The Subplot

The Subplot | The other rail plan, big town BTR, sheds

Welcome to The Subplot, your regular slice of commentary on the North West business and property market from Place North West’s analysis editor, David Thame.


  • The other rail plan: Northern Powerhouse Rail is dead – probably. Is the region’s massively important freight plan also about to die?
  • Elevator pitch: your weekly rundown of who and what is going up, and who is heading the other way

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Freight expectations

The Northern Powerhouse Rail plan hit the buffers. The strategy document arriving at platform two is about freight and logistics – vital to the region’s warehouse sector. Is this plan doomed too?

Just a few short months after its defeat over Northern Powerhouse Rail, super-quango Transport for the North is consulting on a second major initiative with significant impacts for the region’s mighty warehouse sector (worth £1.3bn in investment, with 6.2m sq ft of lettings in 2021, according to B8 Real Estate). The final draft will be published in the spring, and you can read the draft here.

The idea is this

The TL;DR is that this is about decarbonisation, meaning fewer HGVs on the roads. Related aims include plugging the freight gap in the Integrated Rail Plan, increasing warehouse capacity (particularly rail-linked warehousing), improving trans-Pennine freight movements, and diverting maritime freight away from Southern ports to Northern ports like Liverpool. Today around one-third of all GB freight enters through Northern ports. The document isn’t just about rail – roads and waterways are included. TfN says it wants to hear from everyone before firming up the plans.

Those plans are?

Cloudy, at best. Apart from some already-advertised road schemes, and ambitions to integrate rail more closely to Port Salford, Trafford Park and Parkside, it’s all up in the air.

Faint praise

Everybody, simply everybody, agrees that TfN is doing important and useful thinking about an important and useful subject. Alas, after this things get more complicated and disagreeable. The problems fall into three categories: political, practical and economic.

Oh dear

The political problem is that TfN has been defanged by the government. Boris didn’t like its uppity approach to Northern Powerhouse Rail (eg wanting it when Whitehall didn’t) and the result is that former Tory minister Patrick McLoughlin was yesterday installed as chair. Let that be a lesson to them.

Neutered quango

Whether TfN retains the political heft needed to achieve anything isn’t clear. “The backdrop is not pressing on with NPR and TfN needing to find things it can succeed with,” one cynical but very senior property person tells Subplot. “In the short-term TfN needs to show it can deliver.”

Here’s the catch

The practical problem is that the fine ideas in the freight plan need buy-in from local authorities if they are to mean anything in practice. That means inclusion in statutory local plans, and enforcement by planning committees. It is far from clear how this gets done.

Your regular reminder

Relying on council co-operation on these issues is not wise. Remember Sefton council’s plans for a £1.5bn road tunnel to the Port of Liverpool? The proposals resulted in eight wasted years, a failed judicial review and, last year, a threat to torpedo the new Liverpool Freeport. Expect a lot more fights like this if the strategy is to be implemented.

Chaos klaxon

“This strategy will need gargantuan levels of engagement and coordination,” says PWA planning director Paul Walton. Getting buy-in will be even harder than it looks because timeframes do not match, and evidence is scant. National-level agencies will also pile in, and there’s the tricky problem that up-to-date evidence on logistics and freight needs doesn’t exist in many places, adds Ian Gilbert, planning director in the Manchester office of Barton Willmore. Another source told Subplot that without a firm hand the translation of policy into local plans will become a free-for-all.

Supply issues

The economic problem is this: the supply of rail-head linked freight sites in the North West is a very small subset of the limited supply of logistics property sites of any description, rail-linked or not. At worst the plan risks “ruling out huge swathes of the North that aren’t rail connected,” says PWA’s Paul Walton. This would push up land prices.

Developers have questions

“I believe in rail, but logistics has to be intermodal, it has to connect with roads, and only that wider vision will make it successful,” says Tritax Symmetry director Andrew Dickman, who warns that a narrow focus on rail will make sites seriously expensive. Dickman is among those who think getting closer to landlords and developers would help make the plan more successful and deliverable. “Maybe it’s just me, but so far there’s no sign of engagement,” he says.

Big picture

Be patient, says Richie Hales, Manchester-based director of Turner & Townsend, who has been keeping a close eye on the Integrated Rail Plan’s logistics and freight implications. “Keep focusing on the outcome of a decarbonised logistics network,” he advises. “We’re going to need various ways to get there, some infrastructure will get funding, others will not, but it is about incremental steps,” he counsels. “Don’t get stuck on the details.”

Mission impossible?

A freight and logistics plan for the North could have huge beneficial consequences: better-placed sites, greater use of local ports (and freeports), pressure taken off inappropriate roads and fewer unhappy neighbours, plus the bonus of fewer carbon outputs. But good intentions do not necessarily lead to effective outcomes, and delivering the TfN freight plan will be seriously challenging, and may be impossible.

Subplot invited TfN to comment, but didn’t hear back.

The Subplot Elevator Pitch 07.12.21ELEVATOR PITCH

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

Build-to-rent in the region’s bigger towns is about to accelerate to the top, but the long-promised Whitehall of the North is waiting for the doors to open.

Wirral BTR

The build-to-rent bandwagon rolls into Wirral Waters, thanks to a £130m funding deal. The arrangement between Peel L&P and the Pension Insurance Corporation opens the door to 500 apartments. It is a small step on Peel’s 30-year journey to complete the dauntingly large (500-acre) project. The novelty is that as many as 100 units could be affordable (if you consider 80% of a BTR rent to be affordable, which is a moot point).

Next on investors’ agendas is single-family BTR (as opposed to the multi-household blocks we are more used to). Local giant Moda is hoping to capture some of this wave of funding, launching a new brand to provide BTR houses called Casa by Moda. Casa has 1,000 units in the pipeline and 4,000 promised by 2025. Wirral Waters could make an attractive place for this new BTR variant, as could many of the North West’s bigger towns, places where multi-family BTR looks like a marginal proposition.

Whitehall of the North

Can you hear that? No, of course you can’t, because it’s the thundering silence surrounding the significant government relocation long expected at Manchester’s Central Retail Park, Ancoats, or Mayfield, or anywhere. Meantime, hybrid working threatens to massively reduce government property demand. The weekend saw reports that the Government Property Agency is planning to ditch about 7m sq ft (of the 27m sq ft civil service portfolio). Anyone hoping for a seriously big relocation will be disappointed.

Is this a surprise? Maybe not. New figures from Knight Frank show that Manchester scooped just 157,000 sq ft of major GPA hub deals between 2017 and 2022, with Liverpool doing better at 270,000 sq ft. But neither came anywhere near the top of a list dominated by Yorkshire and the North East.

Get in touch with David Thame: | 01544 262127

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

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‘Port’ Salford….ahh yes. The boats with the removable funnels…

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