The Subplot | Property and elections, sandwiches, Manchester offices
Welcome to The Subplot, your regular slice of commentary on the business and property market from across the North of England and North Wales.
- The North decides: today’s local elections will change everything, and nothing, for the region’s real estate and regeneration businesses
- Elevator pitch: your weekly rundown of who and what is going up, and who is heading the other way
NO OVERALL CONTROL
Today’s local elections matter, but don’t expect big changes in political power
Most of the North gets to vote today for local councils. Does it matter? It absolutely does.
Even the most cack-handed local authority has an outsize influence on their local economy and property market. Planning powers, and ownership of extensive freeholds, allow councils to set the agenda, and the better-run authorities can use their powers creatively. Subplot recalls one big city council that used the way it handed out licenses to put up scaffolding as a form of leverage over developers.
Subplot has been talking to the pundits, politicians, and policy wonks about what’s at stake in today’s polls. This is what they said.
It is not the dull predictable election it might have been in Greater Manchester. Thanks to new ward boundaries in Bolton, Trafford, Stockport, Tameside, Oldham, and Wigan – and, every seat in those boroughs is up for grabs (rather than the usual one-third up for re-election). Labour won’t lose control of the Greater Manchester Combined Authority but there are straws in the wind nonetheless that show how things might move if, say, a Labour Mayor hadn’t the helpful foil provided by a Conservative government.
Bolton, Stockport, Oldham
The Conservatives could hang on to Bolton – Reform UK are in alliance with various localists, which might hurt their vote, but on the other hand, Labour is not sounding confident. Huge upset over Peel’s £250m plans for homes and an upgraded golf course at Hulton Park will not help make the outcome more predictable.
Stockport is probably heading to another hung council with Lib Dems in the top jobs. However, with all 63 seats up for grabs – and the local Labour Party not entirely at one with itself (leader Elise Wilson is not standing) – it is worth watching.
Oldham is anyone’s guess – Labour could lose and the Failsworth Independents, Northern Heart (and many independents) could make gains. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems are hovering ominously. If Labour leader Amanda Chadderton keeps her Royton South seat she’d be the first Labour leader in three years to survive an encounter with the electorate. Not a happy town.
Every seat in Wirral Council is up for grabs as the council moves to all-out elections every four years. The idea of big bang elections in this format is to ensure stability, which oddly Wirral has anyway because the parties mostly see eye-to-eye on the big property issues. Less frequent elections mean less opportunity for controversial planning decisions to cause political friction – so big landlords (Hello, Peel!) will be intrigued.
Liverpool is also moving to all-out elections every four years, and ditching the directly elected mayor to return to the normal leader-and-cabinet set-up. There are new ward boundaries, too. In theory, anything could happen to the 85 seats. In practise, Labour leader Liam Robinson will come out on top but maybe Lawrence Kenwright’s Liberate Liverpool coalition or the Labour-breakaway group Liverpool Community Independents could dent their tally (there’s a straight two-way fight in Fazakerley East). Also, watch the two varieties of Liberal and the Greens in what is, without doubt, the North’s most varied poll. As usual in Liverpool, Labour’s greatest enemy is itself: with the next election due in far-off 2027 it will have four years to prove the point.
South and West Yorkshire
Sheffield and Kirklees are the ones to watch. Ongoing drama about trees, plus a changing demographic, plus the usual local restlessness could mean the always complex Sheffield politics either clarifies – with clear control for Lib Dems or Labour – or gets cloudier. With only a third of seats up, big changes aren’t likely and it would take big changes to make a difference in a city with a fairish degree of cross-party coordination. Kirklees is probably in the bag for Labour, this time with a larger majority, but unusual outcomes in a few wards could make all the difference.
North and East Yorkshire
The cities of York and Kingston-upon-Hull are both Lib Dem targets. The party runs Hull on its own, and York in coalition with the Greens. The Lib Dems need only a handful of seats to take overall control of York, and will be hoping to increase their majority in Hull. Ward boundaries in both cities are drawn in a way which makes it hard to see any huge changes and the opinion polls don’t suggest a Yellow Wave so maybe don’t bet on this.
East Riding for a fall?
The regional wild card is the East Riding Council where all 67 seats are up for election. Last time they were fought over, in 2019, the Conservatives got 49, which might suggest this was in the bag for Rishi Sunak. But demographic changes, the presence of Hull and York, and a string of terrible by-election results for the local Tories, suggest otherwise. A plethora of independents and smaller parties, some Red Wall buyers remorse, unhappiness within the local Tories, and a big dollop of cussedness could see East Riding go yellow, or yellowish, on Friday morning.
This is where the Red Wall challenges are to be found. Darlington may swap back from Conservative to Labour control, and Hartlepool might go the same way if Keir Starmer is having a good night. If it’s not such a good night, Labour might only cement its position as Hartlepool Council’s largest party.
The City of Sunderland provides a kaleidoscope of political possibilities – a dizzying spectrum very nearly on the Liverpool scale of variety – but this time around may not produce a very dramatically-different outcome to 2022. That’s because, in elections-by-thirds, only a slice of potentially flippable seats are up for grabs. Labour can’t lose many, and could gain a few, so a renewed Labour mandate seems the most likely outcome.
Going up, or going down? This week’s movers
Sandwich sales suggest working-from-home isn’t the big deal it was, whilst Manchester cements its reputation as the UK’s second office market. Doors closing, going up!
If, mooching around springtime Manchester or Leeds, you feel like city centres have returned to normal Tuesday to Thursday, and close to normal Monday and Friday, and conclude that working-from-home is less of a thing, then Subplot can bring you the good news that you’re more or less right.
Since the start of the pandemic, the Office for National Statistics has been cooperating with sandwich giant Pret A Manger to track who buys their lunches where. You can find the data here. City centre sandwich purchases in Manchester are now 120% of where they were in January and February 2020, before the pandemic struck. In Leeds it’s 121%.
April figures ought to be higher than those for chilly Jan-Feb so we’re probably about back to normal, albeit not quite as good as super warm spring 2022. London, however, is still way down on January 2020 (92%).
The first quarter of the year, coming after the against-the-clock race to complete transactions in December, is always a bit thin. New figures from the Manchester Office Agents Forum suggests 211,000 sq ft was let in the city centre in the first quarter of 2022, more or less the same as Q1 2021. South Manchester scored 135,000 sq ft, and Salford Quays/Trafford 65,000 sq ft.
These are by no means staggering figures – it’s hold-steady stuff – but the Manchester market only needs to hold steady to yield some serious rental growth and the prospect of upscale refurbs. That’s because the pipeline of new development begins to dwindle after this year. By 2025, agents expect occupiers to be ready to sign up to salty pre-lets and to inspire serious refurbishments at rents a couple of steps on from today’s peak of around £40/sq ft.
The Manchester office market is still small compared to London – 410,000 sq ft in Q1 compared to something like 2m sq ft in the capital – but it continues to look like the most dynamic, and remunerative, outside London’s West End.
Learn more about the office scene in the North West at Place’s Offices + Workspace event on 11 October.