The Subplot | Ghosts of projects past, Stockton, survivors
Welcome to The Subplot, your regular slice of commentary on the business and property market from across the North of England and North Wales.
- Manchester’s haunted airport: a seasonal commercial property spine-chiller
- Elevator pitch: your weekly rundown of who is going up, and who is heading the other way
THE GHOSTS OF PROJECTS PAST
A seasonal spine-chiller from the haunted airport
Airports in general – Manchester Airport in particular – are economically important, so it must be a great idea to build office floorspace next door, yes? Well, not so much. Throw another log on the fire, pour yourself a hot toddy, and enjoy Subplot’s very own nightmare before Christmas.
It’s Thursday 21 December. Everyone has either finished for the year or soon will. It’s just us, browsing the final emails. Since we’re basically alone, everyone’s had a sherry, and nobody is going to remember by 2 January, this is a once-a-year chance to say the unsayable. So here goes: building offices a runway’s length from a major airport like Manchester’s is murder. No lesser word will do. Haunted by the rattling chains of ghostly developments that misfired or never happened, it’s a spine-chilling tale of human nature gone wrong.
The first ghost
The candle gutters, a chill draught whistles under the door, and our first ghost enters. This is the 50-acre Manchester Business Park, marketed as being a runway’s length from the airport, and as the 21st century dawned, hailed as the biggest news in the North West property because Arlington Securities, the mighty developer of Californian-style business parks, was making its regional debut.
Arlington proposed 675,000 sq ft, and on the plot next door Green Properties aimed for another 433,000 sq ft. Arlington’s boss Patrick Deigman was reported at the time saying that the park “will grow as fast and be as successful as the airport which is literally on its doorstep,” then added: “I have no doubts about that.” A bold 171,000 sq ft first phase was approved in 2000/2001, a smaller second phase followed, but that was it.
Creaking floorboards? Are those footsteps? Yes, behold, here comes Manchester’s 200-acre MediPark. Not quite as close to the airport as Arlington’s effort – nor as strongly related to it – but sited next to Airport City, and definitely in the airport’s orbit. The scheme made a splash at MIPIM in 2012 – global deals were expected within months. These many lettings, had they happened, would have delivered the first of 2,700 new jobs – or 7,000 in one optimistic council report.
MediPark was an assemblage of 35 acres of South Manchester hospital land, 90 acres owned by Royal London Asset Management (see below), and another 75 acres in the control of local developer Bluemantle. If you have nothing else to do today, and you know you haven’t, Google its progress in the years either side, then its sudden eclipse.
But beware! This ghost still walks abroad. The Medipark plan found its way into the thinking behind the city region’s Places for Everyone spatial strategy. Around 900,000 sq ft of business floorspace was envisaged to complement long-standing ambitions for Roundthorn and the Timperley Wedge. Consultation on the final batch of Places for Everyone modifications ended on 6 December.
The third spectre
Do you hear unearthly screams? The uttering of magic words? You certainly do because the Timperley Wedge we’ve just met is not all it seems. For much of the last 30 years, it was conspicuously the home of Davenport Green, the notorious 86-acre slice of former Green Belt at the Wedge’s heart, land long allocated for offices. The site’s removal from Green Belt was causing nightmares 30 years ago – see this 1996 inspector’s report for goosebumps. The struggle ended in 2001 when Amec and Scottish Life won permission for 1m sq ft of offices.
Getting Davenport Green removed from the Green Belt proved the least of its problems because, by the time that horror story was over, the office market it was supposed to sell into had vanished like a spectre at dawn. Nearly two decades later, DTZ (as it was) summed things up nicely for Royal London Asset Management (see above) and Trafford Council: 15 years of disappointment.
Despite several stakes through its heart, this scheme too remains undead and stalks the graveyard of ideas otherwise known as strategic planning documents. The Places for Everyone paperwork has the Timperley Wedge down for about 645,000 sq ft of office floorspace if all went well, and about 160,000 sq ft as a minimum. The remainder of the site is for 2,500 new homes.
A fourth haunting
Is that the smell of corrupt flesh, or the holy whiff of incense? Well, you decide, as we say a big spooky Christmas hello to Airport City’s ghostly ambitions to become a major office hub. Earlier this month, Subplot noted the latest progress on online beauty group THG’s plans for a 1m sq ft office campus as part of a transformational but largely unbuilt 5m sq ft scheme, still ranked among Manchester City Council’s top projects.
Reporting on 7 December, Subplot hadn’t yet heard back from either landlord Columbia Threadneedle or potential tenant THG about the deal, first announced in 2018. Nor was there word on the wider fate of the project. Alas, as of today, still silence from Columbia Threadneedle, despite a reminder. However, our luck was in with THG’s people who came back to say they’d follow the question up with their clients, but that “a response may not be immediate with the current busy period.” But that’s it – nothing since. Subplot wishes them the seasonal best. Pull a cracker for us.
How about an exorcism, because these ghosts can be made to fade if looked at another way. Office space at Manchester Airport has been successful – the 51,000 sq ft Voyager block and the 45,000 sq ft 4M building were developed by MAG Property, the airport’s in-house operation, and have never lacked for occupiers. In 2018, THG landed there, starting a long romance with airport floorspace. Meanwhile, Airport City has proved a hit as a warehouse location, proving that well-located sites will find their level. Columbia Threadneedle won consent for their latest 92,000 sq ft shed only a few weeks ago.
And surely, in a city region with a growing economy, even the larger slow-moving sites will one day find their ideal use, if the planners allow. It just might not be millions of sq ft of offices. Subplot approached the Greater Manchester Combined Authority, who look after Places for Everyone, for a view on whether they still had confidence this was a good place for mega office schemes. We have yet to hear back.
Why all the spooks?
How to explain this long list of airport property wraiths and phantoms? The question needs an answer because, on the face of it, airports feel like good places to build offices. After all, there are lots of people (albeit passing through, not stopping), often good road links, proximity to cities and workforces, and large flat building plots – something rolling Northern landscapes do not often provide.
Alas, human nature
In part, it’s down to bad luck. It took time to assemble the large flat plots and to secure planning consent, and by the time that was done the out-of-town office market of the early 1990s had gently expired. May it rest in peace. Pricing was wrong, servicing and sorting out complicated land was too expensive, it all fell to bits. But mostly, as in all good ghost stories, it’s human nature that’s to blame: nobody’s idea of heaven is life next to an airport, and even those few who genuinely do need an office near the jumbos don’t want to be under a busy flight path. Which is why the ghosts still walk there – no flesh and blood could stand it.
Going up, or going down? This week’s movers
A good week for developers with staying power, and an equally good week for creating urban parks where defunct shopping centres once stood. As the year ends, for Subplot’s elevator the only way is up.
The 340,000 sq ft Castlegate shopping centre, Stockton, opened in 1973 and ran out of road, fairly abruptly, about 45 years later. Stockton-on-Tees Council agreed to buy the hulk in 2019 during the first wave of euphoric Boris Johnson-inspired levelling up. A £13.8m deal gave them a chance to rethink, and the result of pondering was to knock it down. Now work on site has started on the replacement which includes an urban park and performance space. Funding comes from the Tees Valley Combined Authority and the government.
There’s still plenty to do, including sorting out the former Debenhams, which went on the market last summer with bargain-basement pricing. But the council have been well advised – not everything can be turned into build-to-rent – and a new park gets things moving in a very positive direction.
Staying power is important in property, and as 2023 ends, Aneel Mussarat must be congratulating himself on having a monster truck full of the stuff.
Mussarat’s MCR Property Group was big news before the Global Financial Crisis of 2008/2011. He was up there nudging the top 100 in The Sunday Times Rich List, and everything looked fab. Although he was surefooted in a way that others from that heady day were not, his businesses nonetheless took a hit when the economy tanked – there were administrations. Like so many others, we might never have heard from him again. But no, he’s still here and thriving.
This week, MCR finally sorted out the planning details ahead of the redevelopment of Manchester’s 6.6-acre former Rochdale Road Gas Works, and hopes to start on work next year. The project will deliver 1,200 homes at Gould Street. It is part of the £4bn Victoria North project. Gas works sites are not quick, and 33-storey schemes aren’t easy either, but sticking around for decades is tricky, too. Let’s see what happens next.