052b. And ensure that it is evidence based

A vision for assets that draws on the well understood drivers of urban economic growth will improve jobs and wages. As we highlighted in our first report, strong city centre economies are important for the growth of high-knowledge, high-wage jobs. This boosts the wider economy and creates the opportunities for career progression that are the most important factor in retaining graduates, a priority for many cities.

Ensuring that the vision is based on long-term factors will also improve its durability, which will be tested during political, economic, and financial shocks.

As part of the West Midlands Land Commission, Sandwell Council highlighted how a clear picture of the geography of the economy at the city region level is affecting how it views its assets. The authority recognises the increasing trend towards jobs being located in Birmingham City Centre but this raises issues for the future of Providence Place, a site in West Bromwich with outline planning permission for employment purposes. The site had been marketed since 2012 but had received no serious interest. Understanding the evidence about the wider economy is informing the local authority’s next steps for the site.

Case study 2: City centre ‘leading’ development at Smithfield, Stoke-on-Trent

As a city made up of six towns each with its own identity, Stoke-on-Trent lacks the dense city centre that drives a strong city economy for clear historical reasons.

Over a decade ago, the Regional Development Agency (RDA), Advantage West Midlands sought to address this problem. Hanley town centre was designated a regeneration zone to support the creation of a high-density central business district. In partnership with Stoke-on-Trent City Council and development partner Genr8, it set about assembling the land at Smithfield to allow the development of Grade A office space that would accommodate over a thousand jobs in the city centre and drive the economic development of the wider city economy. The wider scheme also included plans for housing to encourage more people into the city centre.

This clear vision for the local economy and the role of using of public assets to realise it, has meant that the project has been able to overcome a number of political, economic and financial challenges since its inception.

As in many cities, the financial crisis hit the viability of commercial property development as the likelihood of private sector tenants fell away. As a key part of its economic development strategy, the council decided to push ahead with the development and move its own staff from 40 smaller sites to become anchor tenants in the two buildings. Although Advantage West Midlands pulled out of the project, as it was unable to support the project if the development was to be occupied by the public sector, the council and Genr8 ontinued to develop the site, as it was important to deliver these two office buildings as a leading development for the city centre.

Advantage West Midlands was abolished in 2011 after it pulled out of the scheme with the site now owned by the council. Despite this, the RDA’s successor Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire LEP continues to support a strong city centre for Stoke as a core element of its Strategic Economic Plan.

Stoke’s polycentric character can be viewed as a combined authority in microcosm. Sustained investment in Hanley to develop its city centre, rather than the other five towns created political difficulties for councillors from other towns. The case for continued investment in this asset was not made clearly to the public, especially those from other towns, who understandably viewed it as coming at the expense of investment in their place.

This meant that the project faced significant local political instability in addition to the economic instability caused by the financial crisis:

  • Stoke voted for a directly elected mayor in 2002. The first contest was won by a ‘Mayor 4 Stoke’ candidate. Labour then won in 2005, before the role was abolished in second referendum in 2009. The council was in ‘no overall control’ from 2006-2011, then Labour regained control from 2011-2015 before the City Independents and Conservative coalition took control to the present day.
  • The council held elections by thirds until 2010, meaning elections were often just over the horizon and long-term projects could not show results before becoming an election issue. All out elections started in 2011 with four-year terms.
  • The 2015 election was fought on a ticket to stop the concentration of council workers at Smithfield – the ‘Six Towns’ approach. This was opposed by the Staffordshire Chamber.

The evidence behind the economic vision for the city and the role of this asset in getting towards it has meant that the development was able to overcome this instability. The new council elected in 2015 wanted the development to be more commercially minded, but it continued to support the scheme. Other public sector bodies, including Staffordshire Police and Stoke-on-Trent Clinical Commissioning Group moved into the first building. The second building proved attractive to a joint venture between Severn Trent and United Utilities that was in need of Grade A office space in the area, adding 500 jobs to the city centre.

Smithfield has also been a catalyst for other stalled city centre developments. A new retail development which had previously failed to get funding is back underway in Hanley and a hotel is set to be developed on the Smithfield site. Commercial income to the council has doubled from £1 million in 2015 to over £2 million today with the aim of £5 million by 2020.