre-application Zoom meetings – they seem more informal than previously, it used to be a yes or no, but we’re now working things up together almost.”
Cllr Anita Leech said: “Things haven’t slowed down too much, we’re taking forward a number of town centre renewals, including New Ferry, Liscard and a huge scheme in Birkenhead. That emphasis on green space and good public realm has really come through in consultations.
“We’re very clear that we have a brownfield-first approach. We have a huge amount of brownfield sites and we still need Government help in this area as we have major, ambitious projects such as the Left Bank [regeneration vision], which will link the whole Wirral Waters area to Birkenhead town centre.”
Knowsley’s a little further down the line in terms of its Local Plan, according to Cllr Dale Milburn. “We’re now four years into delivery, and we’ve made a lot of progress. The thinking around space at Halsnead Garden Village is something we’re looking to match in other areas,” he said.
“We’ve got three town centre projects, each a distinct type. Kirkby’s is retail-led, Huyton’s is a mix of civic, offices and residential, and Prescot’s is led by the Shakespeare North cultural project.
“With us having the largest employment park in the city region, the logistics market being so hungry is interesting. There are allocated sites, and also older buildings being redeveloped, so there’s no supply shortage here.
“Viability is always a balancing act, based on assumed costs and values, and one challenge is to make sure the affordable housing side doesn’t get squeezed. RPs being keen to increase four-bedroom affordable homes is music to our ears.”
Ellison concluded by saying that developers are more amenable to working closely with RPs, rather than it being an obligation.
She said: “There’s an interesting change happening in how developers see a strategic partnership. People are now coming to us, asking ‘would you take some of the site, or increase the affordable percentage?’ It’s a pleasant change from just getting the Section 106 chunk [contribution] at the end.
“But for all that, there’s now a broader buy-in to placemaking, it costs money to do things the right way, so for us to make an impact, we have to see a shift in the market landscape and be able to compete for sites.”