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10,000 Whitehall Jobs Relocate To Manchester? New Regeneration Thinking Revealed

Harvard alumni, former San Francisco resident, policy wonk — Louise Wyman comes to her new role as Manchester’s strategic director for growth and development with an unusual background for a town hall job.

Hers is not an internal promotion and she is not a Manchester woman.

In an in-depth interview, Wyman hints at new ways of working and thinking for the city, ways that could prompt significant reappraisals (and some applause) from Manchester’s property business.

Louise Wyman, new strategic director of growth and development at Manchester City Council

Some acts are harder to follow than others and Sir Howard Bernstein is one of them. The ebullient chief executive helped fashion Manchester's image in the wake of the 1996 terrorist bombing, and set the pattern for the way it works on property and regeneration. Several of the schemes he helped to stimulate (such as the controversial £200M St Michael's hotel, office and apartment scheme at Booth Street) are yet to be completed. In the case of St Michael’s the town hall is almost literally in its shadow.

Wymanwho took over as the city council’s new strategic director of growth and development in July 2020, does not directly replace Sir Howard: Joanne Roney took over his role as chief executive. But Wyman replaces Eddie Smith, Sir Howard’s right-hand-man on property and regeneration, and together with Roney contributes to a new female top team. With Labour backbench councillors restive after three decades of centre-right leadership, a sense that the long tenure of Sir Richard Leese as council leader must be nearing its end, and the convulsions of the coronavirus pandemic to handle, Wyman takes over at a delicate time. 

As an outsider, not an insider like Sir Howard, Wyman inevitably sees things differently. In the course of the next few months the property industry will discover how differently. They may be pleasantly surprised.

Wyman is clear that times have changed and the city’s economic agenda needs to move on. A series of policy documents hints at a strategy based on keeping the city centre alive and animated by building on existing strengths.

In the next 12 to 24 months that seems to mean attracting and growing the young and mobile tech, digital and media businesses that need to be in the city centre. Co-living and other rental options, and a ready supply of good modern office floorspace, help make that prospect viable and a relatively quick win. The result will be that the delicate but vital business ecosystem of the city centre remains alive. The broader hope is that this will seed the city with growing businesses for the medium-term.

Wyman said she recognises this description. “People are not flooding back into their offices,” Wyman conceded in the week Manchester agency OBI published research showing the return to work in the city was slow, with smaller businesses leading the way and larger enterprises lagging.

“Yet despite the slow return the innovation sector is doing well, and this recovery is going to be about sustaining the business eco-systems in the city centre, and enabling the city to navigate that time with the help of nontraditional city office occupiers. We will put support around them, with help from the government, and they will grow the next wave of Manchester development," Wyman said.

“We’re going to see the UK core cities playing to strengths, and that approach is absolutely right on tech and digital, where we have more going on than anywhere outside London. We have the graduate retention that agile tech businesses want, and we have the spaces — wander round the Northern Quarter and you can’t say many cities have an offer like that. But I’d also add life sciences to the list — we have a big offer there, and materials science like graphene. We need to use those strengths to sustain the economy because we know buildings are going to be used very differently in the future.”

Wyman says Manchester’s “texture” will help it make the transition in a way other (blander) cities cannot.

Working from home ... Louise Wyman on her first day as Manchester's strategic director

But the office market won’t just be about agile tech businesses: There will be large space occupiers too, and one of them could be the government.

Manchester has been nurturing “Whitehall of the north” plans for major civil service relocations since 2009 when the Mayfield site (now being developed by U+I) was tipped as the home for 5,000 staff and a raft of government departments.

The plan has been on-off since, but prime minister Boris Johnson’s levelling-up agenda, intended to stimulate the UK regions, has turned it back on again. Wyman prefers not to discuss the intricacies of talks with Whitehall about relocations, nor the suggestion that up to 10,000 jobs could be involved, but she does not reject the idea that something is afoot.

“We have to recognise that Manchester is more affordable as an office location than the South East, and it would make sense for government departments to consolidate in Manchester. And we will need big floorplate offices if they do,” she said.

“Loads of businesses, not just the government, are reprofiling their expenditure and rethinking their office needs. Businesses over-exposed to property costs in some parts of the country are looking at Manchester. We’re seeing real HQ relocation requirements and serious interest.”

One potential location for a Whitehall of the North is the city council-owned Central Retail Park, Ancoats. The 10.5-acre site was recently abruptly redesignated from residential to as much as 1M SF of office development. Government-backed development in the east of the city in Ancoats would tick a great many regeneration boxes. No wonder some observers are putting two and two together.

Wyman says it is “too early to say” what the direction will be for this prize Ancoats site but she does reveal her list of strategic priority sites. The Big Five will be Ancoats and the Etihad Stadium gateway (where plans for a new arena have just been approved), the Northern Gateway now being developed by FEC, Mayfield and the Central Retail Park.

A telling absence from the list are a string of flagship schemes such as the £200M St Michael's hotel, office and apartment scheme promoted by a consortium led by Gary Neville. The council are major landowners on the site. Would such a luxury scheme meet today’s policy objectives? Wyman prefers not to say. “I’m looking at a lot of schemes now,” she said. “This is a moment for cities, a major moment, they will change radically, there will be a different dynamic and we have to think hard about things like health and green space.”

The St Michael's plan, as it looked in 2018

Just as some talismanic schemes may drop down the council’s agenda, so the way the council does its regeneration business may change. Until now much area development has depended on strategic regeneration frameworks drafted by significant landowners, and approved outside the usual planning system by the council’s ruling executive. A similar (but significantly different) approach in London has attracted criticism, and whilst some Manchester developers find the SRF approach helpful, others, whose views may accord less directly with current council thinking, find them irksome. Some Labour backbenchers worry the SRF approach means regeneration is led by plot-sized developer desires, rather than city-sized ambitions.

Wyman suggests there will be more focus on the big picture during her tenure.

“There is a role for SRFs in focused areas where there are partners who share the same ambitions, but I’m looking at plans for 2050 and thinking how should the city be in 30 years, and when you know that you know what to do about local areas,” she said.

“We’ve already started work on a revision to our statutory local plan, and we need to think about the big vision. We need to work on what kind of urban offer Manchester will provide.”

The early answer will involve more pedestrianisation, and better use of river corridors and public spaces. “The spaces that give a city life. Those spaces are worth investing in,” Wyman said.

In the short-term that means more pedestrianisation. “During the pandemic the council pedestrianised 20 streets, something that would usually have taken two years but only took two months, and it is proof that there is lots we can do to make Manchester a more livable city,” Wyman said.

There are hints of a broader residential rethink: Co-living has a role, contrary to recent suggestions that the city was turning its back on the novel rental format, but maybe large-scale fractional sales of apartments to overseas investors deserve less of a role, particularly if it occludes the prospect for more affordable housing? Wyman said these ideas are in play but will not commit herself.

Newcomers often see things differently. Extremely bright, absolutely not part of the old Manchester property and political networks, and with a broad policy and trans-Atlantic background, Wyman is the ultimate newcomer. If a large-scale government relocation could be engineered — and if the tech, bioscience and digital sectors can be made to fill a gap until the new normal becomes clear — she will have earned the right to tell old-timers that things must change.