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15 MAY 2023
James Raynor, Chief Executive, Grosvenor Property UK
In the summer of 1999, an advert appeared in the property press. Liverpool City Council was asking for developers to express an interest in something called the Paradise Project.
Grosvenor was one of 47 who responded to build what would ultimately become Liverpool ONE.
From a cursory scan of the project it was clear this was one of the most ambitious city centre regeneration projects ever undertaken. Despite the resurgence the city was undergoing, the unemployment rate in 1990 was nearly 10% higher than the national average and its population had decreased by 6% between 1981 and 1991. Not to mention whatever came forward would be competing with the Trafford Centre which opened in 1998. It’s not surprising that the initial list of 47 very quickly became six.
Fast forward to Liverpool ONE’s opening in 2008, it spanned 42 acres in the historic centre of Liverpool, serving the city’s need for a leading retail centre and reconnecting the city with its waterfront.
With Eurovision propelling Liverpool on to a global stage and as the project, now 15 years old, is one of the UK's major retail and leisure destinations, it’s easy to take Liverpool ONE’s success for granted. This is especially true for nearly a quarter of Merseyside who are too young to know or remember what was there before.
It has prompted me to reflect on the project, the state of the national debate on urban policy back when we started working in Liverpool and now.
In the run up to the millennium the minister responsible for housing and planning launched an Urban Task Force of the great and the good to identify solutions to urban decline, published a white paper bemoaning that “many urban areas have suffered from neglect, poor management, inadequate public services, lack of investment and a culture of short termism,” and launched an agency responsible for advising on architecture and the built environment.
For those playing along at home, the minister was John Prescott, and the design body was of course, CABE and the Urban Task Force was led by the indomitable Richard Rogers.
There are clearly unnerving parallels with the Levelling Up agenda, the Office for Place and the Urban Centre Recovery Task Force. We’re still grappling the issues they faced plus new issues like the future of work, net zero, cost of living crisis and the political uncertainty of Brexit.
In our industry we’re no strangers to cycles, yet we’re somehow at a point where the national debate is spinning itself back around age old questions on regional inequality, public services, the housing crisis, and stagnant growth in many of the UK’s major cities.
Rather than roll out the same initiatives, we should be asking more strategic questions about whether the UK, England in particular, is effectively set up to deliver economic growth.
Recent political events illustrate this point. First, the funding process for Levelling Up funding, described by Andy Street as a “broken begging bowl culture”. Second, rowing back on housebuilding targets.
On the one hand, funding is inefficiently distributed centrally. On the other hand, national targets to address a key national issue are dropped, effectively leaving nobody responsible.
Either you decide to devolve power and give local areas the tools they need to boost economic growth, including revenue raising and tax retention or you continue to centralise and mandate economic activity from Whitehall.
Positively, the devolution deal WMCA secured shows this issue is understood within Government. Future administrations shouldn’t shy away from reforms that will give local leaders the tools and crucially, the responsibility for economic growth.
We are fortunate to have dynamic local leaders like Steve Rotheram, Andy Street, Tom Riordan and Andy Burnham pushing forward their growth agendas. It’s not a coincidence that Grosvenor has ramped up investment in these cities.
Like any other investor or developer, we want to work with places ready for change and armed with a vision they are ready to put their political capital behind.
Our work with Liverpool epitomised this. They put all their chips on one giant project to revive the fortunes of the city region. I’d like to think that from our side, bringing forward 2.5m sq. ft of mixed-use space in four years in time for Liverpool’s Capital of Culture year we had no shortage of ambition either.
Liverpool ONE is the result of Grosvenor’s vision to remake a city centre in a way that is sympathetic to its history
Led by the investment team in its UK property business, the strategy will further diversify its £800m regional investment portfolio, by financing projects across a broad range of residential tenures.