Forget Coronation Street and Brookside. Granadaland is leading the avant-garde in urban design and regeneration – as the next three pages of exciting projects demonstrate.
The North-west is in the thick of an urban renaissance. Manchester throbs with the sound of an estimated £1bn of work in progress and Liverpool is set to follow suit as a competition is launched to redesign the city centre. According to one local architect, the world and his wife has entered. Fittingly, one of Manchester city centre’s biggest jobs, the £28m Urbis Centre, is a museum dedicated to urban development.

Following an influx of lottery and Millennium Commission money, the establishment of the regional development agencies will mean another cash injection for urban renewal. The North-west agency has the largest grant in the country. It will spend £212m in 1999-2000 and forecasts indicate that the grant will increase over the next three years.

At the moment, the stars of the show are the almost completed Lowry Centre, the focal point of the redevelopment of Salford Quays; the massive new Marks & Spencer store that marks the rebirth of Manchester city centre after the IRA bomb in 1996; and the Commonwealth Stadium, which will start on site early next year. These megaprojects and the RDA cash are attracting spin-off commercial schemes, such as hotels to cater for the 2002 Commonwealth Games and prompting private investors to get involved in public-private regeneration.

Meanwhile, new bodies are being created to oversee renewal plans and foster link-ups between the private and public sectors. Manchester council is putting the finishing touches to an umbrella body, East Manchester Regeneration, that will oversee development in the area around the Commonwealth Stadium. In Liverpool, former Wimpey chief Joe Dwyer heads Vision 2000, a regeneration group with a brief to transform areas of the city’s blighted port.

These new bodies all share an interest in good urban design. The RDAs demand that projects be sustainable. Vision 2000 aims to take up some of the issues raised by Lord Rogers’ urban taskforce report, published in July.

Construction firms in the region are rising to the challenge. Capital project and facilities consultant EC Harris has set up an urban regeneration services unit to advise public bodies and private developers on the feasibility of regeneration projects. Amec Developments and Crosby Homes have formed a developer Ician, which plans to invest £250m in urban regeneration schemes in the North and Midlands. The joint venture has already secured a site from the council that is ripe for a massive makeover.

Architects are also finding that clients are now looking for design that fits in with its surroundings. “The urban taskforce has led to a lot of towns reconsidering where they stand,” says Geoff Cunningham, managing director of architect Chetwood Associates. He says an increasing number of clients are asking for mixed-use developments that include integrated public transport.

The likes of Bovis have done well out of Manchester bomb repair projects. Now, contractors are eagerly watching the Liverpool masterplanning competition. The region’s workload is expected to remain buoyant as Liverpool becomes a source of good-sized contracts. Kvaerner Construction director Willie Smillie expects his firm to benefit from the upcoming proposals in Liverpool. “We are hoping what is happening in Manchester will happen in Liverpool. The market is increasing there and it will get busier,” he says.

Single-use developments such as the Arndale Centre, described by one eminent architect as the country’s longest pissing wall, will never entirely disappear, but as urban planners invest in schemes that fit the area and hip developers such as Urban Splash make city-centre living fashionable, the aims of the urban taskforce could be achieved in the North-west. As Kvaerner’s Smillie says: “Inner-city developments in the region will continue as there is a desire to get back to city living. This is helped by councils focusing on better urban planning. They seem to have learned their lessons.”

Where’s there’s muck …

Mark White says even the Romans had an urban renewal policy. White, a chartered accountant, heads up the new urban regeneration services unit at EC Harris, and his interest in urban renewal stems from studying ancient history at school.

The unit is responding to changes in government policy that show a shift from greenfield to brownfield development. A movement that has been complicated by the introduction of regional development agencies and subsequent changes in the way grants are allocated. “There have been an awful lot of changes,” explains White. “And along with the urban taskforce, a whole raft of initiatives are starting to bite.” More important from a commercial point of view, the forecast funding for regeneration projects is on the increase. More money means more work.

The aim of the unit is to supply clients with reliable advice on the viability of a proposed scheme. White has several years’ experience in assessing project feasibility. He worked on the Department of the Environment’s 1988 Action for Cities programme. More recently, he worked with the Merseyside Redevelopment Corporation.

So far, the unit is at discussion stage with a number of organisations. But White hopes to get involved with plans to redevelop Liverpool, as well as schemes beyond the North-west. Although the office is based in Liverpool, he is keen to point out that it is a national service.

There are no fears that the current interest in urban regeneration is merely a fad. If, in coming years, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic join the European Union and regeneration budgets are targeted in their direction, White sees no reason why the unit should not extend abroad. As his history lessons showed, urban regeneration is a constant process.

The North-west’s top 10 projects

  • Masterplanning competition to redesign Liverpool’s city centre
  • £150m redevelopment of Princes Dock in Liverpool
  • Phase II of Manchester’s £130m Metrolink, running through Salford Quays to Eccles
  • Manchester’s £90m Commonwealth Stadium. Preferred contractor Amec starts on site at the end of 1999
  • £86m Marks & Spencer in Manchester city centre. Opens this November
  • £60m Lowry Centre on the Manchester Ship Canal. Opens April 2000
  • £50m Smithfields Market scheme in Manchester’s northern quarter. The first phase starts on site next January
  • £28.5m Imperial War Museum oppsite the Lowry Centre. Sir Robert McAlpine starts on site on 1 January 2000
  • £28m Urbis Centre. Laing starts building Manchester’s museum dedicated to urban development early next year
  • £17m refurbishment of the Liverpool Museum and Walker Gallery. HBG has just won the contract