By the riverside: Martin Liptrot interview

For far too long, Wirral has lived in the shadow of the city of Liverpool, which sits ‘over the water’.

However, at Mipim UK last year, Wirral Borough Council presented a vision for the area designed to bring it out of that shadow. As the council prepares to start a competitive process to find a private sector joint venture partner to unlock £1bn of property development, Property Week caught up with the council’s investment officer Martin Liptrot to find out more:

How did the new plan come about?

Two years ago, the council created its five-year plan outlining its policies. Within that, economic development and regeneration featured strongly. In the conversations we had with developers and other authorities that have already explored regeneration, we realised we needed to look at our own internal structures and make sure they were fit for purpose. The ambition to grow Wirral has been around for a while, but the mechanism to deliver it hasn’t always been there.

After attending Mipim UK last year, we realised that we needed two things: a compelling offer in terms of what the development opportunities were, but also we needed to show that we had the structures, people and processes in place that would make it happen.

We worked with GVA to explore about 1,900 council-owned assets in the Wirral and we looked at how, if they were developed, they could add value. GVA did some mapping for us and it came to the conclusion that we had about £1bn worth of development opportunities on the Wirral, with half of that around Birkenhead and the rest spread around the peninsular.

When we understood the size of the opportunity, we explored the idea of creating a joint venture vehicle, which we’ve tagged the Wirral Growth Company. It will encompass all of our assets and buildings that we’ve put in, matched by an investment partner’s capital and expertise to create a 50/50 joint venture.

What’s the next step?

We’ve done a lot of soft market testing and we have spoken to a lot of national and international development firms and international funders. It’s become apparent that what we need is a strong, well-resourced developer with investment backing.

I think the kind of firms that will be attracted are big developers with institutional support, or maybe a consortium of developers and investors. We’re going to run it as competitive dialogue so after the 30 days of notice have expired we will reduce the responses down to two to three parties. We will then invite these parties to join us in competitive dialogue and come up with a business plan.

What are the main development opportunities?

We’ve got the largest regeneration project in the UK at Wirral Waters, which is owned by Peel. It’s a huge expanse of planning-approved land and it also has enterprise zone status. It’s an attractive opportunity for light engineering, high-tech employment uses, as well as for other enabling infrastructure.

On the A41 corridor, which is where Unilever is located, we’ve done quite a lot of work over the past couple of years putting in modern business parks and capacity. We’ve got more land available there owned by the council that will go into the joint venture. Also, there is a strong cluster of life sciences and biotech companies in and around the Liverpool city region area, so we want to target those industries to help us grow.

Then you’ve got Birkenhead town centre. One of the challenges Birkenhead has is that council and public sector staff are spread out across a lot of diverse sites and some of those buildings are not being used to their maximum capacity. So our intention is to consolidate our staff with other public sector workers into a new civic hub, which will have large footfall in terms of employees.

At the end of all of this is the view [across the Mersey to Liverpool]. We’ve got nearly a kilometre of waterfront available within the assembled package of land that we are putting together - about 70 acres in total. We can look at mixed-use possibilities there that would perhaps bring retail and commercial together with residential.

What’s your message to anyone interested in becoming your joint venture partner?

We’ve got the physical assets. They’re in well-connected places and, largely speaking, they’re river-facing. We’ve got a fabulous education system on the Wirral so we’ve got a good pipeline of young people to provide that supply chain of labour.

Also, by putting this joint venture together, we are sending out a clear message that this is a council that is very commercially minded and understands that if it is going to achieve the regeneration aims it has laid out for itself and the goals it has set itself then it is going to have to take a different position towards risk and reward to the one it has taken in the past.

We are putting the right people, systems and programmes in place so that we can work easily with whoever wants to join us on this journey.

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