Tell us a little about your own background and your role with Peel?
I’m a Development Director with responsibility for Wirral Waters and I have worked with Peel since 2002. I have 25 years experience working in property development and regeneration around the UK. I was born in Birkenhead but spent the first 12 years of my career in London where I learned my trade and now I am bringing my experience back to Wirral to help deliver this ambitious project.
Are you involved with Liverpool Waters as well as Wirral Waters?
They both form part of the Mersey Waters Enterprise Zone but, they are very different projects with different geographies and different administrations. Liverpool waters is a natural extension of the city centre. There is already a sense of place emerging through developments in Princes Dock with established names like Malmaison there and the Crowne Plaza and lots of office accommodation and of course you are only a few hundred metres away from the most Iconic building in the City Region with the Liver Building. It is much more challenging to do something on the Wirral side of the water than in Liverpool as we are faced with decades of decline, a lack of confidence and very fragile market conditions but from a macro-economic perspective there’s no reason for this to be the case.
How would you compare the progress of the two developments?
The reality is that we have made a lot of progress on Wirral Waters. Over recent years, we have been addressing those very real hurdles to delivery: spending millions of pounds remediating sites, investing in infrastructure and dealing with market failure through a cocktail of funding mechanisms. A lot of this has been behind the scenes. We have already seen buildings coming out of the ground on the Wirral side such as Wirral Met’s new construction campus – developed by Peel in partnership with the College - so in some respects we are ahead of the game. It’s important to understand what has been achieved so far in Wirral in the context of the circumstances we are working in. Birkenhead is not renowned for inward investment; it’s not known for attracting new business occupiers and these are some of the fundamental issues we have needed to address.
But we cannot do it on our own. All successful waterfront regeneration projects of scale – whether Kop Van Zuid in Rotterdam, Hammerby in Stockholm, HafenCity in Hamburg etc - are a result of true public and private collaboration. Peel has a good and ongoing track record of transformational delivery but – with projects like Wirral Waters - we can only go as fast as our slowest partners. Wirral Waters is ‘place led’ but ‘jobs driven’ project: we need to create the demand for what we are doing by creating a desirable place – that’s looking at this part of Wirral holistically – but we also need to stimulate, grow and diversify the economy. We can only do these things in partnership.
Would you say there are similarities between Wirral Waters and Salford Quays then?
Yes. It’s possible to draw comparisons with Salford Quays in many respects. We’ve been investing consistently in Salford for over 30 years. That project is an ongoing example of Peel’s sustained and long-term investment into an area over many years to create a mixed use and sustainable development that has generated 1,000’s of new jobs and homes.
There are a great many similarities between Salford Quays - at its outset - and Wirral Waters and we are confident we will have created a development with the same positive impact when we are finished here, but it doesn’t happen overnight, and it needs support. It needs a collaborative ‘whole place’ approach between the public and private sectors and I’m pleased to say we’re getting there on those aspects.
I think to some extent there is a public perception of inactivity around Wirral Waters. What would you say to counter that?
It’s important to consider the timeframe when making assessments about the achievements we have made so far. We launched the concept of Wirral Waters – as an idea - in 2006. It then took 6 years to design, prepare the planning application and secure consent. We didn’t obtain planning permission until 2012 so for us the clock started ticking then. Since then we have achieved a lot but most of it behind the scenes. For instance, we have remediated circa 65 acres of land and completed multi million pound engineering projects in terms of infrastructure, energy substations and drainage etc. This has been necessary to create the platforms for delivery. We have also planted a great many trees in partnership with the Forestry Commission and Mersey Forests and we want to continue that investment in greenery as it helps with that sustainable ‘brand’ of Wirral.
We’ve worked hard with central Government to secure the tools that help delivery – including Enterprise Zone status and Housing Zone status. We’ve also worked on a complex funding strategy – as there is funding out there – as the area needs money. We’ve also set up the Wirral Waters Investment Fund which is a transformational fund to enable us to help ‘gap’ fund some of these projects. There is a major issue of market failure in Birkenhead and this is why we are working in partnership with the public sector, central and local government, to utilise the tools available to get things done. Regeneration is about hard work and small steps – that all lead to achieving greater market confidence. It’s about doing the right thing at the right time in the right place; clustering activity, investing in infrastructure and raising the quality bar.
It’s possible that those early artist impressions of Wirral Waters may have created problems for you in terms of heightened public expectation levels?
In the first instance, we needed to do something to raise expectation and excitement about the potential for this site. Confidence in Birkenhead was very low at the time - from both a corporate and Government perspective - and probably within the community as well. Birkenhead was a place that had suffered decline, so we needed to make a bold statement about what we believed could happen here – a major scale, mixed use, long term and sustainable regeneration project led by an organisation with a track record - and some of those early impressions were designed to stimulate debate about the very real opportunity in the Wirral Docks. We knew what we were dealing with at the time – both in terms of the challenges faced – but also the underlying assets that Wirral has that would help to underpin the project.
Nothing was designed at that point in time but the themes around mixed use development, higher densities, commitment to sustainability, making the most of the water, transformational infrastructure, integrating surrounding communities, green infrastructure and ‘placemaking’ are still redolent today. Completing such an ambitious development in Birkenhead was always going to take time so we started from day one saying it would take decades to do. We knew from the start that the country would go through a number of economic cycles and maybe five or six governments before the development was really approaching completion because that’s how long these complicated projects take.
Having completed a lot of the remedial and infrastructure projects what is the next stage for the development?
We are into the delivery and marketing process now and the project was always intended to be phased – with initial phases being clustered in Tower Road, Northbank and MEA Park. That is now coming to fruition and I am very pleased with the progress we have made to date. We need to create a place that is going to be attractive for new residents and desirable for employers to come and relocate their businesses to, and for manufacturers to set up their facilities. We also need to attract education organisations to help with skills development as well as understand the role culture plays in regeneration. It’s all about place making and knowing what ingredients we need to make Birkenhead a place that people want to come to.
We have some world class urban designers and architects involved with Wirral Waters. We understand what we are doing in terms of the place that needs to be created and the stepping stones needed to allow those plans to move forward. That’s largely about the wider infrastructure, the public realm, improved cycling provision and public transport and getting all of that right – both in terms of design and its delivery.
Wirral Waters is also jobs-driven and so we must nurture and boost the economy here because it needs new jobs and new training opportunities and that will in turn drive demand for other things. We need to enhance the growth prospects of existing employers and we also need to bring in new employers. The sectors we are focussed on are the Marine and Maritime sector and the Energy sector and the whole range of supply chain businesses those sectors will attract. That is why the Maritime Knowledge Hub is really key and why the Marine Energy and Automotive Park (MEA Park) which is a million square feet of waterside manufacturing space at West Float – with tax breaks for occupiers - is so important because those key assets will drive the economy forward.
Skills are at the heart of growing the economy and we have some fantastic skills projects ongoing at Wirral Waters. The Maritime Knowledge hub being one and the Skills Factory being another important project and not to mention Wirral Met’s Construction College being the first of the projects delivered on the site, putting skills at the heart of the project.
Do you see any synergy between Peel and the planned Wirral Growth Company? Will this add more impetus to your own development plans?
We are fully supportive of the Growth Company and we look forward to working with whoever is announced as the partner on that because a strong Birkenhead town centre is good for Wirral Waters and a strong Wirral Waters is good for Birkenhead town centre. These things compliment each other. They are mutually supportive and lead to occupier and therefore investor confidence – much needed in this area. The Growth Company should contribute further to the place creation we’ve already mentioned. It’s a case then of joining the dots with a clear infrastructure delivery plan for the whole of inner east Wirral.
How is your relationship with Wirral Chamber and how does that affect what you are doing?
The Chamber has a really key role to play moving forward. Both in terms of raising awareness of the project and also in terms of Wirral Waters providing opportunities for their members, whether that’s in construction supply chains, organisations in marine or maritime industries or manufacturers -We all have a role to play in terms of mutual support, but Wirral Waters can also create new homes for some of those businesses, infrastructure to support the area and new skills development in relevant sectors.
I believe you are a keynote speaker at Wirral Chamber’s February In Business event on Energy. Without giving too much away, what will your presentation contain?
I will be talking on two levels about energy: the first being how the energy sector itself can help to drive jobs growth in the area. How do we attract the supply chain companies for the offshore renewable, civil nuclear and tidal energy industry for example, so that Wirral can really become a hub for activity within the energy sector? The second strand is about the sustainable energy strategy within Wirral Waters itself. This is about infrastructure delivery – infrastructure underpins delivery at project, neighbourhood and regional scales.
Do you feel Wirral can become that central hub within those industries?
As part and parcel of Government’s industrial strategy what we are trying to do is to position Wirral and the wider Liverpool City Region as a potential centre of excellence in the energy sector. This is an area that can support those big capital energy projects on the west coast of the UK which will be good for jobs in the area. But we need that investment in skills hence some of the first few projects within Wirral Waters are related to skills, knowledge creation and training: the Wirral Met College Construction Campus for instance; the Skills Factory at MEA Park – which will focus on modular construction and digital design; and the Maritime Knowledge Hub at the Hydraulic Tower.
We have the connectivity and the Port - and organisations like Cammell Lairds. We do need to beef up the relevant skills base though as we want to retain people in the area don’t we? We want to retain talent here which has so often in the past left to fulfil its ambitions elsewhere. Wirral is a great place to live and work and has hidden its light under a bushel for far too long. It is a hidden gem and we need to play on the lifestyle offer Wirral has along with the attractions of a vibrant city on the doorstep. We need to work together with Liverpool to ensure what happens on Wirral is complimentary to what’s happening in Liverpool as we are stronger together. I was born in Birkenhead, so I am passionate about Wirral and the benefits that Wirral Waters can bring to the area.
So, have you won over all the doubters?
There are still sceptics but the hard graft over recent years that has been taking place behind the scenes has put us in a good position now and with a fair wind and with all parties pulling in the same direction, the results will come. We have been gradually getting to that point where a lot of the groundwork is done and signs of progress are becoming visible, with buildings coming out the ground, others going through planning, funding dropping into place and many tangible things are starting to come together.
Everything we do is done in partnership with others and that is the key message. We can’t do any of the projects on our own. We need all parties to be shoulder to shoulder with us on Wirral Waters. That includes central government, the Councils, the universities, the colleges and businesses - all working together and pulling in the same direction to achieve the same goal and that is what will bring the success for this area.
On a personal note can you tell us the best and worst aspect of your job?
I love my job - but it’s really challenging to make change. You also have the responsibility to do things right because you are impacting people’s lives - in a positive way. When you do see things coming out the ground which are well designed and of high quality with the right infrastructure in place and they make a positive contribution to community then that’s the best thing. Seeing delivery take place is really rewarding. Probably the worst part of the job is the politics involved. Regeneration operates in a politicised environment with things outside of our red line being out of our control.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
I have had a lot good mentors throughout my career and they have given me a lot of good advice. We’re always learning. John Whittaker, Peels Chairman, talks about the need for determination, patience and perseverance – DPP as he calls it – a good mantra to follow for Wirral Waters. And it’s also about picking which battles to fight – the path of progress can often oscillate but we’re OK if the general direction of travel is on the right track.
And finally, what do you do to get away from work and relax?
It might not seem like a relaxing pastime as such, but I do triathlon, which are endurance events based around running, cycling and swimming. I have completed a few Iron Man events which are very challenging physically and mentally and I suppose that’s another example of patience, perseverance and determination in action.