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
LIVERPOOL’S TALL STORY
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?
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 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.
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.
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.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org | 01544 262127
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