An ambitious vision to regenerate five prominent parts of Sunderland was laid before an audience of private and public sector leaders this week.
Delegates were bathed in glorious sunshine through the windows of the National Glass Centre, where Siglion – the joint venture between Carillion Developments and Sunderland City Council – offered a taste of its £100m plan to reawaken the city.
Newly appointed Siglion chief executive John Seager, who earned his pedigree as director of UK Land Estates, said the project is about “creating places that work for everybody, every day.”
At the centre of the masterplan is the former Vaux Brewery site – a 26-acre patch of land which has become a motif of the city’s struggle to cement a regeneration plan.
Since its closure in 1999, the brownfield site has come tantalising close to becoming a supermarket and car park, a move which entrepreneur Paul Callaghan – a ceaseless champion of Sunderland regeneration – said he was glad to see the back of.
There are better things than supermarkets and car parks to put on Sunderland’s top-drawer sites, he told yesterday’s Siglion launch party.
Those better things have been promised in the new partnership plan – fuelled with capital from construction giant Carillion and equipped with a property portfolio from Sunderland City Council.
Siglion’s birth has created 12 jobs, but the ambition is for many thousands more, created by employers who it is hoped will fill offices on the former brewery site, and across the wider Siglion portfolio.
Mr Seager said: “We’re not developing this thing on the ‘build it and they will come basis’, this is has been properly researched and there is an in depth marketing proposal.
“The Vaux site is a focal point of Sunderland and we’re going to be putting a public consultation together in the very near future to make sure we know about people’s hopes and fears. For a lot of developers the concept of public consultation is just lip service but in our case it is fundamental to what we’re trying to achieve.”
He added: “It’s really important that people understand this partnership we have created in Siglion. This is not a public sector funded project, it’s a public-private partnership which is substantial enough to unlock the resources of major players and bring them together to produce a great regeneration plan.
“It’s that mix that will help to make this work for the long term. To say it’s about regeneration is not enough. This is about creating real places for the people of Sunderland, and places that encourage investment into the city.”
The beaming Mr Seager called on a bullet-point slide to articulate the core tenets of the plan.
Improving the concentration of new economic activity in the city centre;
Creating a city that supports higher value job creation;
Bringing dormant sites such as Vaux, back into use;
Offering a wider choice of housing to the market;
Positioning Sunderland as a place to invest.
Far from being the Vaux show, the Siglion event also detailed plans for two of the other four sites that will feature in the project.
A mix of residential and retail development is proposed for a 10-acre Seaburn site – described as a “fantastic playground” – while the Chapel Garth site close to Doxford International Business Park is earmarked to host a “village centre” with housing.
Siglion will use an annuities style finance model to fund the programme and property consultants Knight Frank are on board as asset managers. Carillion Developments’ Neil McMillan said his firm’s involvement was about more than equity returns for the group, and pointed to Carillion’s track record including its work on the regeneration of regional neighbours Durham.
Siglion will be supported by the hip Igloo Regeneration, an organisation which has also developed substantial track record in entrepreneurial regeneration across the country and most prominently in the North East masterminded the reworking of The Malings housing development in Newcastle’s Ouseburn Valley.
Chris Brown, the firm’s chief executive, was at the event to deliver his vision of how Igloo would contribute to the project.
He said: “It’s our view that ordinary simply isn’t good enough for Sunderland. At Igloo we don’t like doing things the old way. Innovation is at our core, and we will work with anyone who is passionate about place-making.”
Mr Brown talked briefly about the concept of “custom housing” which is likely to feature in Siglion’s plans for the five sites. The method is used widely in the US and Europe, but is relatively under-represented in the UK. It pairs future homeowners with developers to create individualised homes along a common theme.
Talk on detail at the National Glass Centre might have been light, but the enthusiasm was so abundant it was palpable. And few exude enthusiasm like Paul Callaghan who spoke in his capacity as chair of Sunderland Economic Leadership Board.
The Leighton boss talked of Sunderland’s major accomplishment in building “21st Century business” from the ground up, and his humourous address was punctuated from an unlikely Bing Crosby quote.
Having referred to Sunderland’s bid for the 2021 UK City of Culture and its hosting of the 2018 Tall Ships event, Mr Callaghan said: “You’ve got to accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, latch on to the affirmative, and don’t mess with mister in-between. There are so many positives in Sunderland right now. Let’s not settle for the ordinary.”
He added: “I see the establishment of Siglion as a the key opportunity for our city. It’s the people of Sunderland that hold the ambition here, and many of them have been waiting for the vision to be clearly articulated. This is it.”
Perhaps unusually, the launch was book-ended by a performance from Sunderland musician Martin Longstaff, now well known under the moniker of The Lake Poets.
Mr Seager said the Siglion plan had been inspired by Longstaff’s songs, which have Sunderland at their core, and if true – it is a powerful confirmation of this plan’s authenticity that it keeps a locally grown songster at its heart.