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Neville, Giggs, and the Historic England offside trap

Paul Finch
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Football and property development are high-risk enterprises which call for a high level of creativity, observes Paul Finch

In the days when I was a property journalist, we used to invent headlines we would like to see, a sort of reversal joke. One of them was: ‘Football club takes over property developer’.

Quite why developers are so keen on football is not entirely clear, although ownership of a city centre location sometimes gives a clue. After all, football is high-risk, unpredictable, expensive, political and frustrating. You might think the property world had enough of this sort of thing Monday to Friday.

Perhaps the similarities explain the interest on the part of footballers in the world of development, now apparent in London and Manchester. West Ham captain Mark Noble, along with former club players Bobby Zamora and Rio Ferdinand, are working on a sports-related development in Bedfordshire through their Legacy Foundation, which Ferdinand chairs. All three, brought up on council estates in east and south-east London, want to give something back to the sort of deprived communities from which they themselves come.

All power to their elbow, if that is not a bookable offence in the world of planning

I had the pleasure of meeting the trio last week at a dinner organised by Central Bedfordshire council, and you couldn’t have wished to meet a nicer bunch. All power to their elbow, if that is not a bookable offence in the world of planning. The name given to the dinner was ‘Delivery at Pace’, which interested the guest of honour, housing and planning minister Gavin Barwell, since that is precisely what has not been happening in the world for which he now bears responsibility.

A minister of obvious intelligence is good to find, and one only hopes that Barwell will last longer in post than many of his predecessors – and achieve considerably more on the ground. However, combining quantity and quality is always tough, and balancing the need for the new with a love of the past presents very British problems.

Another football-related initiative, this time in Manchester, makes the point. Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs, of Manchester United fame, are trying to deliver an ambitious city-centre tower development, with Make as their architect. Manchester has no aversion to height (note SimpsonHaugh’s planning permission for a major new skyscraper), and has a benign planning regime overseen by the shortly-to-retire Howard Bernstein.

Make st michaels skyline

Make st michaels skyline

Visualisation of Make’s St Michael’s Square proposal, Manchester, for Gary Neville and Ryan Giggs

Although a Manchester City supporter, I don’t suppose Sir Howard finds the mire into which Gary and Giggsy have stumbled particularly edifying. Like many developers before them, the pair are falling into the Historic England offside trap – by being a little bit too forward. The stumbling blocks are three buildings on their planned site: a synagogue, a police station and a pub. This sounds like the start of a joke, but it won’t be very funny for the footballers if The Twentieth Century Society succeeds in its bid to get the post-war synagogue listed.

This raises the question of whether you can demolish anything these days, no matter how great the aspiration to produce a quality replacement. Perhaps it is another example of where ‘Add-Plan’ principles might apply, that is to say, you incorporate existing buildings into your proposal rather than removing them, but your scheme is uncompromised in terms of scale and architecture.

This can of course be a positive design approach rather than a hopeless fudge – provided the architectural strategy is clear and committed. In short, admired parts of an existing environment are retained while you build something new around them. In Manchester this could be a reference to that pub, much loved by Man U supporters, or it could apply to Wayne Rooney, a highly creative player rarely matched by those in front of him.

Meanwhile, for a home win, Neville and Giggs need to trust the creative instinct of their architect.

Read the AJ interview with Gary Neville here

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