Take a walk around Liverpool’s handsome centre and the tower crane count speaks for itself, writes Anna Bowes of Falconer Chester Hall. The city’s historic buildings are being refurbished at a clip whilst vacant lots are fast disappearing as a flurry of new-build schemes commence.
As of October there were 170 residential planning applications in the city centre, with a further 150 office and 280 retail/leisure schemes planned. Liverpool in 2019 looks to be set fair.
Draw a tighter line around the city’s historic business district – home to almost 70,000 workers – and you find office vacancy rates at a five-year low, with just 7.5% of the total stock available to rent.
And whilst that may be giving office agents reason to pause, behind it sits a quiet social and economic revolution that is transforming the look, feel, quality and function of this key part of Liverpool. The public is voting with its wallet, increasingly convinced that the city centre is the best place in which to live, work or study – and as it improves, so this movement is attracting more developers, employers and residents in its wake.
Since May 2013, when permitted development rights were introduced to allow the conversion of office buildings to residential without planning permission, more than 1.4m square feet of second hand office space has been converted to new homes in Liverpool’s CBD. Tired buildings from the 60s and 70s that had come to the end of their economic lives have been re-cast in to beautiful new spaces, with modern cladding and ground floors animated by retail and leisure occupiers. In a time of economic uncertainty, their investment has been a boon to Liverpool, driving its economy forward whilst rapidly improving its public realm and making the city more appealing to employers.
It’s the same with Liverpool’s stock of heritage buildings, which provide more scope for the creation of quirky new homes and ground floor commercial spaces and, in many instances, beautiful new hotels. I’ve worked on many of them and, whilst others worry about whether Liverpool is losing too much office stock, I see a wholly different picture: a city re-shaping its society, its economy and its physical fabric as it finds its place in the new economy. This, in turn, is attracting new types of business occupier to the city centre and the rising economy is boosting start-up rates to their highest levels in decades. As Liverpool has improved, so more people have wanted to be here and I suspect we’re reaching a tipping point where the momentum will be unstoppable.
The change from an altogether gloomier prospectus has been remarkably rapid which, of course, is what the Government intended. By letting developers off the planning leash it hoped to turbo-charge the provision of new homes and in a city as enterprising as Liverpool such a laissez faire stimulus was always going to be embraced. It’s opened opportunities for established Liverpool developers and attracted new ones to add a competitive pep to the market. And whilst a recent policy report by the RICS highlighted concerns at the quality of some conversions elsewhere in Britain, in Liverpool our clients have allowed us to match commercial awareness with creative flair and I’d happily live in any of the schemes which I have helped to design.
As for the loss of offices, this was space that was redundant anyway. If the demand is there then the market will respond. In the meantime, Liverpool needs new homes and their residents bring a buzz and a spending power which is transforming the city centre with each passing month.
On balance, permitted development rights have delivered a timely boost for Liverpool and its economy and the flurry of new openings and project starts slated for 2019 will help sustain the momentum.