When it comes to property, most of the regional cities had a good year in 2014. Office take-up statistics show that there’s a lot of confidence among businesses, not to mention a lot of inward investment, to Manchester in particular.
But, as will be shown at the MIPIM conference next month, it’s a competitive world. You’ve got to keep improving, and when people talk about the things that might hold back further investment in UK cities, transport’s always near the top of the list. It’s true that congestion is, to some extent, the price of success, but too much of it is obviously a serious problem.
Of course, those in charge at the city councils and their advisory bodies like Manchester’s New Economy know this, and every effort is being made to get cars off the road: the Second City Crossing will improve the Metrolink service. In Leeds, there’s a £250m Trolleybus project to link key commercial and educational sites. A step change is also needed when it comes to connecting the cities to the outside world – hence the HS2 high speed rail scheme and the similarly ambitious One North plan, launched last summer.
The case in favour of HS2 has been well made: that it’s necessary because of capacity, with the West Coast Main Line full to bursting point already. The main argument against such a huge investment, £40bn or thereabouts, is that the greater priority should be better transport between the regional cities. This is where One North comes in – a plan that considers the case for all of the northern networks, potentially with an overseeing body that has the power of Transport for London – that will provide better services for all areas linking into the new high speed network.
It seems clear that the major stations will become even more important as business hubs: in January, Manchester City Council announced a key land deal with London & Continental Railways, owner of the Mayfield site, for a large mixed-use scheme including offices, homes and a city park. Chief executive Sir Howard Bernstein has said that Piccadilly station’s redevelopment is a priority. He doesn’t want a confusing series of building sites for various projects over 20 years, but a coherent plan. There will be more opportunities for property in the under-used sites around Piccadilly.
It’s a similar situation in Leeds, which is the busiest single station outside of London. Work is starting on a southern entrance that will open up more opportunities as the city looks to link up some promising projects and provide more opportunities in its South Bank area. Leeds needs more office capacity, and whatever form the city’s HS2 station eventually takes, it will be a dynamic area looking forward.
With a bit of luck (and some political skill), the North’s key cities – Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield as well as Manchester and Leeds – can make things happen and make a real change in transport.
This looks like the big opportunity to get things right and give our great cities the sort of well integrated transport system that is taken for granted in most of Europe.