Lessons from the regions

1 May 2015

The message from regional property players is clear: England’s cities need a strong civic vision to thrive in an era of greater local powers, Rachel Campbell reports.

England’s cities face a distinct set of challenges, from a lack of Grade-A office space in Birmingham to the laboriously slow delivery of housing in Bristol.

What they have in common is the need for each city region to have a strategic vision – a strong, consistent message about the future needs of the area and an integrated plan for how to get there. This is critical in order to attract investment; to encourage employment and population growth; and to build an international profile.

This was the clear message from the property experts that we met last month in Bristol, Birmingham, Leeds, Newcastle, Manchester and Liverpool.

Buoyed by the success of our inaugural regional road show in December, our optimism matched the sunny weather as we embarked on a second series of development forums in England’s leading cities, joined by BPF President and Head of Real Assets at Legal & General, Bill Hughes.

Each meeting saw developers, investors, and professional firms meet to discuss the state of the market, and the opportunities and challenges posed by devolution. Despite many suffering from election analysis overload, we received excellent feedback on our manifesto, A Vision for British Property, and were encouraged by the support for our focus on creating the environment in which investment in real estate can thrive for the benefit of local communities.

The sunshine followed us from city to city, but this wasn’t the only constant in our week. While each place faces a distinct set of challenges, there were several consistent messages that rang loud from each meeting.

The loudest of these was the need for a city region to have a strong strategic vision. This makes it a much more attractive investment prospect than a collection of disparate (and often disagreeing) cities, towns and shires. Creating this has proved easier in some places than others where historic political tensions present a barrier to collaboration.

While difficult to compare with other UK cities, London’s success has been in part due to the strength and weight of the London Plan as an overarching framework considering the capital’s economic, environmental, transport and social needs.

With or without an elected mayor, the vision should be backed by all parties involved in creating growth in the region – from the combined authority to the Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP) to individual councillors. Manchester is often held aloft as the shining example outside the capital but, as we were reminded last week, its success didn’t happen overnight. The Association of Greater Manchester Authorities has been working together for nearly 30 years, while other combined authorities are still in their infancy.

There was widespread recognition that areas will benefit from this vision being linked to a city region’s USP, and certain places are already capitalising on either historic, environmental or modern narratives: from Liverpool’s music; to Leeds’ proximity to Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty; to Newcastle’s burgeoning computer science sector. Identifying and promoting this branding is vital to building a long-term vision for the area and helping plan for and provide the homes, jobs and urban infrastructure on which we all rely.

Many thanks again to Burges Salmon, Turley, Addleshaw Goddard, DTZ and DWF for hosting, and we look forward to the next meetings in July.