Today I visited Wolverhampton for the first time, to meet Tim Johnson, the City of Wolverhampton’s Strategic Director of Place, who’s role in Wolverhampton’s exciting and commercially astute drive for development is clearly key, given the job title, and evident for all to see on the Black Country stand at MIPIM 2017. With my recent role in the Reading 2050 Visioning activity (now close to launching!), we have frequently questioned what the next implementation steps might be. Wolverhampton’s vision was created some three years ago and focused on Wolverhampton’s natural assets and manufacturing strengths, including their 12% share in the aerospace. I was keen to find out more about their ambitions, progress, and the role the Local Authority is playing in it all.
The challenges Wolverhampton and Reading face are different, but there are also clear parallels. As a previous manufacturing city, Wolverhampton suffered similar, albeit far later, industrial decline in the 80’s. It has numerous stunning Victorian assets, older listed architecture and waterways, much of which is hidden from view. Located close to a major UK city, it feeds off its success and into its infrastructure, but battles with the shadow Birmingham casts, and the ubiquitous commuter draw. It struggles within a constraining ring road and a perception of mediocrity.
So far, so Reading. But what Wolverhampton hasn’t struggled from in recent years is a burgeoning developer market, eyeing up the city’s opportunities. Investors weren’t bashing their door down post-recession. The council’s role has therefore been one of market maker. They have utilised both public land and their land assembly abilities to become a proactive enabler & facilitator, to de-risk and generate real regen value.
What catalysed the movement? The team I met said a happy coincidence of visionary people certainly helped. The city’s university has a visionary VC and an ambitious Council who know the commercial reality of the property industry. In tandem, being part of the combined authority has brokered a relationship across the Black Country’s three core cities, while the LEP has been intrinsic in financially supporting the delivery of key infrastructure to unlock sites, and plug cost and value gaps for development that the team have worked hard to deliver.
But it’s not all a done deal by any means; there are many ideas and sites still to come forwards. Key sites offer great natural and built environment assets for developers to get their teeth in to, but the team are looking for sustainability, not short-term gains. With virtually no residential currently within the ring road, creating this will need an offering for day and night time populations and a diversity of product that appeals to families, the elderly and the young with public realm of the highest quality. Such approaches to development are already on the horizon with the likes of Urban & Civic and Benson Elliott investing, and the Chinese owners of the football stadium and surrounds keen to enhance the sites established home in the city (more similarities to Reading there!).
So, my take on it is Wolverhampton is on a great winning streak. They are driving developers and investors to deliver innovative projects that will benefit the city’s economy, and yes, they are very much open for business. For developers and investors who are up for a challenge and want to be a part of an exciting regeneration programme, the team behind the city’s growth can add in knowledge of the city needs. They will collaborate, they will partner and they will de-risk, but in return they will expect innovative ideas and longevity of product. A healthy challenge!
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