If there was one phrase that has come into regular use in property circles in the last decade, it is mixed use. Some sceptics might even say it has now come into regular over-use.
Essentially, all it means is that any one development offers more than just one type of property – not just offices, for example, but residential and perhaps retail as well.
It is a laudable idea that was originally borne out of many urban planners’ desire to get away from creating ‘dead’ zones in city centres – streets of nothing but offices or shops which are completely deserted outside office hours.
Encouraging more residential properties in such areas, it was thought, would lessen the need for so much commuting, and possibly create something of a community in the city centre again. As is so often the case with laudable ideas, however, mixed use often proved harder to achieve in practice. The retail elements usually included at the bottom of the ‘city living’ apartment blocks that have sprung up all over large cities in the north in the past few years have proved notoriously difficult to let.
People making the commitment to move into such flats soon found that the shops they needed for even the most basic living requirements were all too busy moving to out-of-town locations.
And office workers didn’t always like having a view of the next door flat’s bathroom. Then of course the credit crunch came, some of the developers promoting such developments went bust, and now the many ‘to let’ signs fluttering in the wind are a tell-tale sign of an idea that has gone a little awry. But there is within Yorkshire one development that is a success story of mixed use gone right. And it isn’t even in a city centre.
Turn off Junction 32 on the M62 and you will almost immediately find yourself in the Glasshoughton development, a 336-acre site that includes leisure in the form of the Xscape skiing centre and associated attractions, a designer retail outlet, new private housing built by the likes of Barratt and Yorkshire’s own Persimmon, industrial warehouses, and the odd office (Strategic Team Group, one of Yorkshire’s fastest growing companies, has its headquarters here).
It’s not entirely dependent on motorway traffic either: Glasshoughton now has its own railway station, one of the very few new ones to have been opened in the past few years. And since February this year there is an educational element with the opening of the skillsXchange, an extension of Wakefield College, offering vocational training to 16 to 19-year-olds from around the area.
It’s certainly a change from when Stuart McLoughlin, managing director of Waystone, the company that developed the site, first visited it in 1994.
Then, he says, the site was a “wilderness”. The colliery which had stood there had closed in 1986, and the coking works that was associated with it had gone in 1978. The site had lain derelict for the best part of a decade.
“The whole area was in a terrible decline,” he says. Since then, the success of the development has resulted in a remarkable turnaround. “Most of the surrounding houses have subsequently been part of Wakefield’s improvement programme, and have increased in value significantly,” says McLoughlin.
It’s not a total transformation, of course. They’re not saying Glasshoughton is the new Harrogate. The site is still – and is likely to remain – strewn with electricity pylons. And even today, there are patches of land that, with their grassy tufts and barbed wire, resemble the patch of Teesside that Mrs Thatcher was famously photographed walking over in the 1980s; an image that has since gone on to symbolise industrial decay.
But all such projects take time. Many regeneration projects have been going on for considerably longer than the 14 years Glasshoughton has been on the go, and with far less obvious results.
“Most importantly, we created 3,500 jobs on this site,” says McLoughlin, “in everything from warehousing to fast food and retail.” So how did Glasshoughton succeed in a way which many other developments have yet to master? Waystone, set up by C P Holding’s Sir Bernard Schreier, won English Partnerships’ competition to take over and develop the site, which was initially owned by British Coal.
McLoughlin says its vision was always to have mixed use from the start, and to offer a number of “catalysts” that would spark such development off.
“We had a good balance concept right at the outset, and the site was large enough to take that on board,” he says. “We started with a starter package if you like, and then aimed to attract the others.” Chief among these was Xscape, the new indoor ski centre using real snow.
McLoughlin thinks the company can take some credit for establishing the concept – now repeated in Milton Keynes and Braehead in Scotland. “It would be inaccurate to claim it was our idea,” he says, “but it was certainly our development of a design a guy in Telford had come up with for an indoor snow centre.
He had a small trial area and we decided there was an opportunity here. There was a centre in Tamworth, but that uses shaved ice and had a much smaller set up. My daughter is an architect who works with me.
We sold all the designs for the scheme, and an option for this site. Those designs were bought by Capital & Regional indirectly, but because we had three years’ remedial work here, they used the concept at Milton Keynes first.
That actually meant that there were certain improvements we sought here – such as removing columns in the snow zone.” McLoughlin thinks the originality of the idea was what made Waystone win the bid to develop the site over other potentially much stronger contenders, even if the concept was initially a little tricky to sell. “It wasn’t easy to fund – we knew that would be difficult, because there was no prototype for it and no such leisure market,” he says.
“But we are family of skiers, and we always took the view that it would make the attractiveness of skiing available to a wider audience. Artificial ski slopes are not the most attractive places to learn to ski. You can spray them with snow but it melts very quickly. On a slope like the one at Xscape you can teach young children to ski. So it makes it less expensive to get children to first establish whether they like skiing, whether they are any good at it, and the amount of schooling they might need when they get to the Alps.
Holidays then become worthwhile. And recreational skiers will use it to get fit. But we always thought it was a new leisure activity which might catch on. We saw it as a regional centre, and it’s a destination.” The former derelict coking plant now buzzes every weekend and beyond. Visitor numbers at Xscape in 2008 were 3.8 million, up from 2.5 million when it opened in 2004. There’s been visitor growth too at the Designer Outletshopping village next door.
In 2004, the first year figures were recorded, it saw 2.4 million visitors in one year. By last year that had risen to 3 million. Not bad when you consider retail everywhere else has been suffering. McLoughlin says another key element in getting the whole development underway was the company’s open-mindedness about who should do the building.
Although Waystone was a property development and construction company, it was perfectly happy to see Shepherd Construction get the £35m contract to build Xscape. “Such a contract was too big for us then,” he says. “We may have just done a £20m here with skills Xchange. But we were relatively small then. We didn’t make it a condition of the sale of the land that we do the construction, because we wanted to deliver that aspiration.
One of the things we were keen to make clear to the people of Glasshougton was that there were things that were aspirational, and we couldn’t guarantee them because the property market is so fickle.
But we did eventually deliver them, and that was one of the highlights.” Yet in the initial stages, even if there was clearly much land remediation work to be done, the site’s former use was not entirely forgotten: McLoughlin, who was running Shand Group’s mining business when it was taken over by C P Holdings in 1987, was able to open a small opencast mine on the site to fund the remediation.
Interest from other developers to build on the site didn’t take long to be generated. Bradford developer Marrtree put the first industrial units on the site, and McLoughlin says many office occupiers were clearly impressed with the site’s close access to the motorway.
”IT companies, in particular, want to be near the motorway,” he says. The success of both Xscape and the designer outlet also allowed the station to be built. “Railway was our idea right at the beginning,” says McLoughlin.
“We said we should have a rail halt. Part of our Section 106 included a contribution towards that. But the ability to go ahead and actually build was triggered on the back of getting both Xscape and the factory outlet centre. That meant Metro could raise the money, and we built the station. Gradually more and more people are using it. It is important for something like the college. And it is an issue when it comes to putting a stadium there.” Which neatly brings us onto the future.
Although McLoughlin says with some justification that Glasshoughton is already a “micro-economic centre”, there are still plans to expand over the next five years, and chief among these plans is another business park centred around providing a new stadium for the Castleford Tigers Rugby League club.
“They have a current site which is redevelopable for housing,” he says. Such plans have to be put into perspective, of course, now we are in the thick of the credit crunch.
“The office market is going to take considerable time before it recovers,” says McLoughlin. “We have a couple of small enquiries here, although whether they will come to something I don’t know. The shed market will also be quiet for some time – we actually have a surplus of 10,000 sq ft of industrial space in Yorkshire. And the economics of stadia in particular are not great at such a time. They have to have some sort of sustainable income stream.”
McLoughlin is particularly keen not to see the Castleford Tigers seek support from the local authority, an avenue other clubs are currently exploring. “I don’t see it easy to justify public funds for a private rugby league club,” he says. “You have the competing interests of other clubs. I suspect the taxpayers will not want to support just one club.”
Even once the current downturn is passed, McLoughlin feels the nature of the office market may well have changed. “The IT industry, for example, has heavily influenced office developments,” he says.
“Whether they will continue to do so is open to question.” And then there is the whole process of getting permission to build. McLoughlin, who is currently going through the local development framework process with both an extension to Glasshoughton and a development at Clowne in Derbyshire, next to another Waystone development at Barlborough, says the planning process in particular has become more long-winded.
“The objectives of the process are fine,” he says. “It’s just the process that is the problem, and the time it is taking. You get to a point where what people are objecting to is actually nothing to do with what you are seeking to achieve in the planning process.” So would Glasshoughton as it was initially envisaged still have come through now? McLoughlin says it would.
“It was such a desperate area.” In the meantime, however, the company has also exported its ideas abroad. Stribo, a former garrison town in the Czech Republic, has become the first site overseas to benefit from a Waystone mixed-use development. First Yorkshire, as they say, then the world.