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Vaughan Allen Interview

Simon Binns talks to the head of Cityco about...well, everything

Written by . Published on June 21st 2011.

Vaughan Allen Interview

DEVELOPMENTS like the Co-operative’s NOMA and Peel’s MediaCity have put Manchester ‘way ahead’ of city rivals Birmingham and Leeds.

That’s the view of Vaughan Allen, chief executive of city centre management company Cityco. Allen has been in post just over a year, following his role as the boss of Urbis.

Simon Binns caught up with him to talk buildings, money and Michelin star restaurants…


"The Northern Quarter is incredibly important to Manchester’s offer and we probably don’t make enough of it. We need to make sure it doesn’t just become Carnaby Street though."


SB: We’re in the middle of 2011 – what’s the prognosis on the state of the city centre?
VA: Pretty good. Last year was spent holding our breath, waiting for a reaction for the downturn.

We worked on King Street a lot, with letting agents, trying to get that area back on track, and it worked extremely well. We both understood what King Street needed in terms of tenants. I’m not saying they turned down some amazing offers from brands that didn’t fit, because I don’t know whether they did or not, but we’re where we need to be.

It’s not independents, but small chains and upper middle-end brands have started to move in, and it works really well with the link to Spinningfields and House of Fraser.

But King Street has a certain value, especially to landlords. Even though it’s had a lot of voids, it’s still seen as a prestigious part of the city.
The challenge was always to match that up to rental expectations. One of the issues with King Street has always been its multiple landlords. You haven’t got a Crown Estates who can just say: ‘right we’re going to make a blanket decision, we’re going to get these people in as lead tenants, they aren’t going to be charged anything, and everyone else is going to get cut.’ That’s not going to happen.

We also work really hard with the council in terms of getting a lot more activity down there, getting the cleanliness standards up, making sure it looked better, felt better. There’s still some way to go, but on the West side of King Street, you’ve got frictional voids rather than long-term voids. So it’s people moving about the city, taking new leases out. There are a few empty out units there but most of them have contracts on them.

It’s been a major success, and is demonstrative of where Manchester is compared to a lot of its peers - obviously the regional towns but also the bigger cities as well. We’ve not only survived but we have thrived in comparison, and probably surprisingly so, if we’d had the same conversation last year.

What were you expecting at the start of the year? VAT was increasing, snow was falling and retailers didn’t really know which way it was going to go.

I’d have expected more of a dip in retail terms in both footfalls and turnover. The biggest dip we’ve had so far over the last four or five months was probably the first two and a half weeks of March, and then by the end of March that was going back up again. April, apart from the Royal Wedding, was splendid.

Also, the weather picked up that weekend, so there was a dip there because people went away. From what I understand from other retailers, they were so far ahead by then that they still had a really good performance in April. After the first few weeks of March people were worried this was the start of a downturn, and it hasn’t happened yet.

The effects of the recession are still there though aren’t they? We’re not out of the woods yet.

Our big challenge is going to be working with the private sector, in terms of managing the potential impact of the cuts. We don’t know how that’s all going to shape out in terms of cleansing the city, highway replacement, police support for the city centre. So our big task is to be continually there supporting the private sector and working with the relevant public bodies to make sure the impact is as limited as possible. And where there is an impact we have to work to try and be innovative in finding new solutions. That's what we've been with the city loo scheme (where members of the public can use toilets in shops around the city as public toilets).  

Is there a danger the private sector will become protectionist though? They’re not going to spend money out of the goodness of their hearts unless there’s a political edge are they?

People are more willing to work with one another and different sectors when they know they’re all in a similar sort of position. I think one of the successes of Manchester is that the public private partnership. This works in a way different from and better than in any other city. 

I think that ‘field of dreams’ model – build it and they will come - that started with Urbis, which really helped in terms of then the Arndale, helped plans to develop the north side of the city centre but it also helped in terms of planning. It’s a similar model they’re working on for the Cornerhouse, and I have to say it has a considerably clearer business plan and identity.

The longer term impact on what happens around both First Street and the back of Oxford Road is that you build it, you bring in money and support for that, but then you let the private sector organically move around it.

Even if the council wasn’t doing anything, the Co-op development and Media City are so huge and so off the scale from any other regional city, they’re going to fundamentally transform Manchester from the city we knew 15 years ago. Manchester was on a level with Leeds and Birmingham, whereas now it’s way ahead of both of those cities. And that is only going to continue,

There have been rumours about John Lewis entering the retail mix. They’ve been around for years…what’s the latest?

I’m not aware of any discussions with John Lewis. I think any city centre that didn’t have a John Lewis that told you they weren’t interested in having them would probably be talking rubbish.

I think John Lewis is another piece in the jigsaw, although it’s not for us what it would be in some other towns - absolutely crucial to their survival, because for us, it isn’t. It’s probably the only major brand that we haven’t got.

The Arndale is doing superbly – highest footfall of any shopping centre in the country. It’s astounding in terms of what the Arndale does. Harvey Nichols has been doing astonishingly and Selfridges always performs extremely well. House of Fraser, Debenhams, Primark are all performing too, so there’s good range.  

Also, Jack Wills which has just opened on King Street is absolutely astonishing. Their opening week saw a footfall increase of 50-70 per cent.

How about the retail element of Spinningfields?

The Avenue is doing ok I think. The Avenue was affected because when King Street was in the state it was, there wasn’t that linkage from other areas of the city. Getting people to it is important. You’ve got a lot of shops there just as you have with food and drink, which benefit from the lunchtime crowd, and TM Lewin is probably doing well selling ties and shirts to office workers. The bigger work that needs to go on is a more around the clock offer.

Recent bar openings like Australasia and Alchemist will help that. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens as a result of the Town Hall re-development, because that’s going to affect how pedestrians flow down to Spinningfields, through John Dalton Street and other walkways.

How about the importance of a Michelin-starred restaurant? Does Manchester need one? Are we unnecessarily obsessed by it?

Except for Birmingham, which had a deliberate policy of attracting Michelin-starred restaurants into the city centre, no other regional city centre has one. It’s to do with the fact you need somewhere with a relatively small number of covers to actually get to the level Michelin look for, but you need a huge amount of staff; you tend to not get that in a small space in a city centre, so you need something else.

If you look at Northcote, it relies a lot on its rooms and the packages it puts together.

I think it will be interesting to see what happens in five to ten years; we’ve only had people living in the city centre for twenty years or so, and if you look at some European cities, city living has always been there, which creates a very different demographic - including the super rich who don’t just have flats in the city centre to change their shirts. In cities like Barcelona, they live there all the time.  

The second city centre tram crossing is out to consultation, the idea of water taxis has been around for a while, but bus and train services are arguably still well below par. How are we doing at moving people around the city?

MediaCity is going to be absolutely huge in terms of tram connections and how you look at the waterways. Developers are looking quite seriously at how to provide family accommodation, green spaces, those sorts of things.

I think as the city moves with the Co-operative development, and gradually over a ten or 20 year period you get a ‘fill-in’ effect between Castlefield and the Quays, there will be a lot more opportunities for different demographic groups to move into the city centre.

What we’ve got to do is make small changes in improving waterways, find child-friendly activity, and crucial to that is connectivity.  You’re going to see with the tram system over the next couple of years that these are going to be absolutely immense.

Where do you need to bring people in from?

I don’t think it’s about bringing people in to the centre necessarily. We need to defend the economic performance of some of the outlying towns - you can see the impact that Manchester city centre and its strength continues to have. That’s one of the big challenges for the combined authority.  

As head of Cityco, which represents Manchester city centre, I want the city to be massively successful. In the combined authority you have to find that balance. The challenge will also come from other regional cities. In Leeds, Trinity and Eastgate are opening, for example. We have to make sure our shopping offer is better, so we dominate the M62 corridor.

Will the Leeds Arena have any impact on the night time visitor economy?

I’m not sure if the Arena will, but the next obvious step for Leeds is a convention centre or exhibition hall. Liverpool is increasing the size of its exhibition hall too. The business tourism going into Manchester Central is huge for the visitor economy, so we’ll have to look at that. We have a good return rate on businesses visitors coming back as leisure visitors. That challenge will be interesting.

Does it make it preferable to lose business to somewhere like EventCity then - the Peel convention centre out in Trafford Park?

I think they’re going for more consumer stuff, so the offer with Manchester Central will be complementary. What we have to do is make sure people coming to events at that venue are staying and using the city centre.

So do we have enough hotel rooms for them all?

There are huge plans for more hotels – a lot of the city’s hotels do brilliantly on United match days. I think we’ll see an increase in visitors coming over for City match days, especially for Champions’ League games, but you have to have a mix of brands. There are some smaller boutique offerings which complement the higher end.

What about the West site – Origin – near Canal Street? Is Starwood still committed to the idea of W Hotel?

I keep hearing that W hotel are still interested. It’s not dead and buried.

Let’s talk Northern Quarter… the council seems to feel there are enough bars around the bottom of Thomas Street. Where does the Northern Quarter go if there are no more bars allowed in?

Flippantly, I don’t think bars are the problem. I think tea shops are the problem – as much as we love them, there are an awful lot of them.

I think Thomas Street has seen a lot of bars open and the demographic of that area has changed, but that will always happen. We have a member of staff working full time on the Northern Quarter because it’s incredibly important to Manchester’s offer and we probably don’t make enough of it. We need to make sure it doesn’t just become Carnaby Street though.

But the businesses there have to be sustainable. Tea rooms come and go.

The ones that survive and thrive have a strong identity and have a different theme to the others. You need to keep your identity and encourage the businesses to be original.

I think some parts of the Northern Quarter have gone more upmarket to the way they were three or four years ago. I think it will be interesting to see how it expands towards Great Ancoats Street and up towards the Sharp Project.

How about the way we direct people around the city? The signage is still poor. Visitors walk around with their heads in the clouds because they have no idea where they’re supposed to be going.

Work is underway on improving that. There are issues with signage and wayfinding. Visit Manchester are working on it. We’re looking at entry points to the city, and digital signs will be going up to solve that.

How we direct people around on foot - it might be hard to look at that this year as we engineer a new tram system, but there is a dialogue between the City Council, Marketing Manchester and ourselves to do something. We need to clear out a lot of out-of-date signage.

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23 comments so far, continue the conversation, write a comment.

AnonymousJune 21st 2011.

Interesting that signage came up. The signs around Castlefield have for a long time pointed in the wrong direction, thanks to vandals, and include directions for things that haven't been open for years - Castlefield Visitor Centre, Granada Studio Tours. Unlikely to give a great impression to unwitting visitors.

Good to see the problem recognised, but what's the delay in sorting it out? And what do the trams and digital signs have to do with it? Send a maintenance team to the signs to make them point the right way / remove as appropriate. A few days work if that. How hard can it be? Give me a mallet, a hacksaw some araldite and £100 and I'll sort it out.

AnonymousJune 21st 2011.

I think he's got a point about tea shops actually. There are too many of them. One or two ideas seem to get latched onto in the NQ then hammered to death.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousJune 21st 2011.

Yep. Like too many bars.....

James SpencerJune 22nd 2011.

Ten days ago when I walked down Tarriff Street and nearby. I noticed how much was closed/empty. Needs some help methinks. On Origin, there was on the rumour network that Dolan and Francis had spoken to Howard and they suggested that they were dropping the residential component. I asked WP's Manchester Manager to tidy up the site to keep the rats down.

Street signage problems should be reported on contact@manchester.gov.uk Say 'for Highways' attention.' Vandalism and graffiti go to Street Scene. If they are City Co signage like the broken ones in the Village (the orange ones) then Mr V Allan is responsible or Manchester Marketing, but Street Scene will tell you.

James SpencerJune 22nd 2011.

Its the Big Socieity remember!

Conrad JJune 22nd 2011.

It's unbelievable that in - what? - 20 years of existence Marketing Manchester as the tourist body have not insisted on getting the signage right for guests to the city. It shows how useless they are.

AnonymousJune 22nd 2011.

Can I point out that planning remains developer driven in Manchester City Centre (VA seems to say that is changing). So if they ask for a bar they will get it. There are ways in Licensing Policy of changing this to stop them getting licence

See sections 3.30-3.34 in this document


You can give your councillors something to do and you neighbours on a demo!

AneseJune 22nd 2011.

Marketing Manchester/Visit Manchester are terrible when it comes to providing physical back-up to tourism. They have that tourist information centre and that's it.

LostJune 22nd 2011.

There seem to be a lot of typos/words missing in this article, which makes it difficult to read.

The signs to the new tourist info centre are still not correct, and it's been open a year.

Sir Walter WorboyJune 22nd 2011.

Whats this obsession with signs? I dont remember New York, one of the worlds top tourist destinations, littered with signs pointing to this place and last. Just more ugly clutter filling our city. If i see anyone who looks lost i stop and try and help them. I hope, in some small way, that this leaves a positive lasting impression of the city to visitors and is more useful than daft signs.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousJune 22nd 2011.

Yeah, silly old signs, pointing the way to things. Useless!

AnonymousJune 22nd 2011.

Eh, what happened to my comments about street numbers? Too irrelevant or too sweary? Let me know please.

1 Response: Reply To This...
AnonymousJune 22nd 2011.

There they are.

Mark BrookfieldJune 23rd 2011.

Might have been worth challenging him on what the effects of the new extended hour parking charges will be on retail & leisure in the city

TimJuly 4th 2011.

And did he see the irony in putting the Avenue smack bang next to The Mags and Crown Courts?

AnonymousJuly 9th 2011.

I think the dimly lit part of town near Piccadilly is an unpolished jewel. The heritage of these cotton warehouses is being hidden by poor lighting and roads. It's time to clean the building exteriors, cobble the area, introduce lanterns and pedestrianise it. Every city should have an old town, this area must have something going for it as it attracts Film makers seeking an authentic NYC look. A facelift and purpose would also repel the laziness of accepting dreadful new architecture to the area before it's too late.

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