Are ‘city living’ projects viable in provincial towns?

In our latest Q&A on the big issues in residential development, PWA Planning director Paul Walton discusses the viability of of city living developments in provincial towns and small cities.

What is the appeal of city living from the point of view of local authorities, developers and buyers?

The benefits of city living developments for local authorities are clear. They contribute towards new housing targets, but they also enable a thriving city centre where there’s economic activity in the evening, not just during office hours. For developers, cities can offer higher density developments in terms of the number of units the developer can get on the site, so they’re appealing from a monetary point of view.

For buyers, the appeal is living in a bustling area where there is a quality food, entertainment and retail offering on their doorstep, as well as an opportunity to be within walking distance of work. Unfortunately, for the more provincial cities and towns there can be a chicken and egg situation. It’s hard to create demand for city living without the leisure offer, but there can be no leisure offer if there’s nobody already living there.

What demographic and economic factors are driving city living developments?

In cities like Preston, it’s investment and job creation that’s making city living a more appealing and realistic goal. The council launched its City Living prospectus earlier this year, so the strategic will is there. There’s investment coming through as part of the City Deal and also funding from the Homes and Communities Agency to support development opportunities.

Preston is looking to boost the night-time economy with developments like the markets quarter. Exciting proposals for apartment schemes in Guildhall Street and around Winckley Square have already been brought forward.

Lancaster also has a vibrant city living scene which is largely driven by the growing student population. A strong student population can provide a good backstop for developers looking to bring forward city centre sites.

Can regional towns and cities like Preston compete with Manchester and Liverpool? Or is their appeal totally different?

Provincial Lancashire towns are never going to compete with Manchester and Liverpool because their economies are so much smaller. That said, for many people the appeal of Lancashire is being able to live in suburban or rural area in a house that’s affordable. However, population growth does give the likes of Preston and Blackburn a chance to replicate Manchester and Liverpool’s success on a smaller scale. It’s all about creating the right environment for willing developers. Job creation, a strong transport infrastructure and a varied night-time offering are key.

Are sufficient quality sites and development specifications available in Lancashire locations?

There are good sites available with planning consents in Lancashire. The issue is still the lack of demand for those sites. Many sites in Preston and Blackburn are former industrial sites with legacy issues, such as ground contamination, which makes site remediation costs higher. Other sites might require the developer to make use of an existing building which again means higher costs.

What are residential property market conditions like generally? Do they bode well for city living initiatives?

The permitted development rights to change a building from office to residential use give developers a degree of certainty and most local plans being brought forward by local authorities include urban sites that need to be developed. While this is encouraging, we’re also seeing more planning permissions being granted now on huge out-of-town sites and many in the green belt too. These are easier sites for developers to build out and make money on, so they will prioritise those sites over the potentially more difficult city centre ones. At the moment, city centre development in the regions requires financial intervention from public bodies. Some areas like Preston are getting that support, others are not.

Paul Walton is founder and director of PWA Planning and leads a team of planning consultants advising clients on developments across the UK. To contact Paul call 01772 369669.