In the second in a series of interviews with the region’s place makers for the Christmas period, Place North West asks Becca Heron, Wigan Council’s director of economy and skills, about her cool Brazilian hobby and what keeps her up at night.
Why did you choose a career in property?
I didn’t, really. I started my career as a democratic services officer at Hyndburn Council, but then I moved into research and ended up supporting the Housing Market Renewal Programme across Manchester and Salford. That’s how I started to understand place-shaping, and the interventions required to drive change. I spent a long time working for the GMCA [Greater Manchester Combined Authority], which gave me a good understanding of economic drivers. Now I’m loving putting some of that into practice in Wigan to drive real change.
Who was your mentor and what was the best piece of advice they gave you?
I’ve been lucky enough to work with and have support from lots of great people over the years, but I’d have to say that Sir Howard Bernstein [former chief executive of Manchester City Council] has had the biggest influence on my career and my approach. It wasn’t a single piece of advice as such, but he taught me the importance of setting a long-term vision for what you’re trying to achieve, developing a clear, evidence-based strategy for getting there, and bringing partners along with you. There will be lots of component parts, and your approach may need to change and adapt, but it’s important to stick to your overall vision and objectives.
What building or project do you wish you’d delivered?
I love Royal Mills in Ancoats [a residential conversion of an early 20th century mill]. I think it’s a great example of how historic buildings can be beautifully restored and brought back to life, creating new communities. We’ve got some great mills in Wigan with real potential and we’re working hard to explore options to make them viable development opportunities.
What key lesson have you learned from 2020 and the pandemic?
For me, it’s re-emphasised the need to maintain that long-term focus. The world has changed a lot in the last nine months, but many of those changes will be temporary. Others are an acceleration and intensification of trends that were with us pre-Covid, such as the growing recognition of the importance of environment, the shift towards flexible working, the need for businesses to innovate and diversify, and the need for people to obtain the skills required to support those changing business models. In Wigan, the pandemic has forced us to reassess our strategy, but rather than fundamentally changing it, it’s reinforced the importance of a proactive approach to responding to these issues.
What was your lockdown hobby? Did you get ‘Covid-fit’ or gain the ‘Covid stone’?
Before the lockdown, I went to the gym a lot and trained in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu three or four times a week, so I’m definitely not as fit as I was. Jiu-Jitsu is what I’ve missed most in lockdown but I think it’s going to be a while before contact sports are back on the agenda. Jumping around the living room with a kettlebell and resistance bands isn’t quite the same. But the lockdown has forced me to take more downtime, which has probably been good for me. I’ve spent more time cooking, reading and trying to learn French.
Spend or save? What’s your most extravagant purchase, and what are you saving up for?
I’m a spender but I’m saving for a new apartment at the moment so have been more careful recently. My car is probably my most extravagant purchase – I’ve actually missed my commute.
Are you a rebel or a conformist?
A conformist – I generally work within the parameters I’m set, although I will look for creative ways to do so where necessary. I’m very organised and efficient, not very spontaneous, but I do get things done.
What keeps you awake at night?
Not a lot. Espresso martinis.
What’s your proudest achievement?
My jiu jitsu purple belt. I took up BJJ at 36 so was a lot older than most of my training partners and one of the few women at that time. It takes a long time to get good at BJJ, and even longer when your opponents are younger and stronger than you so I’m proud of my perseverance and discipline. I don’t always stick at things I’m not very good at for long!
What’s your biggest regret?
I’m a glass-half-full person and rarely have regrets. I’m good at making the best of what’s in front of me. There have been a few crossroads in my life and I do sometimes wonder what would have happened if I’d taken the other direction but I’m pretty happy with where I’ve ended up.
What’s your top wish for 2021?
To see my friends and my family without social distancing!
What was the best book you read this year?
I read a lot and I’m reading The Stand by Stephen King at the moment. It’s great. I’ve never read one of his books before and at 1,300 pages it’s a bit of an epic but I have plenty of time on my hands and a novel about a plague seemed topical.
If you hadn’t gone into property, what would you have done?
No idea – despite my long-term plans for Wigan, I’ve never been good at making long-term plans for me.
Of your own projects next year, which are you most excited about?
It has to be the Galleries project [a £130m redevelopment of the Wigan shopping centre]. It’s rare to get an opportunity to fundamentally transform an eight-acre site right in the heart of the town centre and the redevelopment will be a catalyst for the other plans we’ve got for the town. We’re coming to the end of a long procurement process and have just announced our preferred development partner and details of the proposed scheme. I can’t wait to get on with making it happen.
What trend do you believe will have the most profound impact on the placemaking industry in 2021?
I do think the pandemic has made people reconsider their relationship with places. We launched an economic vision last year that proclaimed that “Towns Are The New Cities”. I think they will be.