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Creating Healthier Towns & Cities: 10 Takeaways from Walker Sime’s UKREiiF Panel

This year’s UK’s Real Estate Investment & Infrastructure Forum (UKREiiF) took place in Leeds. Walker Sime was there, leading an expert panel discussing real, practical steps in creating sustainable towns and cities.

But how do you do it?

Joining Tammy Harrison-Round, Director of Business Growth at Walker Sime to explore the issues were Cathy Palmer, Director of Regeneration Delivery at Walker Sime; Phil Marsden; Amy Butterworth, CEO of Birkenhead charity Make it Happen; Angela Barnicle, Chief Officer, Asset Management and Regeneration at Leeds City Council; and Paul Richards, Director of Development and Regeneration at Stockport Council.

These were just some of the takeaways from a powerfully insightful panel event:

1) Creating sustainable cities has a direct impact on housing affordability

Between the Leeds ward with the highest life expectancy and that with the least there’s an enormous 12-year difference. Lots of elements play into that, but housing quality is a major factor.

Yet, as Angela noted, anyone earning the average wage in Leeds can only access two forms of tenure for housing: social rent or shared ownership. That’s one of the reasons Leeds is aiming to become a sustainable city where you don’t need a car, and where genuinely sustainable housing cuts energy bills to below £100 pm. Because when those cost burdens are removed from the typical Leeds resident, everything else becomes more affordable.

2) The viability reality check

Housing stock isn’t the only challenge. Paul Richards highlighted the “range of social infrastructure that’s creaking: health, education, primary care.” But he also stressed that the viability of projects that could transform housing and infrastructure was “wafer thin” and that funding streams needed flexibility to enable the right work to take place.

He highlighted the way a project in Stockport town centre to build 4,000 (soon to be 8,000) new homes was being used to address social infrastructure issues. By treating the project as you might if you were bringing heritage buildings back to life, he said Stockport Council was, “lifting all boats and enabling development by stitching in the community.”

Rethinking Places Pavilion © UKREiiF

3) Legacy housing can be brought up to standard

Leeds is (in)famous for its back-to-back, terraced housing where properties adjoin not just either side, but the rear too. They were built during the Industrial Revolution as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Construction was often substandard even for the time which explains why, when Leeds CC checked the internal wall temperature of one particular home, they found it was just 8°C. Even though it was a small house, the family living in it couldn’t afford to heat it because so much was lost.

Angela discussed a project to retrofit back-to-backs with wraparound insulation that has helped raise the internal wall temperatures to 18°C. It’s made every area of the home habitable again.

4) Real stakeholder engagement means real partnership

Cathy Palmer spoke about her experience of the regeneration of Birkenhead’s Dock Branch Park, and the importance of bringing the community along on the regeneration journey to critique the masterplan as it was evolving. Producing a ‘deliverable masterplan’ is about gaining buy-in from wide variety of stakeholders and that has to include the community.

She also talked about her work with Amy Butterworth, the local community hub leader who she described as “pivotal to understanding the issues,” and her importance in “facilitating different ways of collaborating, engaging the community and working in an ongoing partnership.”

5) Engage from the outset

Phil Marsden discussed the importance of early community involvement. ”One of the big shifts for us is that we’re starting community engagement right at the start, even at the bidding stage. We’ve done that recently on one scheme and it completely changed our view and approach.”

“There were things we realised could be done within the first 100 days that would make a big difference to the community — practical things like security. Those basic principles you can get right really easily.”

6) Real stakeholder engagement means hearing every voice

A public consultation is an opportunity to give the community a voice, but it could also be an invitation for some to speak louder than others. The panel noted the need to recognise that the loudest voice may not always represent the majority opinion, and it was important to seek views from all parts of the community.

Panel Discussion – Creating Healthy Towns and Cities © UKREiiF

7) Leverage the ‘community translators’

Amy Butterworth spoke about her team’s role in engaging local residents. “We’ll have a cookery session in our premises on a Friday and it’s a chance for our team to ‘translate’ some of the strategic conversations. We’re able to explain what’s happening and gather opinions. We can be the anchor organisation and a voice for others right at the heart of a regeneration area.”

8) If you need to convince a community, you’ve got your engagement strategy wrong

“I don’t think we should ever really be trying to convince a community about something we’re doing,” said Phil Marsden. “We should be making sure that what we’re listening early enough and that we’re taking everyone on the journey. But if you have to convince, you’ve done something wrong.”

9) Choose a development partner who “gets it”

Paul Richards shared a key insight into development partner selection: “We set out our vision in our briefs and define that further in our strategic documents. You then want to understand how a partner will play into that. You want to see them going above and beyond, suggesting what more we can do, and that they understand the community voice. My one tip would be, really drill down into what comes back in the submissions – what will your partner deliver in practice and how are they going to deliver it?”

10) Take a Marmot City approach

A Marmot City is a place which “recognises that health and health inequalities are mostly shaped by… the conditions in which people are born, grow, live, work and age.” (Institute of Health Equality)

It’s a philosophy which is central to Leeds’ approach to regeneration, an approach which places public health at its core. Angela Barnicle shared three strategies to achieve it:

  1. Inclusive growth: “How we’re going to make our economy work for all our people.”
  2. Health and wellbeing strategy. “How do we make sure that everybody grows and ages well in the city?”
  3. Net zero. “How do we tackle climate resilience and adaptability through our interventions?”

Angela used the redevelopment of a local park as an example. It’s a place for people to play. And with 500 trees, it’s lowering carbon and building biodiversity. It’s a positive driver of public health,  yet it also creates blue and green infrastructure, helping the city tackle its drainage challenges, for example.

In many ways, it neatly encapsulates everything that a healthy city should be. “It’s about not putting public health in a silo,” she adds, “because it runs through everything we do.”

To explore ways of making regeneration deliver more for the community, talk to us.

For nationwide multi-disciplinary construction consultancy, including Quantity Surveying, Project Management, Infrastructure Services, Regeneration Delivery, Construction Design Management, Bills of Quantities and more, call us on 0161 872 9955, email or message us here.