Paul Littlefair, director of project management at Northumberland County Council’s development company Arch, on its ‘quality-first’ approach
What are the overall aims of Arch?
Arch is the development arm of Northumberland County Council. We either do our own private sector investment in land, property and development or we do a lot of the delivery side of the council’s capital program. Our work ranges from housing, to total transformation projects in Northumberland towns. We are a ‘profit for purpose’ vehicle [annual capital spend £17 milllion]. All of the investments that we make, the returns are invested by the council back into Northumberland.
What schemes are you currently working on?
The development team within Arch is a strong team of project managers with skills that are mandated to total project delivery from start to finish. We have a huge portfolio range that spans from housing – from 200 to 1,200 units – to developments where we are building offices for small and medium enterprise. We are also busy with a hotel. We tend to look at areas as a whole, not as individual interventions. We develop masterplans with several components. For example, we are working on the Ashington investment plan, which will cost £74 million over three to five years. It will totally transform the town. We are working on a £21 million leisure centre as a first phase, and we are moving into a new phase of infrastructure projects in the town. We also deal with investor inquiries – from small commercial warehousing to massive production sheds for the likes of Nissan. That’s what our team handles. It’s a massive and wide-ranging portfolio, all geared to changing Northumberland for the better.
What are the biggest challenges of working in the North East?
Every project has its unique challenges. What we are looking for from architects is someone who understands those specific challenges. Personally, I don’t think that the challenges in the North East are any different to anywhere else in the country. It’s about making sure you move quickly from a brief through the initial RIBA stages, engaging with stakeholders – as stakeholders are complex and varied depending on the scale of the project – and moving through the statutory process to planning. Ours is a fairly unique way of working as we take things from cradle to grave. We will do a lot of thinking about the stakeholder engagement and what is needed for the communities, how to make the project address that, with our architects alongside us, and then moving through planning, build phase to handing the keys over – whether that’s to the council or private investors.
Blyth workspace delivered by Arch
Which architects are you working with?
We are currently working with Ryder Architecture and Space. The size and scale of the project will determine the practice we work with. They tend to be large and medium sized practices, but if we have smaller housing projects we will use smaller practices. We want to grow the expertise locally in particular – there are a lot of great architects in the North, and sometimes they get overshadowed by larger firms in the South. Our mantra about architecture is that quality and design come first, not ego. That’s really important to us. We invest in assets for the long term, because we are not here to make a short-term killing and go. We are here to make sure the things we do have a legacy. People don’t realise the North is a great place to live, work and do business. We think we are making it an even better place.
What future opportunities are there for architects wanting to work with Arch and what advice would you give them?
For the Bedlington competition, it is important that we get the right team. The community are heavily involved. On that project in particular we expect the architects putting in the expressions of interest to be shortlisted have delivery experience and understand the area that they are delivering in. They need to understand the community and the stakeholders – that is a core issue for us. We are not holding competitions to have glossy images that never get built. We are here to build and change places for the better. They really have to engage with that and come forward with ideas that understand the cost and the market areas. For Bedlington there will be a large community contingent looking at what the architects come up with. We want the best for the North, and only the best will do. Don’t bother applying if you aren’t going to bring your best to the team.