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Regenerating cities – if it was easy, it wouldn’t be needed…

Planning By Ian Cansfield, Director, Planning and EIA – 21 October 2021

Vaux Brewery, Sunderland
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Ian Cansfield

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Regeneration of Towns, Cities and Regions is complex. Different approaches have been taken in different places, whether it be community led, local authority led or as a mantra from Regional or National Governments.

Some parts of cities can be particularly challenging and often a number of years can pass before the right formula is found to secure physical, environmental and social changes on a scale that is truly transformational.

Central Sunderland is a case in point. As a fresh-faced graduate in the late 1990s, I worked in the City’s Planning Policy team when the City received the catastrophic news that the Vaux Brewery (a central part of the city for nearly 200 years) was closing. This ripped through the heart of the City, with the loss of a major employer. However, this also meant there was a fantastic opportunity for regeneration on the edge of the City. I won’t go into the intermediate history (there’s another 10 blogs-worth in that!), but will instead fast forward to 2013.

The City Council decided to form a Local Asset Based Vehicle (LABV) and bring together their land, private funding and innovation, together with important civic leadership. Cundall worked with one of the bidders for the LABV – igloo regeneration (working with Carillion Developments as it was) and were the successful team. Siglion LLP, the name of the joint venture (JV) partnership, was born.

Our collaborative work started with developing a masterplan for the Vaux site and securing outline approval – a long term project, with 20 development plots and a full expectation that it could take a while for things to get moving. The bold vision was 200 new homes, 120,000 m² commercial space and flexibility for the masterplan to adapt and thrive. The first office building, “The Beam” came along as part of that initial application and set a bold statement of intent for the site. Enquiries were coming in for future plots and things were ticking along nicely.

In 2018, things stepped up a gear. With new leadership at Sunderland City Council, a change of pace was desired and the ambitions for Vaux expanded into Riverside Sunderland – a much bolder project spanning both sides of the river, with around 1,000 new homes, new civic facilities, new bridge and initiatives around skills and construction to support the physical project. Again, Cundall were on hand to provide planning and engineering support for a wealth of projects that were being spawned by the masterplan. Having originally expected the 20 plots to be built out at around a plot a year, five years later, the majority of the Vaux site has either received detailed consent, or is under construction. The bridge across the river, which itself had been an on-off aspiration for 20+ years, is about to start. Development of the northern sites is expected to follow shortly.

We’ve come a long way…

This has been a great series of projects to be involved with that have been a product of brave decisions and civic leadership, successes in attracting private and public sector funding and with a strong supporting cast of architects, engineers, planners, project managers and many other disciplines.

There is of course so much more to come, with development on the north bank of the River Wear and numerous other initiatives in Sunderland City Centre. Here’s to the future!

What can we learn from this? Aside from needing a bold vision, civic leadership and funding; really understanding the place, the sites and their challenges is key. At Cundall we already knew much about these sites before work commenced (not just from my student days), but we’ve also been able to build on that knowledge base and support the client team as they expanded their ambitions for the overall site. Our collaborative approach has also been invaluable, bringing together many of the key disciplines that a major masterplanning / regeneration exercise needs and adding real value to the project and its outcomes. A development that I am massively proud of and excited about the future.