Positioning cities for prosperity


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At MIPIM UK Summit this October, Trowers & Hamlins hosted a panel discussion launching a new initiative “Positioning cities for prosperity.” The discussion examined the economic and political rebalancing of cities across the UK and how it’s increasingly important to have an understanding of local context and dynamics to inform development and regeneration.

A panel of real estate and public sector leaders were asked to explore the issue of prosperity in cities – what prosperity means to people living in our towns and cities, and what predictions they have for future generations. Fundamentally the discussion sought to identify what real estate's role is in underpinning and driving prosperity.

The discussion was moderated by Andrew Carter, Chief Executive at Centre for Cities, who opened with a question to each of the panellists about what they understand prosperity to be in terms of real estate and regeneration.

Rachel Fisher, Deputy Director Regeneration and Infrastructure at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) was quick to respond. “My team at MHCLG is looking after the £3.6 million towns fund and working on how we invest that in towns and town centres across the country to drive prosperity. What we're really trying to do is look at what is the transformational investment in the built environment in a particular high street which will help address the changing nature of the retail market. We’re thinking through how do we use places, how do we renew spaces, how do we reshape these high streets to make them more successful and to keep people coming back to them, how do we make sure this is something which is understandable for actual human beings living their everyday life?”

“This is really starting from an asset based theory of regeneration – so rather than looking at a place and saying this is what's wrong with it, it's looking at a place and saying this is what's right with it, this is what people love about this place and this is how we want to build on it, thinking about how you invest in the future of a place which is rooted in what people want to see and how they want to see this place grow.”

Frank Rogers, Chief Executive of the Liverpool City Region Combined Authority, described the challenges and opportunities for the region. “We have six local authority areas within Liverpool City Region that comprise 1.6 million as a population, but there's a wider functional economic geography of about 2.8 million. The key for us is making sure that we are working collaboratively as a city. We are using the strengths across the city region because our view is if one area benefits, all areas benefit and it lifts the whole city region. That is one of the advantages of the Combined Authority. By being able to look at a wider geographical area and having the responsibility for pulling together a spatial development strategy at a city region wide level, we are able to start thinking how do we join the dots together. It has to be about people and it has to be about the place and if you want to be successful in the delivery of this you have to bring the people with you and lift the water level for everyone.”

Anna Devlet, Head of Community at British Land, described their long-term approach. “We are a real estate company and we have holdings from up in Scotland, Edinburgh and Glasgow down to Plymouth, where we have got a collaborative approach with our local partners. We can do that because we are long investors. It’s one of our strengths. We are talking about 30 years plus and when we are partnering with our occupiers and with our customers, with our supply chain and also with the local authority we see some fantastic results. Having that commonality and all of us wanting to make the wider neighbourhood a better place to live in, to visit, to shop, all together is like a ripple effect. That is what I think of real estate's role going forward. Where we really need to be is setting that out as a direction of travel, working collaboratively together and setting out those common goals with everyone around us."

Anna Strongman, Managing Partner at Argent, talked about her personal views on how to define prosperity. “So what do I think prosperity is? I think it is around having a house, having a job, having your health, having friends, having access to leisure, having access to learning. But I actually think prosperity is about having options and having choices. What kind of options and what choices do you have as an individual and as part of a family in your everyday life?

“We see that a lot in our developments. At Kings Cross with the existing population 15 years ago, there were real severe pockets of deprivation and that was really about those individuals that did not have any control or options around pretty much all facets of their life and we have had a regeneration Section 106 which was about the whole life cycle and addressing those issues. At Brent Cross it is slightly different, it is more about access to amenity and access to great facilities and that is really why we are beginning to focus on building great schools and great facilities and bringing community networks together to really enable people to access and make the most of those facilities that we build.”

“I agree there is a real specificity to place but I think it does come down to giving people options. Frank and I were just talking, Frank said he grew up in Liverpool but he couldn't get a job there so had to move down south – but wouldn't it be great if the place that you grew up in and that you love, you could stay there and build a life there and I think that should be something that is available to everyone in this country.”

Andrew Carter continued the discussion, posing a provocative question to the panel. “We hear a lot of warm words about placemaking and regeneration which fall away when it comes to cost control. How can you make best practice the norm and not the exception?”

Anna Strongman responded “We are a real estate company and we are driven by making money. But we do believe that by creating fantastic places which offer a wide spectrum of opportunities, it actually drives commercial value. So that is at the heart of our endeavour and we have seen considerable profits as a result. You have to find the right opportunity and the right place and have patient money.

“We started in 2000 at Kings Cross and we are still building there. Our investors have got a very long term view which has given us the platform to think about place generation and because it is on a large scale, we can make the case for investing in things which you would not necessarily invest in if you were doing a stand-alone building. I do think it is a challenge because when you are a real estate company and you are looking at what the opportunities are, you know you are driven by the commercial fundamentals of the space. I think there is a really interesting role for the public sector in those areas where there is a ‘buyability’ gap to actually take ownership and drive development in certain areas. Development is not easy, it is quite complicated and it is quite high pressure, so I think I don't have the answers to it but I think there should be more collaboration on a higher level between the private sector and the public sector. I absolutely admire all those organisations, those local authorities that are setting up their own delivery arm and I wonder if there is more that we can do in terms of supporting the skills, sharing ideas and sharing knowledge but for wider benefit.”

On the topic of the public sector and specifically the combined authorities taking an active role in regeneration, Frank Rogers commented “I think the creation of the combined authorities has helped massively. We are prepared to enter partnerships on the understanding that if the project develops and delivers as intended it is not just a return to the private sector partner, there is a return back into the public sector purse that we can use to reinvest in further projects. We had to have a complete rethink about how we operate as a public sector organisation so we have employed an investment banker as one of our directors, we have established an investment team, none of whom have got a public sector background and we are using them now to sense test all the bids. One of the components that we have put into the assessment is inclusive growth and social value, because it has to be for schemes that benefit the people that we are there to serve.”

Trowers will be continuing the discussion about prosperity over the next 12 months with a series of discussion across the country. The first will be in Manchester on 20th November with subsequent events in Exeter, Birmingham, London and MIPIM. If you’re interested in taking part in our conversations around prosperity in cities and what role real estate has to play, please contact us.

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