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BCO: when London came to Manchester

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Richard Waite reviews the British Council for Offices’ Manchester conference, where the focus was on supporting regional growth in recession

The future of the UK office industry is in London. So ran the message emerging from last week’s British Council for Offices (BCO) annual conference
in Manchester, a line that has changed little in recent years.

Almost every talking shop and panel discussion at the event touched on London’s dominance over the UK economy; a safehaven for foreign investment.
Maps revealed by Alan Harding, professor of urban and regional governance at the University of Manchester were difficult to ignore, showing this skew as a huge red spike centred on the capital. But as well as confirming that the money was failing to find its way beyond the London boroughs, the conference held in the former GMEX centre - now called Manchester Central following its overhaul by Stephenson Bell - offered some genuine insights from a collection of Europe’s leading property experts, thinkers and forecasters.

Speakers ranged from GeneralLord Richard Dannatt, former chief of the general staff, who set out where the world’s power was and why ‘the future was urban and Asian’, to journalist Matthew Parris, who compared politicians’approach to UK’s cities ‘aslike paramedics’ approach to road accidents’, fixated on remediating failure rather than achieving success.

The 500 delegates - apparently the largest number to attend the event since the Lehman Brothers’ collapse in 2008 - were treated to some top-level,well-informed prophesying.

‘Manchester was a stark contrast to last year’s excursion to Geneva (2011),’ said delegate Paul Sandilands, director at Lifschutz Davidson Sandilands. ‘There was aa stronger sense of relevance, it being clearer than ever that the future is in our cities, in communal working and great places rather than business parks, home working and chill-out zones.’ Indeed, the dominant debate of previous years about how the workplace was being shaped by the rise of technology savvy ‘clickizens’, was barely touched on.

And when it was, the majority agreed that the office is a growth sector,with all the social benefits that will make them ‘more like clubs where people enjoy going’, according to Make’s Ken Shuttleworth.
John McRae, director at London-based ORMS Architecture Design, said:’Working from home will not be the death of the office as previously predicted, due to the increase in collaborative working and the need for interaction.

‘It has meant that demand for flexible and adaptable office space has actually increased.’
Though the focus on London was inevitable, Manchester and the regions did put up a solid case for why they shouldn’t be overlooked. Not least, Manchester City Council’s chief executive Howard Bernstein who, as ever, flew the flag admirably.

Bernstein said the city’s achievements were based on a spatially focused skills strategy and, with its aims to become ‘digitally intelligent’ and a growing, flexible base for financialand professional services, made Manchester more than just a ‘hub for thousands of students’, as Parris mischievously branded it.
Intriguingly, according to the director of policy and research at the Centre for Cities Andrew Carter, the success of other emerging cities was potentially being stunted by a mismatch in supply and demand of office space.

In eight out of 10 of the fastest growing places, such as Milton Keynes, Reading and Aldershot,demand far outstrips supply.

Carter said: ‘In a time of national economic uncertainty,smaller, dynamic city economies will play a key role in kickstarting future growth.
‘Without the provision of adequate, quality offices in these cities, the growth of the service sector, likely to be instrumental to recovery, will not be supported’.
A session entitled ‘In or Out’ [of London] led by Phil Mayall of Muse Developments tried,
with minor success according to a non-technical show of hands,to persuade delegates to invest their cash outside the capital.
Hines’ Anthony Leonard revealed fascinating figures showing that office space would run out in Manchester and Bristol in 2014 and in Glasgow, Birmingham and Edinburgh the following year.
However as Gregor Bamert, the UK head of real estate at Barclays Corporate, confessed speculative development was ‘not the engine for growth’ and that banks continued to de-risk. The biggest barrier to development was industry confidence.
Delegate Matt Yeoman of Buckley Gray Yeoman said: ‘We heard that the speculative office development is dead. The days of “build it and they will come” have gone. Today, the key is the pre-let.’The overarching theme of this year’s conference, which seemed to be slightly pushed aside by grander forecasting, was the ‘re-fashioning’of our cities based on Manchester’s regeneration following the 1996 Arndale Centre bomb. There was mention of the blossoming retrofit market, but as Yeoman added: ‘All the talk seemed to be about what you could leave out of an office building and still let it, as
opposed to what you needed to put in it to attract the market. ‘The tone was of thrift; make do and mend, not bells and whistles.’

Meanwhile, experts tended to agree that BREEAM Excellent and Outstanding ratings did little to ad value and that clients seemed unwilling to pay more for greener buildings.
Every conference will have its disappointments, and the BCO’s was its smattering of jargon including ‘going glocal’ and the ‘brown discount’, as well as the cumbersome SpotMe personal roving ‘networking’ and plenary question-asking device handed to every delegate at the start of the three-day event.

But the conference was an undoubted success and the series of tours around Manchester’s best office buildings opened more than a few non-local eyes.

The BCO conference: the delegates’ view

Phil Doyle of 5plus architects

Phil Doyle, 5plus Architects, Manchester
During three days of glorious sunshine, delegates were often overheard saying, ‘It’s like being in Europe with all the cafés and trams.’ For those of us based in Manchester, this was no surprise.
We also know that Manchester is not just a northern city. It is a European City that happens to be located in the North of England.
In his opening plenary, Matthew Parris said all great or successful cities are defined by being different. So what is Manchester doing differently?
Responding to the market by doing more for less was the theme of the less glamorous tours, which
offered real insight into alternative offices for the future. Sure, delegates will have been impressed with the quality of the buildings at Spinningfields, Media City and 3D Reid’s 1 Angel Square. But while these are all good buildings, London has at least 20 of them for each one in Manchester. Is the future of office design really about steel and glass buildings, or is it about the skilful re-invention
and refurbishment that we saw at Bruntwood’s New York Street, The Sharp Project and the city’s own civic offices?
The messages coming out of Manchester were that ‘old’ is the new ‘new’, ‘simple’ is better than ‘complex’ and that we should embrace austerity by making offices more passive.

Matt Yeoman of BuckleyGrayYeoman, London

Matt Yeoman of BuckleyGrayYeoman, London
As the sun shone and the temperature rose, this years BCO conference delivered conditions more akin to MIPIM than Manchester. The perfect opportunity for delegates to compare the naturally ventilated ‘white collar factories’ of the Northern Quarter against the air-conditioned glittering boxes of Spinningfields.
Indeed, this year’s conference was the conference of contrasts. Held in Manchester, as opposed to the arguably more glamorous previous locations of New York, Barcelona, Paris, Geneva, all the talk seemed to be off what you could leave out of an office building and still let it, as opposed to what you needed to put in it to attract the market.
The tone was of thrift; make do and mend, not whistles and bells.
From an impressive range of speakers we heard that the speculative office development is dead. The days of build it and they will come have gone. Today the key is the Pre-let. And this is good news for architects because, as we are finding in our own practice, it is us who have to step forward and present to
perspective tenants the vision of what is yet to come. It is architects who are proving to be the ones that can enthuse and excite potential office occupiers and their staff.
Combined with the series of well put together seminars were a collection of study tours visiting Manchester’s impressive contribution to the office environment including MediaCityUK, NOMA and Spinningfields, the latter of which showed the true value of public realm works.
However, it was the Northern Quarter that seemed to be most in tune with the office occupiers of the future.
Creative, media driven companies want simple, trendy office space. Whether you are a start-up or Skype, Google or going for it, there is a growing desire to be non-corporate. These tenants don’t want suspended ceilings; fancy building management systems or lots of glass. They want concrete structures, opening windows and great floor to ceiling heights. And they don’t care less about column grids.
Fundamentally, Manchester 2012 highlighted that we have been building office buildings the same way, to the same rigid guidelines, for the same corporate tenants for over thirty years. But the recession and social media have changed all that. What we learnt from this years BCO Conference was that the BCO itself may now have to re-write its own bible….is the BCO Guide dead?





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