Society is reeling from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and Britain is now facing ‘significant recession’, according to chancellor Rishi Sunak.
There have certainly been more auspicious times for a sustainable regeneration company to begin an ambitious 10-year strategy focused on unlocking development on land around the UK’s network of railway stations.
Public corporation LCR has a strong pedigree. It has delivered some of the most significant regeneration projects in the UK, including the redevelopment of St Pancras International and King’s Cross station, and the master-planning of a new metropolitan centre at Stratford City.
The context for the strategy – which LCR says will facilitate the delivery of tens of thousands of new homes and jobs – is a clear mandate to support the Government’s drive to level up the economy and drive public value.
LCR operates by forming partnerships with private developers, housing authorities, central Government agencies and transport authorities. Its message is that ‘no station will be left behind’, and it is working to identify as many development opportunities as possible to ensure every destination is able to reach its full potential, and deliver maximum value. One of its major projects is Manchester Mayfield by Manchester Piccadilly station, with plans for new housing, some iconic buildings and a public park space.
Given the COVID-19-induced plunge in the economic outlook, how realistic is their strategy, despite their impressive track record?
Chairman Nick Markham, a former lead non-executive director at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), told The MJ that LCR’s status as a public corporation means it can take a longer perspective. ‘We have a lot of the freedoms. The benefit is that we can take a long-term view. On Mayfield we can take a 20-year view. And we know that over that cycle it will make money.’
The Manchester Mayfield project will produce what he hopes will be ‘the Kings Cross of the North’.
LCR has been focused on major city projects – not just in Manchester but in cities including Leeds and Sheffield, ‘where using the station as the beachhead, we’ve basically been working with local authorities to develop the whole area around it’.
The company has also been working with many of the rail authorities, including Transport for Greater Manchester, looking at the potential for regeneration at all their stations. At least a fifth of those stations – about 20 of them – could be developed to deliver about 200 homes, ‘perfectly connected to transport links – and if you can do that in Manchester across all those stations, you could create as many as 3,000 homes’.
The next step, he said, was to ask if this approach could be scaled up across the country. LCR is carrying out an audit on every one of the stations,’ to look at simply taking the car park, a bit of local authority land nearby, a bit of private sector land that LCR could acquire, and developing homes on it.
A review of about 500 of the 2,000 stations, in collaboration with Network Rail has found that ‘about 20% of them are ripe for redevelopment and we could get out between 10,000 and 20,000 homes. If you multiply that up, the strategy here shows that you can get tens of thousands of homes’.
Do these audits offer opportunities for local authorities to meet their targets for delivering affordable or social housing? ‘The beauty of this is that because the land is car parks and so on, yes you do have to replace the car park and its build costs but you’ve got much lower input costs.
‘And because also we’re working with local authorities which are often contributing land, and working with Homes England, it’s up to us, we’re the owners, so to speak. We can define how much social housing we want on there. Homes England is really keen to promote prefabricated building and we are saying this is a 10-year project where we are probably developing 5,000 homes a year. That makes us a major housebuilder. We can then follow some of those strategic goals, be it social housing or prefabricated, or shared or affordable housing.’
While COVID-19 is the crisis we are all facing now, he believes that ‘hopefully when we get through that, people are still going to need homes, and they probably might need to be more affordable than ever’.
He added: ‘Having low-cost housing on great transport links is, I think, going to be more important than ever. And the Government is looking for shovel-ready capital projects quickly to help kick-start the economy again. The beauty of Mayfield is that we have been working on it for a long time and so it really is shovel-ready.’
Peter Hawthorne has been LCR’s interim chief executive since last year, and was finance director from 2013. He said: ‘We developed a good knack of dealing with local authorities and also the private sector, so we are able to pull together and to harness all of those elements to bring forward other opportunities that other people would just think – “do you know what, that’s just a bit too difficult”. Manchester Mayfield is a really good example of that.’
Mr Hawthorne pointed out that despite being a public corporation LCR is self-financing. Back in 2013 following the abolition of a former rail body just over a million square feet of managed office were transferred to LCR, with the money generated used to ‘finance its strategy of working in support of local authorities to bring these opportunities to fruition’.
Despite the coronavirus crisis, he stressed ‘there is still a lot of work that we can do and are doing, and the review of opportunities that we have been engaged in with Network Rail is still progressing at full steam’.
That said, he concedes local authorities’ capacity to work alongside LCR on projects is ‘mixed’. In some locations ‘you’ve got the willingness but not so much of the capacity, and actually that’s where we can work well together to supplement that possible lack of capacity.’
But what LCR ‘is absolutely not trying to do is impose solutions on people because often the local authorities will have great ideas that you want to harness’, he added.
Why should local authorities of all sizes talk to LCR? ‘I would hope councils up and down the country wouldn’t think LCR is only interested in projects of scale and importance like King’s Cross. We are very interested in and excited by smaller-scale projects.’
To conclude, what does chairman Nick Markham believe is the compelling reason for councils to work with LCR? ‘I think it’s a real feeling that a station is normally the gateway to a city or a town, and the local community know best what’s needed.
‘Let’s try to use these and the land around them to make a feature of the town. The message we want to get across to local authorities is please come forward with your ideas for your scheme.
‘We have the resources and the capability to be able to work with you and make it happen.’