CampbellReith’s Reflections: Chris Brady on Regeneration

In its 50th year as a local Manchester firm, CampbellReith reflects on how the regeneration of our towns and cities is a complex and often controversial business.

But as the different groups of stakeholders in such schemes often have contradictory objectives, Chris Brady, partner at CampbellReith, asks the question: What is successful regeneration?

Financial pressures mean that regeneration often results in gentrification – the high costs of remediation of industrial brownfield sites and the creation of new infrastructure, usually within confined areas, means that the resale values of the finished properties have to be relatively high compared to any surrounding housing. This leads to the gradual gentrification of the area, changing the nature of long-established communities by pricing-out future generations in favour of wealthier newcomers. However, this does not always have to be the case; it depends on the specific site and location undergoing regeneration.

In general, there is a desire to balance the needs of the existing local population with the strategic aim of creating a self-sustaining vibrant local economy, which can impact the economic vitality of a whole region. An excellent example of this is the stunning transformation of Manchester in the last 20 years, turning around what many considered a lost cause; a city whose prosperity was based on an industrial base that now barely exists. The process of regeneration often takes decades and the dynamics and economics of development and planning will significantly change over the course of the process.  CampbellReith, a well-respected engineering consultancy firm, has been operating out of Manchester for 50 years and has been actively involved in the development of Greater Manchester’s new homes and communities plans.

“Balancing developer, regional plans and the needs of communities is a real challenge”

As Chris Brady is managing partner of CampbellReith’s Manchester office, leading their Civil Engineering & Development Planning team, he is in a good position to review Manchester’s regeneration. Chris explained that early-stage developers will often have much greater planning freedom as both national and local government are keen to attract developers willing to take the risk. As the regeneration proceeds, there is a cumulative effect as later entrants to the market can see the tangible results of previous developments. However, this has the inevitable effect of driving up land prices, as the risks become lower and a critical mass of ‘belief’ is reached.  In hindsight, Manchester’s success looks inevitable, but balancing the often-competing priorities of commercial developers, regional economic plans and well-intentioned non-governmental organisations requires both a deep understanding of the technical issues, and creative thinking in formulating proposals.

A case in point is the redevelopment of brownfield industrial sites, once found all over Manchester, which require significant technical expertise, particularly in land remediation. As regeneration programmes proceed, the planning requirements become more complex, with government and public often demanding better use of funds for affordable housing or community parks and insisting that local landmarks are retained and re-purposed; the demolition of much-loved landmarks is no longer acceptable. There is a feeling that the city no longer needs to “sell its soul” and it should strive to avoid developments that polarise the property stock into high-rise luxury apartment blocks on the one hand and small-scale quality developments on the other – leaving little affordable choice for ordinary families.

Chris recognises the challenges: “In my view, true regeneration is a difficult one to balance. Cities need cash injection to invest in change but distributing the monies in a fair and inclusive way can be difficult.” He continues “For example, often, due to the sometimes-complex remediation of brownfield sites, any funds developers had to create new opportunities for the community can be lost due to their lack of financial viability.”

Ashton Canal new housing development

“Where possible, we should be listening to the voices of those that matter and not impose a development which is unaffordable for those who live there”

In my view, there are two types of regeneration development both offering their own version of ‘regeneration success’: Ancoats (dubbed ‘New Islington’), a city centre site and the former Foden factory development in Sandbach in Cheshire.

The challenge for regeneration is to create a sense of place, retain heritage and to give the community an opportunity to live in the place they have grown up.  Ancoats is an area two miles to the north of the city centre. Once a gritty textile and manufacturing district, the area had been in long-term decline since the 1950s.  Since the early 1990s there were a few initiatives to redevelop the area but none of these really took off until 2000, when the Government accepted a £250m redevelopment proposal from the award-winning development company, Urban Splash. In the 20 years since the regeneration began, Ancoats (now renamed ‘New Islington’) has become one of the trendiest parts of Manchester in which to live – on many measures, it is a regeneration success story.  The main challenge is residential property prices and, although reasonable compared to other parts of Manchester, some can be beyond the reach of most former residents. However, the inclusion of social housing in the scheme enabled existing residents to remain in the same area. In addition, the repurposing of the iconic Victorian-era Waulk and Stubbs mills into a mix of commercial and residential managed to achieve the right balance between retaining the essential historical character of the area yet provide modern standards, affordable homes and commercial rates of return.

The Foden Factory site offers another view of regeneration.  Once deemed controversial, this new development of 248 homes on the former Foden truck-making factory site in Sandbach has been a real success. It has a good mix of affordable homes, close proximity to existing businesses, open public space accommodating blue and green infrastructure and excellent access to fast rail services and other modes of transport to the wider area

At the Foden Factory there was a blank canvas to work with – a large open space, but with significant remedial issues. Whilst there was controversy initially, since completion, the development feels like a real community – there are green spaces and kids playing in the street. There is also green and blue infrastructure, so it is technically successful. It has the feel of a community.”

“Can true regeneration be achieved, where there is one community for all?”

In recent articles by the Guardian and the Manchester Evening News which focused on the boom and regeneration of Manchester, Chris Shaw, of Urban Splash, coined it well: “The next transition into a truly international city would be significantly aided by having a city centre where families can live and work too”

There is a growing recognition of the need for a mixed population to maintain the ‘social health’ of a city – a blend of retail, commercial and affordable homes. Many believe that true regeneration – as opposed to gentrification – can only work out of town but Chris Brady of CampbellReith agrees with Chris Shaw. Chris Brady says “Many exemplar schemes show that no longer should we impose development or regeneration on a community but find a solution that works for all. The community needs to be engaged in the process and feel part of it, and they can help us find the right solution.” He continues “There are three critical strands to this: let people speak; let them be part of the decision-making process and make tangible change happen for them – engagement, empowerment and effect!.”

“Taking responsibility to get it right is the least we can do”

Some pioneering developers have made it their core purpose to create mixed, socially-inclusive neighbourhoods. Regeneration can be complex, particularly with former industrial sites, and tacking land remediation, the removal of old and the creation of new infrastructure is no simple task. Such complexities need to be addressed at the planning stage, so the involvement of multi-disciplinary teams at the start of the design process is critical. Underlying all these economic and technical factors are the changing priorities of national and local government policy, social justice pressure groups and advisors, all of whom will advocate a greater degree of social inclusion as the overall regeneration proceeds.

“Let’s work together and let’s work with our communities to create a city, its suburbs and greenfield sites a place of choice for all.” says Chris Brady.