The Subplot

The Subplot | Liverpool’s tall story, office yields, Salford


  • Head in the clouds: Liverpool’s emerging tall buildings policy may open the door to a troubling story
  • Elevator pitch: your weekly rundown of who and what is going up, and who is heading the other way

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Head in the clouds

A new tall buildings policy for Liverpool may not deliver many new tall buildings, as Liverpool’s planning politics takes another surprising/unsurprising turn.

Liverpool City Council’s cabinet is expected to approve a draft Tall Buildings Supplementary Planning Document at its meeting tomorrow. The document – which you can read here – fills a long-complained-about gap in the council’s planning strategy, one among several being filled as the Liverpool Local Plan, which will govern development up to 2033, is assembled. The property industry has been waiting anxiously for this one – but has it got what it wanted?

Clarity, please

In a sense, yes – because clear guidance is better than unclear or absent guidance. The planning document offers an answer on what counts as a tall building – albeit a complicated answer. If it’s a “metropolitan scale” building in the city centre, height will be up to five times the context height of that area, so 40 storeys or more could be possible. Elsewhere it might be as low as six storeys. It also offers some clear rules on what may be permitted where.

But disappointing

But you couldn’t honestly call it a manifesto for more Scousescrapers. All plans will be judged against five “important sensitivities” – Liverpool’s city image, the city’s heritage, key views, elevated topographical areas and low-rise residential neighbourhoods. In each theoretically-suitable cluster site, applicants will need to “demonstrate that a proposed tall building is meaningful and makes a positive contribution to Liverpool’s regeneration, is proportionate with its height to its context, responds appropriately to local character, and addresses all sensitive aspects in the city.” There’s also the council’s triple lock to consider, which requires all policies to accommodate social change, climate issues, equality and inclusion.

Had enough yet?

And don’t forget the 37 designated “key views” across the city and the Wirral, all of which need to be taken into account. Some are panoramic, some city-scale, some merely local – but the map of their intersecting cones makes it very clear that almost everywhere in the city centre is compromised by a “key view”, with just three very modest exceptions. See page 49 of the draft guidance.

Big red light

Perhaps more significant, given well-documented surges in Liverpool city land prices (Subplot, 22 April), the draft guidance notes that tall buildings can screw up property markets. Tall buildings can “affect land values, inflate costs and make less intense forms of development unviable if there is an expectation of further tall building development,” it notes.

Peel beware

There’s a treat for those of you who read as far as page 81. After noting that some city towers could reach 128 metres (30-40 residential storeys) the document adds: “A number of permitted buildings including the outline of the Liverpool Waters scheme, are of greater height than recommended by this guidance. Whilst this guidance document has no bearing on extant permissions, those heights would not be deemed appropriate under this guidance, as they would spread the cluster too far outwards, fragment the skyline and detract from the Pier Head group of buildings and other heritage assets in city image and key views.” Outline consent was first granted in 2012 and unless Peel is very clever, at some point it will have to face the music under this new tall buildings policy. A dramatic showdown is possible if the current text survives consultation.

Same old same old

But the big story here is politics. The Tall Building Supplementary Planning Document arrives in the week that Liverpool City Council chief executive Tony Reeves resigned, a move widely predicted and slightly less widely regretted. Reeves was trapped in the centre of a Venn diagram consisting of a still-not-very-capable council bureaucracy, Labour politicians and the government-installed commissioners. Expensive mistakes over a council electricity contract shrank to nothing the precarious space Reeves was working in.

Fantasy planning

Meanwhile, some semi-delusional thinking is going among the city’s political leadership, say many old property hands. For instance, UNESCO World Heritage status is blamed for Liverpool’s relatively modest crop of tall buildings. One better reason is that most of the suitable plots are controlled by a risk-averse Peel L&P (it has scope for 30-to-50-storey towers at Liverpool Waters). In almost every other past case, either the maths didn’t add up, or the schemes weren’t remotely deliverable because the developers didn’t have the skills, or wherewithal, or a site that worked. UNESCO is a huge red herring.


Messy is the politest possible description of what’s going on, but plenty in the property and development businesses detect something else. They sense a curiously small-town agenda in local politicians – defensive, conservative, reductively focused on a cluster of concerns believed to interest “ordinary people” in ways that do not leave much space for economic growth or experiment. In planning policy, the emerging, and frankly hostile, line on co-living (Subplot, 13 January) has proved a lightning conductor; property people are worried. Once they have time to digest it, the tall buildings policy may do the same, not because any of it is wrong – it is well thought-out and covers all the issues with care – but because the political will necessary to make it anything other than a tower-bashing charter probably isn’t there. It provides all the ammunition sceptical, bored or hostile councillors need.

Looking on the bright side

For now, the property industry is trying to see things positively, at least in public. Mark Connor, chief executive of Vermont, tells Subplot: “I’m sure the industry will be anxious to understand the potential impact the policy has on future schemes, but as long as developers understand how and where the authority wants to see towers developed, it should have a positive impact on how we approach new builds.” But that depends on local politics, and nobody ought to bet on that.

Public consultation on the new plan begins very soon: you have about six weeks to comment.


Going up, or going down? This week’s movers

Is this a sliding doors moment? The old old normal is on the way up, but North West office yields are (just) going down. New futures beckon, perhaps.

Building offices

Working from home is still a thing, but maybe the new normal turns out to be much like the old normal, or even the old old normal? A case in point is Salford’s Middlewood Locks, which set sail under the flag of convenience provided by mixed-use (which really means flats) and is now also hoisting the Jolly Roger of office development. Land at Middlewood Street/Oldfield Road is being promoted for up to 1m sq ft of office development by Fairbriar Developments (Salford). Planners are likely to grant outline consent: there is a meeting today. Not far away, Landsec and Peel L&P are re-thinking Media City: a 350,000 sq ft office is likely to be the first fruit.

The last time developers seriously tried to foster an off-centre office market it took years to find its level. First rents were too high, then they plunged, then they stabilised. Whether that kind of decade-long rollercoaster is built into the latest appraisals remains to be seen.

North West office yields

Commercial property rents are still growing, despite everything, although not as fast in the North West as elsewhere. CBRE’s second quarter Prime Rent and Yield Monitor reveals a North West market that seems to have plateaued.

UK-wide industrial rents rose 2.8% in just three months, which is eye-watering, and shot up even higher in the Midlands (3.5%). Office rents rose 1.6%, shooting up by 6% in the East Midlands (why?) and in London’s fringe (3.7%). But investors went cold about North West offices – the fall in yields was just 0.16% but even so, the North West was the region with the largest fall. Yorkshire did much better. It is too early to say what’s going on, if indeed anything is going on, and no cause for panic. But one to watch.

Get in touch with David Thame: | 01544 262127

The Subplot is brought to you in association with Oppidan Life.

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Your Comments

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Tall buildings policy? Clearly then there isn’t one other than the word ‘no’ . There is much to preserve in Liverpool but even Preserve goes off eventually.

By Anonymous

How much do these public consultations cost? We recently had one about the how city is run and read the council has opted for the least popular public choice. Why bother having a consultation when the council takes no notice of the result. Is it yet again a case of the council wasting more money ? Reading the article about the council’s tall building policy is frustrating but not surprising. It again clearly indicates that the council is appearing to discourage investment by putting too many obstacles in the way. Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds and other big cities are experiencing rapid business growth because their councils do not create an environment to discourage business and making it hard for them to invest. With all the obstacles in place it is understandable why business goes elsewhere and won’t jump through council hoops here. Why should they bother. I do feel a new business friendly approach is needed. Any thoughts?

By Stephen Davis

I like that “Risk averse” Peel L&P. And I believe with a stable forward thinking council. Liverpool, because of its proximity to the River, would wipe out Manchester & Salford. They’ve “made hay”, but Liverpool’s day will come

By NoL

Development of the Tall Buildings SPD is an important progression in the approach to future development in the city. With continued developer and investor interest stretching from the Knowledge Quarter to Baltic Triangle and Liverpool Waters, we’re seeing another exciting moment in Liverpool’s regeneration journey.
The city already has a number of tall buildings and world class heritage assets, the setting of which needs to be enhanced. Identifying key locations for tall buildings and respecting key views will be very important.
In the past there has been an attempt at Fourth Grace development , which was extremely controversial and in the end didn’t transpire, but highlighted the need for a strategic approach to significant development going forward.
At AspinallVerdi, we welcome the recognition that all buildings could bring further investment and vibrancy to the city and continue to achieve Liverpool’s status as a world class destination.

By Andy Delaney

It is bad enough having this policy, but all the caveats attached will make it impossible for even a Dorma bungalow to be built?

By Liverpolitis

Manchester isn’t making ‘hay’ as you put it and wasn’t even mentioned in this story. What it has been doing is attracting huge amounts of investment at home and overseas for decades now and building jobs, transport and infrastructure that people can be proud of. And we are.

By Anonymous

Oh dear, this really is a very shortsighted policy. We’ve all said this a thousand times before, until our council fundamentally changes its thinking, money and jobs will go elsewhere and I’m afraid to say nothing is going to change anytime soon if this is anything to go by.

By Wirralwanderer

Preservation is of far more important in Liverpool. Look at Salford and ask yourself; do we really want that for Liverpool?

By Liverpool Romance

What we do want for Liverpool is investment. Having a few nice buildings at the front and not much else of any substance means tourists and tourists alone do not a prosperous city make. Is that what we want for Liverpool?

By Aigburther

I think it’s time to stop comparing Liverpool to Manchester or London in terms of investment, that ship really has sailed. Bristol another port city but rather more attractive these days shows what can be done if you have forward thinking councillors that show a willingness to attract developers. Until that day comes I’m afraid things really won’t look up.

By Mac

Yes look at Salford, BBC headquarters, Imperial War Museum, the Lowry, new offices with hundreds of jobs already built and planned, yes Liverpool does want that !

By Anonymous

Have to agree with the comment about Liverpool/Manc comparisons. Bristol/Liverpool and Brum/Manc are the comparative cities if you must.

Liverpool and Manc have different strengths/weaknesses that would be better collaborating rather than competing. However it would be helpful to determine how Liverpool wants to grow first. UNESCO has made it clear that Liverpool isn’t serious about preservation but it seems opinions are still mixed. If it wanted to go down the commercial expansion route and be competitive it seems a little late. If it wants to take the quantity over quality approach how is it going to do that?

By Anonymous

Liverpool has two options, either work with the market and look to create jobs and income, or allow the jobs to go elsewhere because with the second option people follow the jobs and leave to live elsewhere. If the council think that the market will bend sufficiently to their tune they are mistaken , and to look at an example from years ago the dockers tried to ignore containerisation and look how that worked out.
Restricting developers to build only what you want drives them away, as they will want to make decent returns from their investments, councillors need to realise that public sector jobs won`t materialise anymore in the numbers that they once did, and we need private sector investment.

By Anonymous

If developers don’t want to build what Liverpool desires let them walk away .The city will be better of without them

By Anonymous

We don’t need a rush for tall buildings in Liverpool, we need tall buildings in the right place that enhance our skyline.

By Anonymous

No we want tall builds in Liverpool

By Anonymous

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