So, my second face-to-face event of the week. And despite the dreary weather when arriving into the fine City of Chester at 7.30AM, the vibe in the room was ace. I even enjoyed the ‘event-coffee’ which was as awful as it ever was, please don’t be offended (I’ve missed it).

Understandably, there was some people I spoke to whose offices hadn’t even reopened (don’t start me on that) and were slightly apprehensive – which despite my ‘let’s get back to it’ attitude, we do need to have empathy. However, hats-off to Place North West on the pre-attendance briefings/advice, investment in staff training, event space layout and setup, this would reassure the most anxious of people…very well done.

After the welcome from Place North West Principal Paul Unger, we had a really informative presentation from Peter Carstensen (Chair, Chester Growth Partnership). Peter highlighted three key projects as part of the ten year ‘One City Plan’ (1) Northgate (2) City Gateway and (3) City Place.

The ‘One City Plan’ was set about ten years ago as a ‘framework’ to encourage how space/place is utilised with multiple private land owners, to make better use of space (as oppose to a quick win for private owners) and promote collaborative working. He used Chester Racecourse as a great example of PPP. Peter was crystal clear on setting the record straight (on several occasions) that the Chester Northgate ‘IS NOT ANOTHER SHOPPING CENTRE’.

I really liked hearing from Max Walker-Williams (Founder, Walker & Williams): residential operator (but not as we know it), paired with hotel services (5 star) – luxury offering. Apart-Hotel focused operator/developer with second site in for planning, including cottages with hot tub. Planning is the biggest barrier. Definitely an option for the Robson family staycation.

Fascinating fact (that I didn’t appreciate beforehand) from Katrina Kerr (Chair, Chester BID): 8 Michelin Star entries (!), very buoyant F&B with unique offering, success on smaller units within retail, led by entrepreneurs + SME’s. Universities driving students into the city through a change in teaching locations + style of delivery, obviously applauded by Chester BID. Arts Centre (Storyhouse best outside London, who knew?

Top speaker for me was James Nicholson (MD, Harlex Property): planning is a problem everywhere not an issue bespoke to Chester. Interesting point made on investing in the planning system! Time is money!

Coffee break is always welcome…I bumped into two industry contacts whom I’ve known for many years, trusted contacts. One mentioned an opportunity that we/Project Four could get involved with (Ace – smiley face) and the other highlighted some really useful information about the Fire Safety Bill (which I will take away and share with the team) – which you would NOT get from Teams or Zoom.

Heather Standidge (Associate, Development + Strategic Advisory, Cushman & Wakefield): lots happening across Cheshire Towns, pandemic has worked well for changing patterns in favour of towns. Vitality plans for smaller town centres – more funding than ever for town centres.

Sandy Livingston (Executive Director of Property, Onward Homes) spoke passionately about their business (Being a Jock in the room he wasn’t keen on talking football) with a positive outlook for Onward moving forward. He touched on the challenges of merging five housing associations and the local agenda. Other key highlights: funding planning offices better, resources desperately needed. The Pandemic has seen increased in opportunities for Onward, this could be down to how Onward operate, deliver and not as market sensitive as others. Connectivity critical to sites and success.

Rethinking where we work + live…interesting angle and the points made by Simon Kennish (Property Director, Bolesworth Estate): Echoed Heather’s comments- surge in rural interest for resi and commercial (on smaller scales 1,2,3 desks), larger offices being offloaded. Changing events to reflect restrictions, noting the Balloon festival in August! Power supply and internet is a huge restriction, and Bolesworth are investing in this to ensure infrastructure in place (issues across all rural areas). If the commute doesn’t tip employers out of cities, it will shift employee patterns – staff will dictate a shift. Convinced – if it’s made harder to get into the cities, rural areas will benefit and employers will struggle, causing recruitment issues – hybrid offer needed. Look out for the Place North West Tour of the Bolesworth Estate.

Last but by no means least Ben Thornley (Chartered Town Planner, Cassidy & Ashton): Landlords looking to enhance their existing portfolio, decline in retail, larger units being broken up and/or turning into residential. Manufacturing and industrial requirements for clients is off the scale. Changes in working and living patterns – need for wider education for councils on this shift. Viability issues surrounding the building of homes to a zero carbon / carbon reduction spec – aim for above minimum but simply not feasible in most cases. Desirable YES, feasible NO.

Bit longer than usual, but there was so much to take in and capture – next event in Manchester 1st July ‘Meet the Authorities’.

Have a boss weekend!