FOCUS: THE NORTH - Pushing up the property profile. The property story in the North is one of boom and gloom. The top end of the market is a hive of activity, while urban regeneration is the order of the day at the other end of the scale

Recent stories about the slump in property prices in some inner cities in the north of England would have the world believe that the entire population of the northern cities is heading south, leaving worthless houses boarded up because of unemployment and vandalism, and a real image management problem in their wake.

Recent stories about the slump in property prices in some inner

cities in the north of England would have the world believe that the

entire population of the northern cities is heading south, leaving

worthless houses boarded up because of unemployment and vandalism, and a

real image management problem in their wake.



Reports that homeowners in a street in Salford boarded up and deserted

properties they were unable to sell, for example, have potentially

tarnished the image of the entire Greater Manchester area.



On the other hand, less widely disseminated reports of high demand for

top-of-the-range loft-style accommodation on prime inner city brownfield

sites (see panel) paint a confusing picture of an increasing

polarisation of property prices. For local authorities in the North, as

well as housing associations and those responsible for inward

investment, this presents some formidable PR challenges.



A recent report attempts to uncover and explain why some urban

neighbourhoods are being abandoned. The slow death of great cities.

Urban abandonment or urban renaissance?, written by Anne Power and

Katharine Mumford of the London School of Economics and sponsored by the

Joseph Rowntree Foundation, focuses on two neighbourhoods in Manchester

and two in Newcastle which share many characteristics with unpopular

urban areas all over the country.



It comes as no surprise that this research shows the reason for low

housing demand in these northern inner city areas is more to do with

severe poverty and joblessness within neighbourhoods, than the quality

of the housing itself. But to fight back at falling school rolls and

loss of confidence in areas because of anti-social behaviour and intense

fear of crime, some housing associations in the North have undertaken

radical regeneration schemes to try and rebuild a positive image of the

area, and the whole city.



For example in 1995, Irwell Valley Housing Association (IVHA) identified

a problem with pre-1919 terraced housing stock in two streets in the

Higher Broughton area of Salford. Working with organisations such as

Salford City Council, over the past few years IVHA has turned the area

around from one prone to crime and vandalism to one of continuous

occupation and more manageable housing stock. Selected properties were

cleared to form semi-detached houses with gardens and various rear and

side alleyways were closed to provide greater security.



IVHA deputy chief executive Phil Summers says: ’The project has

stimulated diversity of tenure and demands for rents and sales, and

similar regeneration initiatives are being planned for other

neighbouring areas.’



Manchester is not the only northern city facing image management

challenges.



Liverpool has long suffered a reputation of population decline, and last

month Newcastle found itself in the national media spotlight over

stories of the local council selling flats for 50 pence each in the

North Benwell district. Many northern PROs feel this story was badly

handled, with the buy-in element of attracting diversity of tenure and

purchasers needing to invest private funds of pounds 12,000 - equal to

the eventual value of the property - buried in the text.



However, Newcastle City Council has undertaken a long-term approach to

the problems of the negative image of the west of the city -where North

Benwell is situated - with its Reviving The Heart of The West End

initiative. Since 1997, the council has worked with the local community,

the private sector and Northern Profile PR to make the area an

attractive place to live, to restore property prices and to raise

education standards.



Northern Profile MD Nick Brown says the project has received a pounds 17

million single regeneration budget from the Government and has involved

local employers such as Marks and Spencer and motor retailer Benfield

Motors.



Brown says the work for the council is half media relations, as the area

has had a rough time in the press since the riots of the early-1990s,

and half working behind-the-scenes to train residents to deal with the

media.



’It’s a five-year scheme. After the funding runs out, there will be no

money for a PR agency,’ he says. ’So we’re training up local people to

invite journalists in rather than seeing them as Rottweilers, and

explain the issues. In the past, every time the media has been looking

for a ’deprived area in the North’ story, they have gone straight to

North Benwell, but that is starting to change.’



’The council has had what it describes as ’breathtaking’ results in

feeling towards the area,’ he adds. ’There is more confidence from

residents and investors. There’s still a negative image to deal with,

but there is more desire from the media to understand the issues and

recognise that the area is being sorted out.’



Newcastle City Council is also working to involve the whole city in its

regeneration programme. Last month, the council launched a new campaign,

Going for Growth, with help from Newcastle-based agency Bradley

O’Mahoney PR. This initiative is currently rolling out a huge public

consultation exercise. The leader of the council has written to every

citizen and business in the Newcastle area to find out how people want

their city to move forward.



But the North East region is fast cottoning on to the need to present a

more united front to its global audience. Last month, The Newcastle

Initiative, the private and publicly funded body that markets the city,

became The Newcastle and Gateshead Initiative (TNGI). Elaine Wilson,

head of marketing for TNGI says that, while there are lingering

political sensitivities between the two cities on opposite banks of the

Tyne, increasingly people outside the area view it as one.



’In the past things have not been particularly well-managed, but we are

now co-ordinating efforts and letting people know that we have come up

with joint marketing initiatives that are more proactive and properly

funded,’ she says.



Indeed the plans for Gateshead Quayside, including a new Hilton hotel

and the Baltic Flour Mills - the largest contemporary visual art gallery

outside London - have led to a proposed joint Newcastle/Gateshead bid

for the European City of Culture award in 2008 which could be a real PR

coup for the image of the area.



However, many of those involved in the image management and revival of

these cities feel that the negative reputation of the North is down to

the London-based national media. ’What people in the South think about

northern cities has no effect on inward investment,’ says David Bowles,

director of business development for regional development agency One

North East. ’Companies in the North East want to maximise their place in

the European marketplace, not the UK, and over the last 12 years this

area has attracted over pounds 9 billion of investment and 90,000 new

jobs.’



Many PR agencies headquartered in the North have a more global

focus.



Brian Clark, managing director of Leeds-based Clark and Company PR and

the PRCA’s chairman for the North says: ’Non-network agencies often look

to the need for a London presence. But this is not so much a reflection

of regionalism as evidence that the dozen or so major players in the

North now have clients and a sphere of activity that is national or

international.’



Clark says his own agency generates around a third of its fees from

abroad, and Manchester-based Barrett Dixon Bell specialises purely in

pan-European work.



While many PR operators in the North have their eyes trained on the

bigger picture, there are still plenty of opportunities to get involved

in raising the profile of local areas in need of a helping hand.



LOFTY IDEAS - Bringing new life to inner city environments



In contrast to the pockets of run-down residential areas in some

northern cities, demand from young design-conscious professionals for

New York loft-style living space has transformed the look and image of

many city centres in the North. The fashion- and design-conscious are

looking for centrally-located apartments with style. Forget the garden,

think more a great view, exposed industrial structural features and an

impressive bank balance.



In the heart of Leeds, former warehouses have been converted to

loft-style apartments with waterfront views, which are on the market for

up to pounds 350,000.



Leeds-based commercial and residential property developer The Rushbond

Group is converting a former British Waterways office building on the

waterside close to Leeds Bridge into a restaurant and 14 loft-style

apartments.



’Demand is so great that the first tranche of ten flats were sold within

a week,’ says Rushbond development manager Tim Reeve.



Urban renewal is not only improving the perception of inner city areas

and helping to raise property prices, but also solving the problems of

protecting cities’ architectural heritage. In Manchester and Liverpool,

property developer Urban Splash has adapted many redundant or under-used

historic buildings for mixed use. Its projects include the conversion of

the Britannia Mill buildings in the Castlefield area of Manchester into

125 loft apartments and the refurbishment of Grade II listed building

The Collegiate School in Liverpool, to include 96 apartments.



With almost pounds 100 million worth of projects on the go, Urban Splash

has an impressive track record in securing innovative solutions to the

problems of inner city decline. Working closely with local authorities

and supported by English Partnerships, it organised a competition

earlier this year to design almost 100 new homes for its Britannia Basin

project, with the winning entry unveiled by regeneration minister

Richard Caborn.



The property developer has taken on Staniforth PR in Manchester to carry

out media relations at each stage of development, from buying the

building to sale of the flats. The agency has achieved coverage in the

national media as well as the local and trade press.



Account director Andrea Cameron says: ’There has been a lot of interest

because these are the first developments of their kind in Liverpool and

Manchester.’ She adds that the projects have significantly raised the

profile of the surrounding areas. ’Urban Splash has made an area of

Liverpool where whole streets were deserted into a lively place with a

piazza, bars and restaurants to support the flats and offices,’ she

says.



BATTLE OF INDEPENDENCE - Yorkshire aims for an assembly



In post-devolution Britain there is increasing concern that England may

lose out to Scotland and Wales financially, and that conflicts of

interest will arise in Westminster.



The English area which is most keen to raise its profile as a region in

its own right is Yorkshire. The Campaign for Yorkshire, which was

launched in March, wants a local democratic assembly so the people of

Yorkshire and the Humber are given a fair share of voice in British

government.



If the move is successful the assembly could also boost the image of

Yorkshire’s cities, and encourage inward investment.



The organisation is highly PR-aware, and is working hard to get its

messages about why Yorkshire needs a parliament across to the public and

the Government. It even has a PR professional on its steering group.



Julian Cummins, founder of Leeds-based Avista PR says: ’It is about

creating a Yorkshire brand, and getting a fair share of voice.’ By

building Yorkshire’s image as a strong brand, in a similar fashion to

Catalonia, for example, its profile as an area for business development

can be raised in Europe. One way a Yorkshire assembly would help to

achieve this is by placing special Yorkshire envoys in various British

embassies, ensuring that the interests of Yorkshire businesses are

promoted in these countries. This is something which the Foreign Office

has promised for Wales and Scotland. As Cummins says: ’Why shouldn’t

Yorkshire have the same?’ This will go someway to ensure more inward

investment in the region.



There is already a regional assembly for Yorkshire and Humberside, but

Campaign for Yorkshire supporters claim this has no real power, except

for lobbying Westminster. It argues that the Yorkshire and Humber

Regional Development agency, formed in 1996 and with spending power of

pounds 150 million, should be democratically elected and directly

accountable to the people it serves.



The campaign received a considerable amount of coverage in its initial

stages, although inevitably the national media did not take the campaign

seriously, picking up on the colourful-Yorkshire-character angle.



Now there is serious debate about England’s place in a devolved Britain,

Campaign for Yorkshire steering group members hope that this tone will

change.



Cummins says: ’The RDA is currently responsible for regeneration,

training, competitiveness, transport and the environment and there are

already civil servants in the area, but they are not responsible to the

people they serve,’ he says.



The campaign is planning a public awareness drive, and will attend all

the party conferences with similar groups from other regions, to promote

the cause of regional assemblies.



At a local level, a series of events are being organised to raise

awareness of the core message of the campaign, especially among

businesses.



Obviously its success will be greatly dependent on the ability to

capitalise on the current debate on the future of government in England.

Whether it can steer a clear course between public indifference to local

government and accusations of inflaming English nationalism remains to

be seen. - Jennifer Whitehead.



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